Sunday, May 27, 2007
I haven't been able to get Petersburg,Virginia out of my mind for the past two years. One day, in about 2005, while driving from D.C. to NC, my companion pointed out that there was this town that seemed to have a lot of old houses he could see from the highway. Being curious, we had to stop. The town was almost a ghost town. All we could see in street after street were drug dealers. Where were all the people? This small community is a charming underdog of a city with a remarkable Victorian housing stock. Due to severe economic depression, much of this grand and elegant architecture has fallen into a blighted and marginal state. The affluent population seems to have moved down the road a piece to where the big-box growth is at the next highway exit.
Since submerging myself in the task of recording damage/blighted property in New Orleans since Katrina, this town has been on my mind for the quality and quantity of blighted properties to be found as well as the social phenomenon of property abandonment.
When something grabs my brain like this, I can only reconcile it by going to see for myself, to set the record straight in my mind. After two years, I was looking to see if; a) it was as good/bad as I had decided in only a drive-thru visit the first time and b) to see if the city had rebounded from its bleak state and if not. . . if not, how could it be worse?! If it was improving, could we learn anything that we could apply to the severe problems in New Orleans? Yesterday, I spent the entire day feverishly examining the architecture and layout of Petersburg, VA. Having given, literally about a hundred tours of New Orleans, I have learned how to crash-course myself in a new city.
I was encouraged to see that Petersburg is making great strides today. The real saving grace for poor little Petersburg is its history. Similar to New Orleans, in 1860, Petersburg claims to have had the highest percentage of free men and women in the slave holding states of the Confederacy and the Union.
Architecturally, Petersburg is the steward to a precious stock of antebellum masonry buildings in it's Old Town area near where the once reknowned port provided steady economic stimulation. At the center is a hexagonal market which was shuttered upon my last visit. It is now being conserved, as are many buildings in Old Town.
The Old Blandford Church, built in 1735, was closed and left to blight after a new church was built in 1791. This church has the distinction of being one of only a few churches whose entire program of stained-glass windows was completely designed and conceived by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Each window depicts a Saint for each of the States who voluntarily sponsored their own window to honor the soldiers from their region who died for the Confederate cause in the Civil War. Even more compelling for New Orleans, is that the Louisiana window was commissioned, not by the state, as is the case with S. Carolina, N. Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. New Orleans' window commission was proposed with the stipulation that it be presented by the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, a private elite organization. Thus, as we often feel in New Orleans, though we are a city, in many ways, we are our own state. Washington Artillery Park is located on Decatur St., next to Cafe Du Monde.
Also of note, the Memorial Day fashion of rememberance, the decorating of graves of fallen soldiers, was said to have begun by Nora Maury, here in the cemetery of Blandford Church, the shrine to Confederate Soldiers. Here, June 9th is the city's own memorial decoration day, commemorating the Siege of Petersburg. There is a lot more to learn from Petersburg, I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon it. New Orleans' own historical contribution is much greater, we must continue to find a graceful balance to expand on how we can teach visitors about this history through our architecture. Oh, and though they have so much blight, they also have those giant garbage cans.
A large factor fueling the current preservation progress in Petersburg may be its location. It is located only 110 miles from Washington, DC, an enormous economic engine. Also important, the Virginia-based Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities was the United States' first statewide historic preservation group, founded in Richmond.
Flckr Photo Set