Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 109-112
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The Virginia Landmarks Register, Fourth Edition
The Virginia Landmarks Register, Fourth Edition. Edited by Calder Loth. University Press of Virginia, 1999. 600 pp. Cloth $59.50
Years ago a friend of mine devised a minor prank that illustrates the problem of balance around the question of historic preservation. He addressed the Vatican, suggesting that the Sistine Chapel ceiling had been more dignified before Michelangelo came in there and started mucking about with his scaffolding and his angst. My friend did this primarily for the fun of styling himself Corresponding Secretary, Friends of the Pristine Sistine; at that time he was no closer than anyone else to foreseeing the eruption of controversy about the recent cleaning of the frescoes.
Thoughtful preservationists, of course, rarely fall into the logical-extension trap, because they are not moved by the simplistic urge to put things back the way they were originally. The criteria they develop, though, are under constant scrutiny, as our collective sense of our past goes through irresistible changes. That three diners are now among the Virginia Historic Landmarks may strike some as evidence of a flea-market mentality, while others will welcome what they see as analogues to century-old storefronts or eighteenth-century iron furnaces.
The Virginia Landmarks Register, edited by Calder Loth, senior architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, is an awe-inspiring achievement and a nearly inexhaustible pleasure, whatever its quirks and inevitable shortcomings. Its six hundred pages are handsomely and durably produced and illustrated with nearly eighteen hundred black-and-white photographs, but it records a past moment in a continuing process and so can never be complete. [End Page 109] Moreover, it is the product of immense labor by a large and diverse group of people, some of whose idiosyncratic enthusiasms survive the careful editing of the text.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources descends from various forerunners, going back to the National Historic Sites Act of 1935, if not to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. In 1966, according to the Landmarks preface, the National Historic Preservation Act "called for the expansion of the National Register of Historic Places to include properties of state and local as well as national significance and charged the states with the responsibility of submitting nominations to the National Register." In that same year the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission was established, and in 1968 Tuckahoe Plantation in eastern Goochland County near Richmond was designated the first Virginia Historic Landmark. Further reorganizations led to the current department in 1989, along with the Board of Historic Resources, the body that oversees additions to the National Register--an evolving document:
Registration is an ongoing process: the list will lengthen over the next several decades as additional places are studied and have their significance verified. Because our interpretation of Virginia history is constantly evolving, the types of places nominated to the register will inevitably become more diverse. Places formerly thought to have been commonplace or insignificant may eventually be seen as important survivals.
Clearly, this is a book to page through, in glad recognition of places one has seen, or in amazement at the look of a landmark, or in nearly conscious anticipation of some question whose answer may immediately be sought. The index, for example, lists enough entries beginning with the word "Old"--forty-five--a number increased by only one, happily, on admission of the spelling "Olde." The smallest number of landmarks in a section is one. These include the Buchanan County Courthouse in Grundy, a city gaining wider recognition as the novelist Lee Smith's hometown.
By far the place with the largest number of sites is Richmond. There are one hundred and twenty in the main section, and an appendix lists four more that have been added since this edition of the Register went into production. Not surprisingly, there are between twenty-four and fifty sites in Albemarle County (seat, Charlottesville), Alexandria, Fairfax County, Augusta County (seat, Staunton), Prince William County (seat, Manassas), and Hanover County (just north of...