More historic preservation? Alternative sites? Residents suggest ways to protect Denton building

Carole Nash, an archeologist and associate professor at James Madison University, outlined lessons learned from the 1989-’91 demolition of historic buildings.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

With Rockingham County floating plans to purchase and potentially raze the old Denton building in downtown Harrisonburg, now is the time to consider a historic preservation ordinance to protect buildings and neighborhoods from destruction, the head of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance said Tuesday. 

Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, and Carole Nash, an archeologist and associate professor at James Madison University spoke to about 200 community members who packed the Hotel Madison ballroom Tuesday night discuss the future of the building. 

The county is considering demolishing the building to expand the court services in the center of town. 

Harrisonburg, though, has a track record of losing its architectural history. Nash told stories of lost buildings and the bulldozed past during the construction of the existing jail 30 years ago.  Dono, on the other hand, described a prospective future in which structures like the Denton Building could provide a place for businesses and affordable housing, all while generating tax revenue and preserving a rich history that can be enjoyed by future generations. 

Dono also pointed to the city’s 2018 comprehensive plan that calls for mixed use zoning, revitalization of older buildings, affordable housing, protecting irreplaceable assets and adding buildings to the historic register. She said a historic preservation ordinance might be necessary to accomplish that. 

“I know this is a scary one, but we should have the conversation again,” Dono said. “Otherwise, we will keep coming back and having these meetings one at a time and that could be avoided if we have a little more planning and a little more conversation.” 

“Gone Is Gone”

Between 1989-1991, Harrisonburg demolished 17 structures in the Liberty and West Market streets to build the current jail. 

Nash said that most of the demolition was done without any community input and without the consultation of any historical societies. There were businesses thriving and people living in these buildings, and some of the lowest rent in the city could be found in one of the properties that was demolished.  

“We realized there was a lot of history, including the Thomas Harrison plat,” Nash said, talking about the original land where Harrisonburg became a town. 

This was the “working side of town” for decades — the location of most businesses and industry that kept the town moving. 

In the 1890s, grocers, milliners, rooming houses, cobbler shops, the blacksmith and the livery were all working and living in the area. Denton had established its business by 1924, and Liberty Street was populated by small businesses and the B&O Railroad Depot. 

During demolition in the fall of 1991, there were Native American sites along Blacks Run that were not fully recovered, stone arches of bridges that were built over the river that were lost, and the remains of the B&O depot at Union Station were bulldozed, Nash said. 

When community members finally realized that the city planned to demolish buildings that had been standing for decades, they began to beg the city to go into the buildings and take photos or recover historical objects. 

The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society were granted two days to take any photos of the building that were set for demolition. 

The Jesse Bowlin house—a pre-1800s, two-story log house—was destroyed. Nash called it “The Great Loss,” and said “when the bulldozer hit the house, it moved it into the street- that was how solid it was.”

“There is a tremendous amount of history here in the ground in Harrisonburg,” Nash said. “What are we going to learn from the buildings and what are we going to lose?”

Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, outlined different ways a mixed-use Denton building could benefit downtown.

“Historic buildings connect us to our history and connect us to our past”

Dono said twice that while the building isn’t for sale, the county is still interested in pursuing the option to buy the property. 

Dono also made the argument that while court employees who work blocks away from the judicial buildings and would like to be closer, “proximity could be almost anywhere downtown.”

If the building were demolished, the city would lose more than $40,000 a year in property taxes, as well as sales tax from the businesses that operate out of the building.

City Councilman George Hirschmann was the only council member to attend Tuesday night. He said after the meeting that he thought the ideas floated during the Q&A session, such as considering the Rose’s shopping center as an alternative annex for court services offices, were “terrific.” He said he’s happy that people in the community want to get involved.

City and county officials haven’t met to discuss the details yet, Hirschmann said.

“I’m under the general impression that the county will come up and say, ‘OK, this is our plan’…but they need the city to come in with them,” Hirschmann said. “Whether it’s a done deal and they just need the city to back it, I don’t know. Or do we sit down and say ‘well, we’re not going to go with that’ and the county says, ‘Well, you have to go with it’… we will see how that process works out.” 

One of the ideas floated during the Q&A session was the possibility that the Rose’s shopping center might make a good location for the proposed building. Hirschmann said he was open to that.

“I had suggested at one time the old municipal building, which is empty,” Hirschmann said. “But it’s a four-block walk to the court, and [people] said it was too far.” 

The question about why people would be upset having to walk a few blocks to work was echoed by some in the comment cards during the Q&A, while others expressed anger that another parking lot might be placed downtown. 

Dono urged residents to call elected officials, attend meetings and make their voices heard. 

“Decisions still haven’t been made, and the public can still give input,” Dono said.

City resident Jo Anne St. Clair said she moved to Harrisonburg because of the city’s charm and wanted to live where she could easily eat, work and shop.

“I decided that this was where I wanted to live, and the only place I wanted to live was in an older downtown building,” St. Clair said. “I walk everywhere.” 

Diane Orndoff and John Snyder also attended the meeting. They are the owners of Newman-Ruddle Building near the courthouse. Orndoff thinks that a historic preservation ordinance should be discussed. 

“I absolutely do, I mean, we could tear our building down, I’ve been told,” Orndoff said. “It [was built] in 1897. It’s not the oldest building, but it’s significant, and it’s not okay to tear things down that have had so much impact.” 

Hirschmann said discuss with council and county officials many of the comments he heard Tuesday. 

“I’m hoping things don’t move too fast, because I think there’s room for an answer,” Hirschmann said. 

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