Virginia Victorian Revival

Danville, Virginia, feels like so many other cities that time and prosperity have left behind as I drive past block after block of empty tobacco warehouses.

But then I round the corner to Main Street.

Suddenly I'm transported to 19th century prosperity as one of the South's finest collections of Victorian and Edwardian mansions begins to reveal itself to me.

Dula-Penn House
Saved from demolition at the eleventh hour, the American Picturesque Dula-Penn House, c. 1896, is restored with authentic Victorian colors. Its twin sits next door.

Long before the Civil War, Danville was a tobacco trading center. After the war, cotton mills allowed the city to recover, prosper and grow.

Today the tobacco warehouses are largely empty and the last large cotton mill hovers on the brink of closure. A drug rehabilitation center is housed next to one of the restored mansions along Main Street. But don't count Danville out. This city of 50,000 is doing what it's done throughout history: reinventing itself and emerging stronger.

Nowhere is the resurgence more evident than in the historic mansions built by tobacco and textile barons in the city's West End.

Millionaires Row, as it's been dubbed by the Danville Historical Society, contains the last Confederate Capitol, now home to the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.

Many of the mansions have been restored to their original glory, including six that the historical society has purchased, renovated and resold since 1980. The society is now working on a seventh house, plus a commercial building.

oak fence
Acorns and oak leaves symbolize life and strength in Norse folklore. This iron fence surrounds one of the Danville's mansions, also showing new life.

The new South

The South is rising again in this small city, mid-point on the Virginia - North Carolina border. Tobacco and textiles gave birth to Danville, but its rebirth is being fueled by another big T -- technology. The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, with Virginia Tech faculty, provides cutting-edge research on everything from polymers to unmanned travel to agriculture and forestry. The institute has been the catalyst for a number of small and mid-sized technology companies relocating to Danville.

The suburbs around Danville are growing rapidly, accommodating employees from large manufacturing plants, including Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Corning and Masonite. But newcomers aren't turning their backs on the old downtown, either.

  • One technology company recently decided to locate in one of the historic tobacco warehouses in the downtown area.
  • Another example of the partnership between history and technology in Danville is an innovative wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) connection program that makes high speed internet service available for free to anyone who happens into the "hotzone" downtown.
  • The city boasts a symphony orchestra, live theater, and a lecture series through historic Averett University, located just off Millionaires Row.

fancy roof
Decorative slate and a fanciful ridge board.

Owners of the historic mansions open their doors each December for a public tour that raises money for the historical society. If you miss that tour, don't despair -- do what I did, stop at the very accommodating Danville Visitors' Center, just off Route 29, and pick of a copy of the Victorian Walking Tour.

The pamphlet features wonderful descriptions of the mansions, photos, and good street directions. While the tour covers a reasonably compact area, you'll need to plan on spending three or more hours to take in all of the houses listed. And if you're the picture-taking type, you'll also want to bring extra film (or digital memory cards) for your camera.

There's a lot to see.

Below are some stops along the Victorian Walking Tour.

Sutherlin Mansion
This Italian Villa house is the starting point for the Victorian Walking Tour and holds the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History.

Built in 1857-58 for a Major William T. Sutherlin, one of the home's claims to fame is as the last Confederate Capitol. Jefferson Davis, headquartered here from April 3-10, 1865, signed his last official proclamation as president of the Confederacy before the government fell on April 9. In 1912, the house was threatened with redevelopment, but was saved by a citizens group and served as the public library for many years.

Details of the cupola and Italianate brackets and windows of the Sutherlin Mansion.

Sublett House
This High Victorian Gothic mansion is actively undergoing restoration. Located along Danville's Millionaires Row, the house was built by Charles M. Sublett in 1874 for his wife Jennie. Sublett died two years later, but the house remained in the family for the next 120 years.

Wedding Cake House

Its lavish trim earned it the moniker "The Wedding Cake House," but this Queen Anne style house on Main Street, really was a 1903 wedding gift for Barnes and Mary Penn.

Two-story Corinthian columns await restoration on Kennedy Hall, a Neo-classical Revival house. It was built by architect Harry Pearson as his residence in 1903-04.

Schoolfield House
The tile roof of this American Four-Square house is Mediterranean Revival style, while geometric brackets suggest Chinese influences. It was built in 1911 for R. Addison Schoolfield, of of the three brothers who founded Dan River, Inc. textile mill. His brother John Harrell Schoolfield had a High Victorian Italianate mansion built in 1884 on Main Street.

Schoolfield House
Trim details on the Schoolfield house.

Langhorne House
The girlhood home of Irene Langhorne Gibson, whose artist husband immortalized her as the "Gibson Girl" fashion ideal, is open to groups by appointment. It sits on Broad Street, off Main Street.

Broad Street Manor
Now divided into executive apartments, this Queen Anne brick house on Broad Street was completed in 1890 for tobacco broker Richard Louis Dibrell.

Brick work
Brick work detail on one of Broad Street Manor's chimneys.

Williamson House
Next to the "Wedding Cake House" is this Queen Anne built in 1898 for W.W. Williamson.

Ayres House
Opposite the Danville Museum on Main Street sits this white-painted brick Georgian Revival house with Palladian window. Built in 1874 for tobacco manufacturer David Ayres, the house had an Ionic colonnade added about 1910.

Ayres House
Ayres House entry detail.

Harvie House
This 1873 Victorian was remodeled in 1941 to give it its present Neo-classical Revival look.

This High Victorian Italianate mansion with delicate cast-iron trim was built by one of the Schoolfield brothers who helped found Riverside Cotton Mills, now Dan River, Inc.

Schoolfield fence
Iron trim detail on Schoolfield mansion.

iron steps
Fine metalwork is carried through on the home's main steps.

Jones Mansion
The left side of this brick Italianate house was built in 1875 for Witcher Jones. In 1925, Mary Wemple Hagedorn had the house enlarged, as the lighter brick on the right hand side shows.

Patton House
Banker William F. Patton spared no expense in building this brick and stone Queen Anne mansion in 1890.

terra cotta
A reflection of prosperous times, the Patton house has lavish details, like patterned terra cotta.

Jopling House
Second Empire style house, rare for Danville, was built for banker James Rufus Jopling in 1890. Three- story domed tower is of French Renaissance inspiration.

Bell House
Built as an Italianate in 1860 for E.J. Bell, this house was remodeled in 1911 in Neo-classical style, including a two-story portico with Ionic columns.

Penn House
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this mansion, built in 1876, was remodeled extensively between 1885 and 1903. Italianate features such as the curved window caps and and corner boards exist in exuberant eclectic style with a Neo-classical Revival front porch with Ionic columns, and an open staircase turret in Queen Anne style. The three-story tower and elaborate iron ridge board suggest Second Empire style.

This English Cottage style stucco home was built in 1917 for the bride of Dr. Henry A. Wiseman. In October 2005, the three-bedroom, two-bath house with central air-conditioning and other updates was for sale for $205,000.

Moseley House
Built in 1902 for tobacconist E.G. Moseley, this house has Queen Anne, Shingle and Neoclassical Revival elements.

Acree House
Edward Fox Acree, a leader in Danville's loose leaf tobacco market, had this house with three-story corner tower built in 1881.

Acree House
The industrial age that fueled Danville's growth as a textile center also made possible elaborate machine-made millwork. This house is a mixture of styles. Eyebrow window is typical of Shingle style architecture. Gable trim has Eastlake influences. Fancy siding in the gables is Queen Anne style.

Pediment detail

Graham House
Local architect R.B. Graham built this fanciful Queen Anne mansion for a successful merchant in 1890. Unusual features include an octagonal tower with an open third story gallery topped with fancy iron scroll work and a finial. A cast iron porch and terra cotta details add to the rich ornamentation.

Graham House
Detail of the iron work on the third floor balcony.

These photos represent roughly half of the buildings on the tour. I ran out of daylight - and memory for my camera - by the end of the tour.

But that's okay.

Iit gives me a reason to visit Danville another time.

Visiting Danville

Danville is off Route 29 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia's Piedmont region. It located between the Raleigh/Durham (NC) Research Triangle area and Greensboro/ Winston-Salem Tri-City area of North Carolina. Lynchburg, Roanoke and Greensboro, NC are about one hour by car. There is ample lodging and dining in the area.

Annual events include:

  • Victorian Walking Tour Open House, the second weekend in December
  • Festival in the Park, including Pigs in the Park, an annual barbecue competition. Both in May.
  • Old 97 Rail Days, in September, marking one of the worst train derailments in American history

More information about the Victorian Walking Tour of Danville is available through the Danville Historical Society, P.O. Box 6, Danville, VA, 24543-0006.

Other information, including history, is available through the Danville Welcome Center, 645 River Park Dr., Danville, VA 24540, Phone: (434) 793-4636

Descriptions of the houses are derived from Victorian Walking Tour, a publication of the Danville Parks, Recreation & Tourism Division, based on the research of Mary Cahill and Gary Grant. Photos in this story are © The Old House Web, 2005.

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