Interest in Second Historic District Grows out of Foundation Grant

October 30, 2005

Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer

Preservationists want to establish a gateway into Martinsville by turning parts of East Church Street and Starling Avenue near the new Virginia Museum of Natural History building into a historic district.

The district would stretch along East Church from Scuffle Hill to Oakdale Street, and along Starling from East Church to the bridge over the railroad. Brown Street also may be included, preservationists told about 100 people who attended a discussion Friday at the Piedmont Arts Association.

Out-of-town visitors to the new museum, set to open late next year, could be lured into other parts of Martinsville by the historic district, said Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

"There is enormous potential here," she said. People like to visit historic districts and "see what real communities are all about."

If houses along the streets become part of a historic district, owners would not automatically have to comply with any rules or stipulations on how they can use or develop the sites. However, being in a historic district may make them eligible for grants and tax credits to keep up the structures, and some of the money may have rules and stipulations, preservationists said.

Many of the homes now are businesses, said Robert Neiweg, director of the Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

As a result, owners could qualify for national and state tax credits totaling as much as 45 percent of their investments in the properties, he said.

But it is a complicated process, he cautioned. He urged property owners to allow the national trust or state historic resources department to help them seek grants and tax credits.

Establishing historic districts is not as much about helping property owners get money to maintain their structures as it is "generating a sense of neighborhood pride," Kilpatrick said.

What really matters is who originally lived in the houses and what they did with their homes, according to Ben Murdock of the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI), another local preservation project.

Those involved in FAHI have "learned a lot about each other and a lot about the city," which has led people beyond the Fayette Street area to participate, said Murdock, executive director of Citizens Against Family Violence.

Preservationists determined that East Church and Starling were eligible to be a historic district in 1998, said Alison Blanton, an architectural historian with Hill Studio in Roanoke. Now, they are seeking property owners' help in going through the nomination process for the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, she said.

Next week, preservationists will start walking the streets and examining houses, taking photos and notes and then doing research, Blanton said.

The proposal to nominate the neighborhood for the registers is to be ready in March to present to state and national review boards in June, she added.

Kilpatrick has estimated it may take the boards 30 days to several months to consider the nominations, depending on their work loads.

Preservationists plan to schedule another meeting in the future to discuss their findings.


Most houses along East Church and Starling probably date back to between 1900 and 1920, Blanton said. Some may date back to the 1880s or 1890s and a few may have been built earlier, she said.

John Swezey, a lawyer whose office is on Starling, noted "we have virtually nothing in Henry County and Martinsville left of 18th century properties and not many 19th century properties," so the focus must be preserving 20th century properties.

"We have an opportunity to save the sites our grandkids will view as old-timey houses" eventually, he said.

Blanton indicated that the houses that exist now are distinctive because of their elaborateness Ñ at least at the time they were built.

"The wealth that was here in Martinsville (at the time), they built beautiful houses," Blanton said.

"And what other community has a wedding cake" house, she said, noting the former George T. "Cap'n Til" Lester House at 308 Starling Ave. "What a striking entrance" to the district.

Kilpatrick called East Church and Starling "a coherent neighborhood" since most of the houses were built in the 20th century and continue to be used.

Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. Vice President Tom Harned asked if efforts are planned to preserve structures in areas outside the city and Fieldale. He mentioned Bassett and Ridgeway as examples.

"We are dedicated to a countywide comprehensive look," Neiweg said. He mentioned that a graduate student now is looking at Bassett for potential preservation ideas.

Kilpatrick pledged that the historic resources department and national trust will be "here for the long haul to partner" with people who want to preserve the community's older structures.

"Oftentimes, we find communities generally don't know what they've got until it's gone," she said. "We don't want that to happen here."


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