Port Royal captured statewide attention Monday when Preservation Virginia announced its inclusion on the 2015 list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places.
In the company of six other sites, the “hidden village” on the Rappahannock is unique in being the only town on this year’s list. Once a prominent tobacco port and a bustling hub of commerce that saw significant activity during the Civil War, Port Royal declined in prominence when highways such as Interstate 95 supplanted the more local Routes 301 and 17.
Describing Port Royal as a “wonderful historic town” at a press conference held at the Town Hall May 18, Director of Preservation Services for Preservation Virginia Louis Malon urged the town and the Caroline Department of Economic Development and Tourism to “redouble their efforts to promote Port Royal.”
Although no funds are attached to the distinction, the publicity that sites included on the list receive has led to 51 percent of them being saved—and almost 50 percent of those through local efforts, said Justin Sarafin, Preservation Virginia’s Director of Preservation Initiatives and Engagement.
“Mainly what this does is bring attention,” Malon told some 15 residents gathered in the Town Hall at Monday’s press conference. “We can be cheerleaders along the way.”
In Port Royal, local nonprofit Historic Port Royal was responsible for submitting the application that landed the town on this year’s list.
“We really do appreciate this designation,” HPR president Carolyn “Cookie” Davis told Malon.
Still, several residents at the press conference seemed more focused on the possibility of finding grants and other funding that could ease the financial burden of preservation.
Tax credits and easements are tools often used to move rehabilitation efforts along, but direct funds can be hard to come by. Virginia, said Malon, hasn’t offered any grants for bricks-and-mortar preservation projects since 2001.
“It really takes dedicated people who are willing to put their blood, sweat, tears and treasure into it,” he said. “Preservation is a long-term undertaking.”
“It would be nice to get some grant money,” said Bill Booker, a local who is working to preserve his mother’s historic 18th-century home at the corner of Water Street and Route 301 in Port Royal, a property he described as “the last bastion of protection” against the encroaching transportation artery. The house is the only structure in the town that still has its original outbuildings, including an 18th-century kitchen.
A lack of funds lies at the heart of many of Port Royal’s troubles—a challenge shared by a number of former “Most Endangered” sites. Five percent of these places are threatened due to an absence of funding, while 33 percent face demolition from neglect.
With a population of fewer than 200 and a budget that until last summer was around $18,000 annually, Port Royal is chockablock with impressive historic structures on the verge of collapse or in poor condition.
The Lyceum, one of the town’s few brick structures and once the home of both an academy for women and the second-oldest Masonic Lodge in Virginia, is propped up externally with a wooden framework. The Peyton-Brockenbrough House, whose mistress refused entry to a fleeing John Wilkes Booth in April 1865, is boarded up and sagging. Fox Tavern, which former HPR president Cleo Coleman describes as “the most historically significant house in Port Royal” (its checkered history includes its management by a woman, Ann Roy Fox, and the use of its basement as a holding pen for slaves brought up the Rappahannock to be sold to surrounding plantation owners), lies in disrepair. And the only remnants of the estate of Dorothy Roy, the sole colonial woman granted a franchise for a tobacco warehouse by the crown, are two chimneys surrounded by wooden scaffolding.
These examples are just a few of the treasures that line the streets of Port Royal, which has more original 18th-century structures than Colonial Williamsburg.
In fact, when the creators of Colonial Williamsburg began their research for that site, it was to Port Royal they turned.
“We think of Port Royal as a mini-Williamsburg,” said historian and local notable Herbert Collins at the May 18 press conference.
Still, some progress has been made in the past few years. Historic Port Royal this April opened its Museum of Medicine in a historic doctor’s office built around 1850. Three other museums, including the Port Royal Museum of American History and the Port Royal Rosenwald School for African American children, are open to the public, and the town’s historic pier has recently been restored.
A boundary line adjustment that went into effect July 1, 2014, also added 441 acres to the original town and boosted revenues by roughly $70,000, saving it from being absorbed into Caroline County.
With the publicity the town will gain from its listing by Preservation Virginia, Sarafin said that it may have a better chance of becoming part of heritage tourism initiatives and gaining federal funds. Preservation Virginia also often helps promote events and points of interest in listed places using their broader platform.
“Once the site is listed, it doesn’t fall off our radar screen,” he said.
Two other sites in Caroline County—Hayfield Manor and Meadow Farm—have previously been listed by Preservation Virginia and are now classified as “saved.” Hayfield was restored by its owner, Aggregate Industries, and Meadow Farm was purchased by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and Universal Fairs and became the site of the State Fair of Virginia.
Many of those present at Monday’s press conference seemed pleased that after their long struggle to keep the town and its unique properties going, someone was taking notice.
“Someone once said to me, ‘If you have a dream, that’s where the future comes from,’” said Davis. “Each year we make a little progress.”