- Historic Sites
It is a place of noble harbors, a convergence of strong rivers and a promontory commanding a wind-raked bay; a shoreline enfolding towns older than the Republic and the most modern and formidable naval base on earth; a spot where a four-hour standoff between two very peculiar ships changed the course of warfare forever—and the breeding ground of crabs that people travel across the country to eat. Fred Schultz explains why the fifth annual American Heritage Great American Place Award goes to
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
You’d never guess the tidy church was gutted by fire during the attack of Lord Dunmore’s fleet that New Year’s Day in ’76. In fact, of the many buildings in Norfolk torched by British sailors and then by Norfolk’s own citizens—in order to deny the British anything of value—St. Paul’s is the only one to survive the assault more or less intact. During its 225th year, 1964, the church mounted the funeral of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. While this is decidedly a naval town, MacArthur has left the impress of his implacable personality, having requested that he be buried here, in the city that was the home of his mother, Mary Pinkney Hardy. One of the largest complexes in town is the MacArthur Center, a big new shopping mall with five stars at each entrance to depict the insignia of General of the Army, MacArthur’s ultimate rank.
The general’s remains were interred in the old Norfolk Courthouse. Today, it is devoted exclusively to MacArthur, with a memorial, a museum, and archives. On display are one of the general’s famous corncob pipes and his immaculate 1950 Chrysler limousine.
Cobblestone, red brick, and wrought iron have a way of telling you that you’ve come upon something historic. In this case, it was West Freemason Street, an architectural extravaganza and a journey through three centuries. We whiled away at least an hour on just a few blocks, taking in the rich diversity of building styles. In one small cluster are five structures highlighted on the Cannonball Trail, among them the 1807 Federal house of the Confederate Army’s surgeon general, Dr. William Seiden, at the intersection of Botetourt Street and Freemason. Its neighbors on the same block include examples of High Victorian Italianate (1870), Georgian Revival (1900), and Beaux Arts Classical (1904), as well as an Italianate row house (1889).
Since Civil War days, the towns of Hampton and Newport News have been known for astonishing advances in technology.
By the time we reached the new mall, we thought there couldn’t possibly be anything more to see on Freemason Street, but another block or so away is the Willoughby-Baylor House, which, although built a decade after the Revolution’s end, is perhaps an even more tangible connection to colonial Norfolk than is nearby St. Paul’s Church. From a 1636 land grant of 2.00 acres to Capt. Thomas Willoughby came the site of this house, plus 50 acres to be named the “town of Norfolk.” Its flower gardens were wonderfully trim and colorful when we were there, and We tried not to let the mall’s multitiered parking garage frowning at our backs intrude on the scene.
The house is one of three historic properties under the care of the Chrysler Museum of Art, a red-roofed granite hall on the peaceful Hague Inlet, which is itself a work of art. Tucked away on the fringe of Ghent—a turn-of-the-century planned district of well-groomed houses, trendy shops, and restaurants that have colonized many historic structures—the museum fills nearly 80 galleries with some of the finest art in the world. We were drawn immediately to the works of Manet, Renoir, C»zanne, Monet, and Degas, but if it’s great American art you’re after, have a look at George Caleb Bingham’s version of Washington crossing the Delaware or Albert Bierstadt’s breathtaking landscape The Emerald Pool or Thomas Cole’s astounding 8-by-15-foot canvas The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds .
A bit worn-out from all this touring, we followed our noses back to Town Point Park, next to Nauticus, where a festival was going on. Gospel and reggae music filled the air, as did scents from a variety of food stands that lined a midway. It was the AfrAm Fest, a celebration of African-American and Caribbean heritage and culture. Norfolk was decidedly a city of the Confederacy during the Civil War, but its modern diversity is plain to see. After eating the best jerk chicken we’ve had in our lives, we drove into the Hampton Roads tunnel, heading toward the north side.
On this shore of Hampton Roads lie Hampton and Newport News, towns known for space travel (Langley Air Force Base and the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton) and for fabricating the most sophisticated merchant vessels and warships in the world (Newport News Shipbuilding). But several sites within these two municipalities are indissolubly associated with the early years of the Civil War, when the region was already known for astonishing advances in technology.
A “Peninsula Campaign” brochure recommends that you begin exploring the era at the Casemate Museum in Fort Monroe. The largest stone fort ever built in the United States and still used by the U.S. Army, Fort Monroe—“the Gibraltar of the Chesapeake”—looks out to sea from Old Point Comfort at the tip of the peninsula where Hampton Roads meets the Chesapeake Bay. Begun in 1819, it took 15 years to complete; its 1.25-mile moat (the the only American fort to have one) circles 62 acres, and soon after the Confederate guns opened on Fort Sumter, the Union War Department, keenly aware of the fort’s importance, reinforced it. The bastion became headquarters for the Union Army’s Department of Virginia.