Avoiding another Nash fate
Petersburg's historic community works with city over future of Ironworks site
PETERSBURG – Among many of the city’s historic riches lies the old Petersburg Ironworks site that once built railway locomotives. Now a quaint and quiet retirement facility, the old red-brick campus has been mostly restored into apartments with the exception of one notable portion – a northwestern courtyard, recognized for its long-decommissioned smoke stack.
That courtyard once housed the smelting and construction facilities have been dormant and undeveloped for at least 30 years. This is one six possible properties that Petersburg’s historic societies may look to salvage and restore for future generations.
The historic community felt it had failed the city
the demolition of the 208-year-old John Nash Building in January – along with its historically significant second-story archway that predates a similar arch in Virginia’s governor’s mansion. The Historic Petersburg Foundation, the Petersburg Preservation Task Force and city officials held a meeting this week to organize an effort to save further buildings from harm.
Preservationists, government officials, developers, contractors, real estate experts, lawyers and bankers were among those invited to the meeting that had a turnout of 55 people. Their diverse backgrounds are necessary to combat the myriad of issues involved in preventing another Nash demolition.
Along with obvious issue of age and structural integrity, these situations become more complex with stumbling blocks like city zoning, enormous long-term total rehab costs, business potential and ownership.
The Historic Petersburg Foundation compiled a list of six properties that are in critical condition at the present moment. The meeting split into six groups to individually examine each property and come up with solutions.
The HPTF says these solutions have to be practical and grounded in reality. One group came back with the answer: “We’re not sure there’s any real investment potential with this property.”
“A lot of people think it will be incredibly expensive,” said H. Edward “Chip” Mann, executive director of the Petersburg Preservation Task Force. “If you go to a big guy and ask for help, they’re going to give you a $700,000 project, they will talk high-end, whereas a bunch of people just want a small, under $25,000 remedy to address a very specific problem.”
Mann says that smaller local contractors and builders can fix small problems one at a time to keep buildings stable while owners get financing in place.
All of the properties the groups looked at are inside the city’s 11 historic districts, which makes owners eligible for state grant funding. HPF earlier stated that it also has 150 easements at its disposal to aid property owners. In the end however, property owners have the final say on how to complete the laborious rehab process.
The meeting hosted one special guest. Genevieve Keller is a nationally known leader in historic preservation and cultural landscape practice who has taught courses in the subject at Mary Washington, Iowa State and now at the University of Virginia. She has been coming to Petersburg for decades to visit colleagues to discuss the city’s history. She also served on the board for the Battersea Foundation, a Petersburgbased historic society.
“It makes it difficult because Petersburg doesn’t necessarily have the housing crunch of other cities, which leads to buildings being unused and deterioration,” Keller said, “Because you have vacancy rates, people can just move on to the next building.”
She says that there are too many vacant properties to choose from that the cost and challenge of a 200-plus-year-old structure gives little incentive to a newcomer.
Despite this challenge, Keller is confident that community being created by the 55 meeting attendees has potential to save the city.
“There’s a lot of talent,” she said.
Keller cited the city’s resources like the Appomattox River, abundance of nearby national parks and thriving restaurant scene as positives for the city’s development to bring in eager property owners.
“You have to have a use for [historic properties],” she said. “I think Petersburg has a great deal of potential. A large number of these are on the historic registry, and a lot of existing buildings have been done using tax credits. People were positive at the end of the day… I imagine there will be several groups around to advise and direct this project.”
The city has been supportive of this undertaking by the HPF and PPTF. The council held off demolition of the Nash building for two weeks to give the historic groups time to try and save the building. They were present at the meeting, and praised by Mann for their passion and support of the city’s structural artifacts.
The site of the old Petesrbug Ironworks that used to build railway locomotives. This is one of the potential sites that historic societies are looking to rehabilitate and save.