Sunday, January 16, 2011


First settled in 1732, the city of Staunton is named for Lady Rebecca Staunton, wife of Virginia’s Colonial Governor William Gooch. Staunton is in the heart of Virginia’s storied Shenandoah Valley and at one time was the geographical center of the state, which once stretched westward all the way to the Mississippi River and encompassed parts of what is now West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Given its central location and fertile setting, it quickly developed into an early center for trade and commerce, particularly for the export of agricultural products.

Its importance was cemented in 1854 with the arrival of the Virginia Central Railroad. Staunton became a center of banking, manufacturing and retail trade in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1856, future President Woodrow Wilson was born to a local Presbyterian minister and his wife. Wilson's restored birthplace and Presidential Library and Museum attract thousands of tourists. The city was largely spared from destruction during the Civil War, a significant factor in the remarkable number of historic structures that have been preserved in the downtown area. The town, which has experienced a remarkable renaissance in recent years, is an intriguing, often quirky choice for tourists who are looking for attractions a bit more off the beaten path. This blog will introduce a few of them to you.

Illustration of Staunton, circa 1851 (click to enlarge).

Architect T.J. Collins came to Staunton from Washington, DC, in 1891 and in a mere twenty years designed or remodeled over two hundred buildings, most of which exist today. Collins designed the gatehouse (photo below), bridge, tower, tombs and other structures at Thornrose Cemetery, which contains more than 1,770 graves of Confederate soldiers.

Note: Photos on this blog from Staunton's web site and from links displayed on web site.

Woodrow Wilson Birthplace

The nation’s 28th president comes to life in a tour of the 12-room Greek Revival Presbyterian manse furnished with items appropriate to the time of his birth here in 1856. As president elect in 1912, Wilson returned to Staunton on his 56th birthday and spent the night in the house in which he was born. The museum next door houses the only presidential library in Virginia, even though eight presidents were born in the state. The museum offers much to learn about the president’s life as a lawyer, college professor, president of Princeton University, U.S. president and peacemaker following World War I, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as the Founder of the League of Nations (the predecessor of today’s United Nations). His controversial veto of prohibition legislation (congress overrode his veto) and enactment of a national income tax are also explored. On the plus side, his administration gave women the right to vote and established Mother's Day as a national holiday. The terraced boxwood gardens and Wilson’s restored Pierce-Arrow limousine are part of the tour. The automobile has been restored to full working order, and the car traveled to Washington DC for the dedication of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge on May 15, 2008.

Hours: 9-5 Mon-Sat, noon-5 Sun Mar-Oct; 10-4 Mon-Sat, noon-4 Sun Nov-Feb. Adults $14, Senior/AAA/Active Military $12. 540-885-0897. 18 N. Coalter St.

Wilson was the first lay president of Princeton University.
He was the only president to retire to Washington, DC and is buried in Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal) alongside his second wife, an Episcopalian.
Himself the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson's mother and first wife were both daughters of Presbyterian ministers.

Below: Bow knot boxwood garden and gazebo at rear of house. The Wilson family never knew anything like it, because during the short time they were in residence, the rear yard was home to outbuildings, pigs and chickens. The local chapter of the Garden Club of Virginia installed these handsome boxwood gardens in the 1930s; they hired famed Richmond based landscape architect Charles Gillette to design them.

Blackfriars Playhouse

The 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse is the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's original indoor theater. Opened in 2001, the playhouse offers the works of Shakespeare presented under original conditions, on a simple stage, without elaborate sets, and with the audience sharing the same lighting as the actors. Actors play multiple roles and interact with the audience. Home to the American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars offers performances year round. Located at 10 S. Market Street, adjacent to the Stonewall Jackson Hotel. 540.851.1733.