Courtland needs Main Street preservation program

Published 10:12 am Wednesday, December 14, 2016

by John Quartstein

Courtland, Virginia, is noted for its distinctive array of historic structures along Main Street. Also known as the Jerusalem Plank Road, this roadway was a strategic connection for Nottoway River ports and Petersburg. The Plank Road served as a major supply line for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Perhaps the key to this streetscape is the group of structures located within the view shed of Southampton County Courthouse, which contains a mixture of religious, commercial and single family dwellings. Several of these buildings – Mahone’s and Hart’s Taverns, Seven Gables, and the Rochelle-Prince House, played a role in the county’s most impactful historical event, Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831.

Accordingly, the work that is now underway to expand Courtland’s museums: Rawls Museum of Art, Agriculture and Forestry Museum, Heritage Village, Museum of Southampton History, Mahone’s Tavern, and the Rebecca Vaughan House, makes it extremely important to preserve all aspects of the town’s historic streetscape which, in turn, will foster an expansion to Courtland’s heritage tourism industry.    

Streetscapes exhibit a range of architectural styles that reflect the historic context of the development of Southampton County’s oldest town and county seat, Courtland. Main Street/Plank Road is the primary commercial and residential roadway in Courtland.

The road includes densely developed mixed-use (connected to the railroad) small town environments with commercial storefronts and upper story housing, single family residences, institutional, parks and open spaces. Courtland is a perfect example of a rural community, located in the geographical center of Southampton County, with advantageous riverine, railroad and highway connections.

Fortunately for Courtland, much of its original streetscape from its commercial highpoint in the 1950s has been retained and an effort to preserve the remainder is a paramount duty. The aforementioned multi-faceted museum development should result in an expansion of the community’s heritage tourism industry. More visitors will also bring greater economic opportunities. Therefore, the preservation of Courtland’s streetscape, beginning with Hart’s Tavern, the Registrar’s Building, and the Old Treasurer’s Office will achieve the following:

• Promotion of the educational, cultural, economic and general welfare of the community through the protection, enhancement, and perpetuation of the Plank Road streetscape;

• Safeguarding the town’s historic, aesthetic, architectural and cultural heritage;

• Stabilization and improvement of property values;

• Fostering civic pride in the legacy of beauty and the achievement of the past;

• Protection and enhancement of the town’s attractiveness to tourists and visitors and resulting economic stimulus;

• Strengthening the town’s and the county’s economy;

• Capitalizing upon the use of this streetscape for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of Courtland and the county.

Obviously, these benefits can only be secured if the town of Courtland and Southampton County work together to forge a “Main Street Program” designed to preserve the community’s historic streetscape. This community cannot allow the destruction of the historic relationship between buildings, architectural features and open spaces as there is a need to maintain historical, pictorial and physical look that places into a community context around the Southampton Courthouse. An amalgamation of street and land landscape denotes a sense of place and its architectural characteristics catch the visitor’s eye

Southampton County and the town of Courtland should consider adaptive reuse principles when planning the future of Courtland’s Main Street/Plank Road streetscape and the development of the community’s heritage tourism industry.

Adaptive reuse is the process of identifying new functions for an old building or place for a purpose other than for which it was built. It is as key factor in land conservation, streetscape preservation and the reduction of urban sprawl. By reusing an existing structure, the energy required to create these spaces is lessened, as is the material waste that comes from destroying archaic sites and rebuilding using new materials.

Abandoned or vacant buildings can be re-purposed for a variety of new uses, which helps retain the heritage character of towns and inner cities. Older structures display a specific historical style, construction quality and architectural design which newer developments and modern structures lack.

Whether or not a building should be preserved is a question to which the answer can be obtained based on the following criteria:

• Societal value of a site based on community value and how a community wishes to perceive itself;

• Potential reuse of a site based on streetscape values and costs;

• Costs of preservation, costs of removal, and cost of rebuilding on the site;

• Historical importance of the site/building in terms of architectural value to streetscape conditions and the place’s role in the understanding of a community’s past.

Based on these concepts, the town of Courtland needs to carefully consider how best to preserve several historic buildings that add to the town’s character.

As you walk along the street from the Library to the train crossing, you will recognize many buildings that date to the days Courtland was known as Jerusalem. You will pass several very interesting structures that document how this town on the Nottoway River grew into a commercial center.  One of my favorites is St. Luke’s Church.

The church is a stunning, yet late, version of Victorian  Gothic Revival architecture with its steeply pitched roof and bell tower. As you look further down the street you will encounter several other classical structures such as Seven Gables, Rochelle-Prince House and Mahone’s Tavern. These structures are the core of Courtland’s historic streetscape and connected to the elegant 1834/1925 Greek Revival temple-style Southampton County Courthouse.

The building’s grandeur is a powerful symbol of law, order and community as well as being the focal point of the town. While these buildings have been preserved, several other buildings are at risk and steps should be taken to develop a Main Street adaptive use plan to ensure the future of Courtland’s historic streetscape.

John V. Quartstein is a consultant with the Southampton County Historical Society. He can be reached at