Demolition by Neglect

Partial Collapse of Civil War Hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia

Originally published 2/6/2012

The partial collapse of one Lynchburg’s few remaining Civil War hospital buildings on the evening of January 30th has caused a flurry of activity in Lynchburg’s history and historic preservation community. The City of Lynchburg’s announcement via Facebook on the afternoon of February 1st stating that “a vacant six-story warehouse located at 612 Dunbar Drive collapsed earlier today” was a bit of an exaggeration. Indeed, two bays of the rear of the 20,000+ square-foot building collapsed, which is not surprising due to the significant deterioration of the masonry on that elevation, which has been in desperate need of proper repointing, selective brick replacement, and adequate gutters for years. That being said, the building was still standing, and the most significant deterioration appeared to be limited to the rear elevation. The building was evaluated by the owner, structural engineers, and the City of Lynchburg Building Official, and early reports suggested that demolition was imminent.

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While local historians refer to the building as a circa 1845 “warehouse” that was used as a hospital during the Civil War, the architecture of the building does not “read” as an antebellum tobacco warehouse. Rather, its shallow-sloping shed roof with brick parapet walls suggest an early 20th century origin.

The News & Advance quoted Dr. Peter Houck’s book entitled “A Prototype of a Confederate Hospital Center in Lynchburg, Virginia” by reporting that the buildings in the 600 blocks of Twelfth Street and Dunbar Drive (formerly the Lynchburg & Salem Turnpike) were purchased by tobacconists John P. Knight (1829–1863) and William Miller (1822–1877) in 1851.[1]

Many Lynchburgers conflate the terms “warehouse” and “factory” for tobacco-related buildings. In fact, these two building types were quite different in both form and function. Tobacco warehouses were built for the conduct of tobacco valuation and sale (often by auction). Because thousands of pounds of tobacco were brought into the building and laid out for inspection and sale, warehouses were typically long one-story buildings with multiple access points for cargo and people. Factories, on the other hand, were built for the manufacture of tobacco products, like plugs, twists, chewing tobacco, and cigars. In Lynchburg, these buildings were almost always large, multi-story affairs with numerous windows to illuminate the industrial operation. While a number of tobacco factories remain in Lynchburg, no historic tobacco warehouses are extant.

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In 1852, William D. Miller insured his four-story brick tobacco factory (rather than warehouse) on the Lynchburg & Salem Turnpike for $5,500. The insurance policy specified that, like many buildings of its time, its roof was covered by wood shingles. This would require the presence of a gable or hipped roof rather than the shed roof seen in 2012.[2] Gray’s 1877 map of Lynchburg identifies the building as the Ford Moorman & Co. (tobacco manufacturers), and the footprint of the warehouse is essentially the same as the current building.[3] The 1902 Sanborn Insurance Company map shows that the Ford-Moorman factory rose three stories above Salem Street (now Dunbar Drive) and five stories above grade at its rear. Most interestingly, it indicates that the main building had a hipped roof which was then covered with slate.[4]

By 1903, Sarah Ford (widow of tobacconist William A. Ford) owned the property, which contained buildings valued at $6,000. In January of 1904, she sold the factory to William Wholey of Staunton for $5,000.[5] The building depreciated in value considerably during Wholey’s ownership, dropping by almost 50% to $3,500 in 1916, the year of his death. The 1917 tax records include a notation that the building had burned, and the valuation was lowered to $1,800.[6]

In 1917, the National Mattress Company purchased the property from Wholey’s heirs for $2,500, half of its purchase price thirteen years earlier. The effects of the 1916–17 fire are not known, but it is likely that the building was gutted, or at least suffered damage significant enough to trigger a major overhaul by the National Mattress Company. At this time, the remnants of the old hipped roof were likely replaced by the shed roof with parapet walls seen today. The corbelled brick cornices seen on the upper portion of the building’s façade and rear elevations are likely remnants of the former roof configuration. The extent of the National Mattress Company’s overhaul is evidenced by the building’s 1918 tax valuation, when the improvements (buildings, etc.) on the property (separate from the land value) were assessed at $16,000 (a notation specifies that the building itself was valued at $10,200).[7]

Typically, this degree of increase from one year to the next indicates that a new building had been constructed, but in this case, construction details (including the presence of six-over-six double-hung sash windows) and a careful comparison of building descriptions from 1852 to 1951 suggest that the National Mattress Company (later American Beauty Mattress Company) building is indeed the William Miller factory. Due to the 1916 or 1917 fire and significant deterioration late in the 20th century, it is likely that little original historic fabric remained in the interior of the building by 2012.

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The property was owned by Pearl H. Hiller from 1968 until 1999. In 1981, Robert L. Hiller submitted a Preliminary Information Form on the property to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which determined that the property was eligible (at that time) for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.[8] Since then, no other substantial historic preservation activity has occurred.

Postscript: The building was razed on 9 February 2012.

[1] Dumond, Chris, Alicia Petska, Dave Thompson, “Former Civil War hospital partially collapses in Lynchburg.” The News & Advance (Lynchburg, Virginia), 1 February 2012, viewed online at www.newsadvance.com

[2] Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia declaration #487, Reel 7, Volume 59, Library of Virginia.

[3] “New Map of Lynchburg, Virginia.” Philadelphia: O.W. Gray & Son, Geographers. 1877. Accessed online at www.lynchburghistory.com

[4] Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Map of Lynchburg, Virginia. 1902.

[5] City of Lynchburg Land Book, 1903, 1905. Deed Book 68, page 347. Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, Lynchburg, VA.

[6] City of Lynchburg Land Book, 1916, 1917.

[7] City of Lynchburg Land Book, 1918.

[8] Hiller, Robert L. Preliminary Information Form, “Lynchburg Plate Glass Company (118–0197).” 18 May 1981. Virginia Department of Historic Resources Data Sharing System.

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Planner, Historic Preservationist, Urban Sketcher, Outdoor Enthusiast.

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