JOYCE REIMHERR, president of Downtown Colonial Beach, said her group is thrilled that the historic commercial district of their Westmoreland County town has been added to the Virginia Landmark Registry.
For those who missed the announcement last month, the commercial district, first platted in 1882 “as the business center of a fully planned resort along the Potomac River,” was granted that designation by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. That state approval has advanced the town’s application for federal approval, likely to be granted this fall.
If the federal designation comes through, people restoring one of the 81 historic structures in the district could be eligible for tax credits of nearly 50 percent.
The VDHR described the designated structures as “vernacular or high-style commercial or residential buildings” representing “the whole of its nearly century-long period of significance—1875 to 1970—and embodying major trends in waterside resort community development and architecture from the late 1800s through the 20th century.”
The district includes building styles from Victorian to art deco—structures ranging from an 1875 farmhouse to a Queen Anne-style hotel formerly known as the Breakers to a 1890s seaside cottage that is now home to the Museum at Colonial Beach.
Reimherr said town residents are thrilled about the good things they think the historic district designation can do for the historic seaside town.
“The historic district program has been shown to be an enormous stimulant to economic revitalization for small downtowns and neighborhoods around the country,” she said. “It may well be the single most successful small-town revitalization program in the nation.”
She noted that the Downtown Colonial Beach organization, like other Main Street programs, is focused on emphasizing what sets the town apart from other localities.
“A main one of those is your history,” said Reimherr. “If you are fortunate enough to have retained your historic character and buildings, the Main Street program really wants you to go after that.”
She said a host of town organizations and individuals have played critical roles in acquiring the first sign-off on the historic district designation—from the local historical society to the town’s community foundation and chamber of commerce—and that interest in it has ebbed and flowed for decades.
Things picked up about three years ago. A former town manager secured funding following Hurricane Sandy that was used for surveying and research that led to the historic designation application.
Reimherr said it was important to educate people about the differences between a locally imposed historic district and one approved by state and federal officials.
“It’s the locally designated historic districts that have all kinds of restrictions and covenants attached,” she said. “Colonial Beach is just not that kind of town, not much for the imposition of regulations telling people what to do.”
But after local meetings about what the state and federal designation could mean—and the associated the tax credits—support for the historic district designation grew.
Reimherr said the initial discussions were discouraging. Officials said the cost of applying to include all potential historic districts in the town could be more than $50,000 and take two years to complete.
But when the historic resources staff was asked about limiting the application to the downtown area, town officials learned the cost of an application would be a fraction of the original estimate and the historic research and surveying could be done in less than half the time. A cost-sharing grant from the Department of Historic Resources helped move the needle, and the project got enough support to proceed.
Robinson and Associates of Washington was hired to do the research needed to prepare an application.
Reimherr said surveys found 81 contributing buildings and 4 objects that were considered historic structures in the downtown area, with 40 other structures that fell short of the criteria.
“And now, because of the tax credits, we have the chance of keeping them and making further history as times go along,” she said.
But there are considerations that go beyond dollars and cents.
“One reason we qualified is the different styles of architecture here,” Reimherr said. “It’s a little slice of time where you can see all these different historic periods.”
Reimherr emphasized that preservation in Colonial Beach is not just about historic buildings, but the people and diversity in the town.
“We are a uniquely diverse community—of all economic levels, races and cultures—and preserving the history and culture here means preserving life for the people of this town and working to secure their future here,” she said.
She’s particularly concerned about gentrification and displacement that can occur with history-focused redevelopment.
“We’re on guard for that, not wanting to replace what’s here, but to build it up and build upon it,” Reimherr said.
She is convinced the information included in the application is important for a number of reasons.
“Even if you’re not in the historic district, we think this will make anyone doing development to think more about maintaining the historic integrity of their building and possibly qualify for tax credits in other areas of town in the future,” she said. “Maybe they won’t want to toss the baby out with the bathwater, and repair things instead of replacing them, if for nothing more than to fit in with the rest of town.”
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415