The More Things Change in Lynchburg Architecture… similarities and differences, 200 years in the making…

As this issue casts a light on architecture, I thought it might be fun to reflect on shifts in how homes have been built over the past couple centuries. We are fortunate in Lynchburg to have numerous examples of classic architectural styles through the ages. And if you’re one of the really lucky ones, then you’ve got a copy of the quintessential guidebook on this topic, Lynchburg: An Architectural History, on your bookshelf. (Side note: landing a copy of this out-of-print gem years ago was a real boon for this Lynchburg REALTOR!) Let’s take a look…

The William Wiatt Norvell House at 822 Federal Street, Built in 1818
This home was built by Mr. Norvell when he was 23 years old, while serving as the clerk of the Lynchburg Hustings Court. Newly married to Anna Maria Harrison, Mr. Norvell would go on to be Lynchburg City Treasurer during the Civil War. According to Lynchburg tax records, the home in its current state has 5,732 square feet with four bedrooms and 3 full baths. Interesting side note, it last sold in 1958… for $11,000!

Think back to 200 years ago, and imagine what life was like then—and what people needed from their homes. “Family room” and “master bathroom” were not top priorities. And forget the idea of a “walk in closet.” Heating a home of any size was a primary concern, thus the rooms were self-contained and able to be closed off. In homes of distinction, fireplaces in the bedrooms were a helpful upgrade. A wide center hall often allowed for front and back doors to be opened, generating air flow in the warmer months. There was no vinyl siding or double-paned glass windows—brick and wood siding were your options, as were carefully crafted double hung windows with individual glass panes.

The Frederick W. McWane House at 3843 Fort Avenue, Built in 1918
Designed by noted Lynchburg architect Stanhope S. Johnson, and built on the corner of Fort and Connecticut avenues, the home embodies many stylistic changes, reflecting a shift in how people lived in their homes. Notable about this house in particular is the extensive use of Greenstone—harvested from a quarry right in the middle of Lynchburg. Another interesting architectural aspect is the home’s low profile, built lower to the ground than homes of the previous century.

According to Lynchburg tax records, this home contains 2,770 square feet, with 5 bedrooms and 2 full baths. Although ownership has changed hands several times over the years, it’s interesting to note that in 1959 the home sold for $26,500. So what changed in the intervening century? First off, indoor flush toilets—and thus more fully functional bathrooms. Having servant’s quarters was no longer necessary, and incorporating outdoor living spaces was gaining popularity. Gardens, side porches and back patios, and more landscaped yards signaled homeowners’ growing desire to spend more time outdoors.

Just About Any Home Under Construction in Forest, Built in 2018
Rather than call attention to any one particular home or builder, it’s more interesting to note some overall changes in both construction and lifestyle
100 years hence. “Formal” living and dining areas have decreased in popularity, giving rise to the “open concept” that seems to be at the top of literally every HGTV buyer’s wish list. We live more casual lives—both as families and with our guests—and place a higher priority on community over the separation of our common areas. We have more… of everything. So we need closets—tons of them. Closets for our linens. Closets for our coats and scarves. Closets we can walk in, turn around, sit down on a love seat and stare at our racks and racks of clothes.

Another change since 1918—we need attached, indoor parking for our cars (and lawn care equipment). And we need extra bathrooms, so we’ll never have to go up or down stairs to use the toilet. We still like our outdoor spaces, but we prefer them shaded and screened in. We still like fireplaces, but now with gas logs and remote controls.

Listen, none of that is bad—it’s just different. Over the past 200 years, the way we live and what we expect out of our homes has shifted. Is it good that we, as a society, are less formal and more communal? I think so. Are there excesses now? Maybe. Is that any different than 200 years ago? Not really.

One last note: I’m not an architect or historian. There are many more qualified folks who can speak to these topics. If you’re one of them and you’d like to enlighten me, or just want to share your experiences with homes of the past, I’d love to hear from you! Email me anytime at dan@danvollmer.com.

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