Fredericksburg's identity and character are directly related to its rich history. Captain John Smith, while charting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, reached this area in 1608, his westernmost exploration in the New World. Before Fredericksburg was founded, Alexander Spotswood established an iron industry in the upstream wilderness. Across the Rappahannock River from the newly established town, a boy named George Washington grew to manhood. Six months before Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette and a division of Continental soldiers hurried through these urban blocks and headed south, to confront Lord Cornwallis and his British Regulars coming up from the Carolinas.
As the newly independent nation developed, a young James Monroe hung out an attorney's shingle and was elected to the local governing body. The river cascading out of the Piedmont powered local industries and brought prosperity. The Civil War brought destruction. The river's constant flow drove economic recovery in the war's aftermath. A railroad and roadways continue to link the City to the larger economy and new residents still find their way to this quiet, yet dynamic community.
The oldest surviving building in downtown Fredericksburg dates to 1737. The newest one is still under construction. This built environment, which spans nearly three centuries, exerts a strong sense of continuity. There are grand residences on lower Caroline Street and remnants of industrial buildings on upper Caroline. William Street and the middle section of Caroline Street are still the focus of the business district. Princess Anne Street remains the government corridor. Warehouses adapted to new uses sit adjacent to a railway that cut through town in antebellum days.
The many residential areas in downtown Fredericksburg are close-knit neighborhoods. Their distinctive architectural characteristics reflect their respective periods of development. The church steeples that defined the town's Civil War skyline still preside over sanctuaries of worship. The historic street grid adapts amazingly well to modern automobiles, effectively diffusing traffic and confounding the vaunted computer models of modern road planners.
People describe Fredericksburg as an attractive place to live and do business, using phrases like quality of life, small-town atmosphere, and sense of place. These seemingly vague concepts relate directly to a community's physical attributes. The historic sections of Fredericksburg include interconnected streets, shaded sidewalks, safe street crossings, and a mix of residential and commercial activities. These interrelated components provide opportunities for social encounter and exchange, as citizens attend to their daily activities. Fredericksburg's Historic District remains the community's social, political, and cultural core and continues to define its identity.
Historic preservation is important to maintaining a community's character, but should not be viewed as a recreation of the past. Instead, the Historic District is a reference point for change. Fredericksburg's collection of historic buildings is a tangible link to the past, but accommodates a changing world. The City's history is evident in its architecture, but the community still functions and grows. Historic buildings are routinely adapted and upgraded to remain economically viable, while keeping their character defining features intact. New buildings are integrated into their historic setting and will eventually become historic in their own right. Insignificant or unusable buildings are removed to allow continued urban growth.
Alterations, new construction, and demolition must always respect Fredericksburg's historic character. The challenge is to ensure that development and redevelopment reflects the community's values and the mechanisms for doing so are local preservation legislation, an appointed citizen review board, and public participation.
A Historic District Handbook (PDF) is available, at no cost, to any City resident who wants one, whether or not they live in the Historic District. Compiled by the Fredericksburg Architectural Review Board and its staff, this publication includes an overview of the City's history, a section on how historic overlay zoning works, guidelines for renovations as well as new construction in a historic context, a review of Fredericksburg's architectural history, a glossary of architectural terms, and more. Citizens can examine a copy on line or obtain their own copy through the Office of Planning and Community Development, Room 209, City Hall, 715 Princess Anne Street.
Learn about the financial incentives (PDF) available for historic buildings and how to qualify for a tax credit for improving residential property in the Historic District. Contact the Real Estate section of the Office of the Commissioner of the Revenue at 540-372-1207.