Palmyra Courthouse

A referendum will be voted on in Fluvanna County, Virginia, early in 1997. Technically it is to be a referendum on the building of a new courthouse. In a looser sense, it will be a referendum on the value of history. The referendum asks whether an attractive town with a tradition of nearly two centuries should, as has happened to other towns nearby, be abandoned and allowed to decay, or whether we should continue to live in it. In his early essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Friedrich Nietzsche distinguished three useful types of history: that which finds admirable examples in the past worthy of imitation, that which preserves in gratitude what the past has given us, and that which criticizes the past and demands change. The main target of criticism in this essay was the scholarly over-studying of history as a topic removed from current life. But Nietzsche also attacked the blind clamoring for newer and newer things which has only increased in the century since he lived. It is the second of the three types of valuable history which is needed today in the county seat of Palmyra, Virginia. A choice is being offered to the citizens of the county between preserving a wonderful old town in which ancestors of many of those citizens walked, and building a cheap and ugly sprawling office park on what is now a lovely farm. I would like to ignore the matter of the farm’s destruction. And, for the sake of argument, let us imagine that rather than an “office park” the plan calls for the construction of an architecturally stunning, environmentally wise, new town. Even in such a hypothetical situation, we would have good reason to preserve Palmyra. According to Nietzsche, for the revering historian,

“The history of his city becomes for him the history of himself; he reads its walls, its towered gate, its rules and regulations, its holidays, like an illuminated diary of his youth and in all this he finds again himself, his force, his industry, his joy, his judgment, his folly and vices. Here we lived, he says to himself, for here we are living; and here we shall live, for we are tough and not to be ruined overnight. Thus with the aid of this ‘we’ he looks beyond his own individual transitory existence and feels himself to be the spirit of his house, his race, his city.”

There has long been more than one “race,” as we usually classify them, in Palmyra, and my quoting Nietzsche’s use of that word is not intended to invoke its sad history in either Virginia or Germany. Perhaps “people” would better convey the meaning of the passage. Nor are there any walls or towered gates in Palmyra. But there is wonderful architecture, most importantly the courthouse. If the town is killed off, the courthouse will become exclusively a tourist sight. It will no longer be a courthouse, but history removed from life. We will have a new courthouse, of course (out on the farm), but it will not be the courthouse in which our grandparents stood. This concern need not, indeed must not, be paired with conservation for its own sake and opposition to change as a matter of principle. Change is needed. Palmyra needs the changes any town needs: new lights and signs, new stores, a plan for expansion, perhaps a few more court offices. Virginia needs the changes demanded by any mushrooming population: new towns, new highways. But at a time when new towns are going to absurd lengths to seem old, the abandonment of perfectly useful old towns, towns possessing all the tradition that the new ones seek to sham, seems a clear mistake. Is the age in which we learn not to throw out food packaging the time to throw out buildings? Old beliefs and clothing and music may be culturally disposable, but not, I hope, old architecture.


They say that Virginians absorb history with their mothers’ milk, and that only Virginians talk in three generations. At least they used to say such things. My history tells me that in 1814 the Reverend Walker Timberlake established a mill on the Rivanna river, a tributary of the James, or rather of the Fluvanna, as the upper James was called. Palmyra Mills – the Reverend chose a Biblical name – was built in the upper Piedmont of Virginia, not far “down country” from Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge, not far from the homes of Jefferson and Monroe, a heavily wooded country of rolling hills and streams. Specifically, the mill was cited a little upstream from Solitude creek and Solitude, the house where American Methodism had been born in 1779.

Solitude, like many fine houses still standing in the area, had been built at least sixty or seventy years previous, from which time its history of owners is recorded. In many cases the same families that own these houses today have owned them for several generations. In still more cases the surnames of the former owners – the protagonists in historical records, now the occupants of nearby cemeteries – are to be found on the roll calls in the elementary schools. There are a number of beautiful old churches in the area, and the stones of the mill remain standing down in the floodplain below the steel bridge that carries State Route 15 over the water and on Northward toward Orange, home town of James Madison. When the river’s not too high, the stones of locks can be seen as well.

On June 25, 1828, a referendum was held, and the people of Fluvanna County voted to establish a new county seat at Palmyra. A town was to be created. General John H. Cocke, a friend and – for a time – an architectural follower of Thomas Jefferson (with whom he worked on, among other projects, the administration of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville) took charge of the important architecture. Cocke is perhaps best remembered as the owner of Bremo, a Jefferson-designed house near Bremo Bluff on the county’s Southern border overlooking the James. But Cocke deserves high praise for his architectural work in Palmyra. By July the stone jail had been started. Today it houses the museum of the Fluvanna County Historical Society. Two years later the courthouse was built, and immediately put to use (in perhaps not the most Jeffersonian manner) as both a courthouse and a church. Separate court offices were built at the same time. Houses and stores grew up around the courthouse. Roads were built, including a covered bridge across the Rivanna.

Whenever the bridge was out, the county provided a ferry. The bridge was burned during the final days of the War Between the States, the perpetrators remaining unidentified, but the evidence leaning toward the Yankees. In 1867 it was rebuilt. In 1877 a flood left it hanging in some trees. In 1884 it was raised again. In 1931 the Virginia State Highway Department burned it, deeming it a threat to its steel replacement downstream, a bridge which in 1996 they speak of wanting to replace.

Around the courthouse arose, among other things, a post office, a millwright and carpenter shop, a blacksmith shop, many houses, and a wharf for boat traffic, all on land owned and leased by the Timberlake family until they sold it to assorted buyers in 1854. The town was always, as it is today, dominated by the courthouse. Palmyra Courthouse is a masterfully proportioned classical temple perched on a tiny acropolis, a prime example of successful Palladian architecture in America. Palmyra grew around it, slowly and in spurts, never amounting to more than a small village. Shops and houses were repeatedly added on to, so that today several stages can be read in their visual histories. The railroad came up the river, replacing boat traffic; and vanished in its turn. Route 15 came through from North to South along one side of a North-South town. A gas station came, and a new bank and post office, a small office building. But still the courthouse functions.

On a day when court is in session (which seems to be about once a month) a crowd gathers at the portico and as the hour approaches acquires a deeply respectful attitude, in part from the building itself. Personally, I’d try to get more traffic tickets if only my license could stand the strain. Palmyra reminds me of many small Italian villages, living their quotidian lives in artistic beauty. Palmyra Courthouse, like Palladio’s villas themselves, though unlike Jefferson’s Monticello or other famous American houses such as Fallingwater, is still alive and useful. . .


. . . at least for the moment. Strange developments have occurred in Fluvanna politics of late. In large part this may be due to the recent construction of a giant gated community known as Lake Monticello – to the influx of residents and to the thinking that the new residents bring with them. It may also involve a desire on the part of other residents to compete with Lake Monticello and its superior array of recreational facilities. The county government recently, and without warning, purchased an old farm a couple of miles from Palmyra, with the stated intentions of restoring the beautiful farm house, setting up a farm market, and building a few athletic and camping facilities. The farm is 969 acres and was purchased for $1.1 million. Now it turns out that the land will have to be more heavily “developed” in order to make the venture profitable. No one, to my knowledge, has explained why the venture was desirable at all, other than to say that it’s too late to ask that question. Along with retail and possibly residential areas in “Pleasant Grove,” as the place is somewhat eerily named (it used to be called Oakwold), a county “office park” is in the works. And a new courthouse is high on the agenda, apparently because the county is feeling slightly cramped for court office space. Low on the agenda is discussion of the destruction of the town of Palmyra. No one speaks of the centuries of investment in Palmyra made by the people laid in Fluvanna’s cemeteries. No mention is made anywhere of the open space in and around Palmyra. A few voices have, admirably, been raised against the destruction of some of the world’s most beautiful farmland. None have I heard speak against the destruction of one of Virginia’s most beautiful villages.

And destruction is what would result. Palmyra, rather than being improved upon, would be abandoned. The courthouse would become a museum, open once a week to tourists. Shops and offices would close. Houses would slowly deteriorate. We would be responsible for the death of a town and the birth of a ghost. A group of architecture students at the University of Virginia drew up alternative plans, all of which advocated minor alterations to Palmyra, rather than the creation of a city (or the sprawlish equivalent) on a farm. Financial arguments were clearly on the students’ side. Aesthetic arguments were, too. Ecological concerns favored the students. But most importantly, these students had recognized the value of urban tradition. To that, as to everything else, county officials – apparently with one exception – are blind. Authoring a cardboard mediocrity (for such the Pleasant Grove architecture is bound to be) brings more emotion to the heart of a county administrator than does rubbing the surfaces of stones whose surfaces were rubbed in the eighteenth century. The UVA story made the local newspapers, but does not seem to have changed many minds. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the driving desire is a frontier dream. County board members seem to believe it is their destiny to found a hastily-planned and provincially imitative Versailles at Oakwold – and Palmyra be damned, in the name of progress. Even the Fluvanna County Historical Society has jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that we must choose between desecrating the courthouse with an addition or moving court operations elsewhere.

But there is no substantive reason why a few offices, or even a second courthouse, could not be built in Palmyra, if we must accept the claim that they are needed. An unused courthouse, architecture in a glass box with no human beings around, just isn’t architecture. I, too, am a relatively recent immigrant to Fluvanna, but of the you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got rather than the more common you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing variety. I want to tell these people that I’ve lived in compact villages in Europe that changed with the times and left the surrounding countryside untouched for millennia. I want to say that I’ve seen suburbia and don’t desire to see it here. I want to shout out that these people don’t understand what they’re throwing away, and will painfully regret it. I grew up in a place, in Northern Virginia, where there were two houses older than I was, and I worshipped those two houses and longed for more of them. I never had tradition and do not want to treat tradition frivolously. Nor do I want to send my children, if I ever have children, to West Virginia in search of the edge of the spreading sprawl. I want to stop it here and now.

I’m in favor of new towns if they’re needed, compact towns, not “office parks” for godsake, and not five-acre lots. A planned town called Haymount, now being built in a nearby county, is a step in the right direction. But developing the town of Palmyra has tremendously more potential because it has a history, whereas Haymount must be built from nothing. A planner of Celebration, Disney’s new town in Florida, is quoted in the October 1996 issue of Harper’s as saying, “Hopefully someday you’ll be able to walk down a street or sit someplace and kind of close your eyes and get comfort that there are people who have been here before you, that this feels like a place that has a tradition, even though it doesn’t.” I wouldn’t hold my breath. It’s a fine goal, but a difficult task. In Palmyra that goal is given to us on a silver platter. We just need to know enough to accept it. I can accept and even celebrate well designed new towns, but I will not be a party to the destruction of old towns in the process.

The latest, and for that matter ONLY, argument in favor of Pleasant Grove is that “people will recognize that we can’t turn back now.” This is one of those phrases that, as it’s used here, must necessarily be a lie. There is to be a referendum on the moving of the court, possibly as early as February 1997. If it fails, they cannot bring it up again for ten years. The people will be given the choice in this referendum of “turning back” or not turning back. That, of course, is the purpose served by the referendum. The outcome is not inevitable. (Nor does inevitability constitute a reason to support something – quite the reverse.) There are many arguments against the move. One is that ten years is hardly a long period of time to think about and plan such a construction project. Haymount has been in the works longer than that. Another is the financial question. A third is the matter of what sort of lives we want to live here in Fluvanna. Do we want our children to live surrounded by hurried commercial ugliness for which they can thank only their parents? Or do we want them to appreciate our small contribution to built environments predating ourselves, and to plans for careful future construction, possibly including the construction of new towns?

The county has hired “facilitators” to “educate” the public about the preferability of building at “Pleasant Grove” rather than in Palmyra. Thousands of dollars are being spent on such efforts which will, together with the huge sum that was paid for the land, be set up as the amount the county must recover through profitable “development.” A county study finds that a new courthouse at Pleasant Grove will cost $5.5 million, whereas a new courthouse in Palmyra will cost $5.7 million. But to the former needs to be added the $1.1 million for the land, plus the costs of getting water and sewer and electricity out there, the road construction cost, and the cost of the “facilitators.” I have my own ideas about education. I’d like to make sure that everyone knows about the 1828 referendum before voting in the referendum of 1997. Greater changes are more quickly made today, and the proportion of our environments with any lengthy stories to tell ever diminishes. This situation demands of us great care and consideration. Currently my considered opinion is that Fluvanna County should sell Oakwold.

An Addendum:

When C. P. Snow described science and humanities professors as constituting two worlds, two separate cultures, he was not familiar with every sub-group or continent. And he was aware of numerous exceptions. I want to describe a similarly generalized, simplified, and – I think – useful pair of worlds: the Sprawl and the Boonies. I mean this to be a United Statesian distinction, even though my own experience of it is virtually limited to Virginia, and largely limited to two specific areas of Virginia, two specific parts of Northern Virginia (or NoVa as they call it in rural Virginia; in NoVa NoVa denotes the Northern Virginia Community College) and rural Virginia (or hicksville as they call it in NoVa, not to be confused with any town officially named Hicksville).

Many Sprawlites look down on the Boonies, even as they move there, failing to appreciate the advantages of Boonie culture (not just landscape), and underestimating the strength of those elements of Boonie culture that they scorn. Sprawlites want to bring their culture to the Boonie-region without bringing too many OTHER Sprawlites along to destroy the landscape, a process which usually reveals a surprising resistance to conversion on the part of the Boonie majority up until and even beyond the point at which the Sprawlites become the majority and discover that they have destroyed the scenery without controlling the culture, and thus devised what is for them the worst of both worlds.

Many Boonies vaguely admire life in the Sprawl and brag to other Boonies about their forays into it. And yet they dislike it without really feeling qualified to do so, a situation which leads to such peculiar pronouncements as “Country life is good enough for me,” being used to mean something almost but not quite as confident as “Country life is better and so am I but I don’t expect you to believe me.” Many Boonies welcome Sprawlite immigrants and encourage the worst in them and are happy with the results which they refer to as “progress” even though some of the Sprawlites themselves refer to the same as “destruction.”

NoVa is Democratic. RuVa (rural Virginia) is Republican. Nova is not a place where one hears much about religion. Ruva is a place where the BIBLE! is hard to avoid. Novas concentrate more on crime-prevention, and Ruvas on punishment. Novas are slightly concerned by the horrible increase in inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. Ruvas haven’t heard about it. Novas do not object to slight environmental protection. Ruvas usually do. Novas would like to see some slight hand-waving in the direction of campaign-finance reform. Ruvas feel that their Freedom of Speech is threatened. Novas try hard not to think about the awfulness of abortions. Ruvas try hard not to think about the awfulness of 25% of the kids in the world’s richest country growing up in poverty. Novas probably more than other Sprawlites think of Washington as a place to be grateful for and to work to improve (and as a place to go to work every day). Ruvas think of Washington as the pit of Sin where Jesus is not welcome and as a destination for trips to special sporting events and museums.

I want to state once again that I am generalizing tremendously. There are large and small pockets of exceptions of various sorts throughout the geographic regions dominated by Sprawl and Boonies.

In the Boonies one finds beautiful rural scenery and beautiful rural life. One finds old and marvelous architecture in the towns, and people whose grandparents built it. People are much more fixed. Their homes are not just families but towns and counties. (Oddly, it is precisely those who have home-towns who detest liberal notions of community and advocate the canonization of the isolated family.) In the Boonies high school sports serve as entertainment, whereas the Sprawl rarely includes them in the newspaper. In the Boonies hunting and fishing serve as recreation or – better – as a “way of life” so important that some risk of random death due to stray bullets or trespassing or a little too much beer is easily tolerated. Sprawlites sometimes view hunting and fishing and even gardening as beneath them (though they do not object to supermarkets). In the Boonies in the South you can find white people who don’t like the idea of washing their hands in the same sink with black people. In the Sprawl you can find white people ashamed of their skin and convinced of their racial inferiority. By these extreme examples I intend to suggest the overlapping ranges of what can be found. In the Sprawl one finds bars and restaurants, galleries, bookstores, cinemas, stadiums, subways, shopping malls, and an aching lack of natural or historical beauty.

Charlottesville, Virginia, has long seemed to me the best of both worlds: a small town with a tradition, the best architecture in the country, a pedestrian Main Street, and a top university that brings the benefits of Sprawlish culture to the CAMPAGNA. The trouble, of course, is that C’ville’s population has grown by some 15 or 20% in the past decade while surrounding counties like Fluvanna have grown by close to 50%. This growth is second in Virginia only to that of NoVa itself. And the influx of Sprawlites with their cardboard architecture and their asphalt does not seem to be noticeably increasing the number of bookstores or jazz clubs or having the slightest effect on the tone of voice of the preachers on the radio. What might work much better would be for the incoming Sprawlites to learn from the Boonies, beginning with town-planning and construction. Building well-designed compact towns, new towns, would offer the Boonies the cutting-edge in “progress” while helping them to appreciate the preserved beauty they’re surrounded by. Understanding Boonie life, going fishing and attending church, would also allow for better Sprawlite integration, and might aid arrived Sprawlites in enlisting Boonies in the cause of discouraging MORE Sprawlites from coming. As NoVa reaches saturation-point, and as the rich get richer, Central Virginia can expect an unprecedented influx of humanity. I’m not sure it’s ready.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.