The Town of Orange
The Town is named in honor of William IV, Prince of Orange. The Town of Orange became Orange County’s judicial seat in 1749 when Culpeper County was cut off making the previous courthouse location at Raccoon Ford very far from the center of the County. The present courthouse was constructed in 1858. The Town was incorporated in 1872. Although fire destroyed much of the town in 1908, many buildings from the 1800’s still remain. The Town remains the county seat, as well as the commercial and retail center of the county.
18th and 19th Centuries
In 1749, when the present-day boundaries of Orange County were established, the meeting place of the county court was moved to Timothy Crosthwaite’s Tavern, alongside Swift Run Gap Highway, midway between the eastern and western boundaries of the County. A village, called Orange Courthouse, began to grow up around the new courthouse. With county citizens drawn regularly to the courthouse, merchants seeking to buy the produce of county farms and forests and to supply the needs of Orange County, folk established businesses around the courthouse. Religious and cultural and recreational facilities also put down their roots in the village.
In 1872, the citizens of the village secured a Town charter, legally becoming the Town of Orange. In succeeding years, the Town has thrived as an important market center as it has continued in its original role as the administrative, legislative, and judicial heart of Orange County.
The Town of Orange and surrounding vicinity possess several unique and important cultural resources as evidenced by the number of properties listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and on the National Register of Historic Places. Orange Commercial Historic District was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1998 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. 74 structures were originally identified in the District (3 were demolished in 2004). Of this number, 58 properties are considered contributing to the integrity of the Historic District, 11 are considered noncontributing buildings, and 2, the Orange County Courthouse and St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, were previously listed on the National Register. Of the total number of buildings in the Historic District, 2 are banks, 6 are churches, 27 are commercial buildings, and 5 are related to governmental functions. Other buildings in the District include single-family dwellings; automobile-related structures, transportation-related facilities, and structures that are used both commercially and domestically.
The majority of buildings located in the district were built between 1909 and 1917, replacing many of the buildings destroyed in the great fire of 1908. The variety of buildings that remain from before the fire and those that were constructed afterward reflect the development of Orange from its earliest days as a courthouse town and railroad center, through its post-fire reconstruction, and into its role as a railroad transportation hub.
The oldest structures within the district date from the late 1820’s and include two commercial structures and a church. The Sparks Building at 122-124 West Main Street is a 2 ½ – story brick structure built circa 1830. The Holladay House, located at 155 West Main Street and now a bed and breakfast was built circa 1830 as a mercantile business. St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church on Caroline Street was built in 1833 in the Jeffersonian inspired Roman Revival Style. Other nineteenth-century buildings in the district include the 1859 Orange County Courthouse, the former Miles B. Lipscomb Store circa 1867 at the comer of Church and Mill Streets, the 1885 Masonic Opera House, Trinity United Methodist Church, and the National Bank of Orange Building both built in 1892, and three dwellings.
Two surveys conducted by students from the Mary Washington College Department of Historic Preservation in 2000 and 2001 suggest that three residential areas of the Town have the architectural integrity and the cultural significance to make them eligible for inclusion on the state and national registers. The recommended areas include Orange’s first subdivision, Marshall Heights; the Mill Street area, and the Lindsay Drive-Bowler Lane subdivision.
There are three other recognized historic districts located in close proximity to the Town, the Rapidan Historic District, the Madison-Barbour Historic District, and the Gordonsville Historic District. These districts contain a variety of historic, cultural, and architectural resources, and represent important community attractions. Of special significance is James Madison’s Montpelier, a designated National Historic Landmark located approximately four miles west of the Town limits on Virginia Route 20. The Montpelier estate is undergoing extensive restoration and is rapidly developing as a heritage visitor attraction and an increasingly rich resource in bringing visitor dollars into the community.
Orange’s transformation from a single purpose courthouse town into a commercial center is easily traced through its buildings. The most intact historic commercial fabric is found in the east end of the District on East Main Street, and on May-Fray Avenue and Byrd Street. The stores and warehouses that were rebuilt after the 1908 fire are clustered around the contemporary Southern Railway Passenger Depot or the Orange Train Station (also known today as the Orange Transportation Center). The architecture along East Main Street reflects that of an early twentieth century commercial center that was built up around the busy Train Station.
Once the automobile was introduced in the early twentieth century, businesses began to extend along West Main Street. Prior to the 1920’s, West Main and Caroline Streets (formerly Gordonsville Road) were primarily residential areas. Four of the Town’s six downtown churches were also located along West Main Street and Caroline Streets (Orange Presbyterian Church, Orange Baptist Church, Orange Methodist Church, and St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church.
The post WWII era was the heyday of Orange. Returning soldiers built homes on every available plot of land. The Town’s population grew from approximately 2000 persons in 1940 to 3000 in 1960. During this period, there were multiple grocery stores, hardware stores, and men’s and women’s clothing stores, all on Main Street.
Three automobile stations, (Halley’s Service Station/Hill Top Restaurant; Texaco/Orange County Historical Society, Inc.; and Cranes Esso/Main Street Texaco), an auto dealership (Powell Motors/James Madison Museum), a repair shop and Taxi-stand (Jiggs Craun’s/Earl’s Glass Shop), and a hotel (President Madison lnn/Adult Care Facility) were all built along Caroline Street between the late 1910s and the mid-1940’s. The establishment of this western commercial boundary of the downtown area in turn altered the character of West Main Street. Dwellings were converted into businesses such as Adriana Cowan & Associates, or demolished to create Taylor Park, or to open space for mid-to-late twentieth-century commercial buildings (130-134 West Main Street). Many of these structures, constructed between the 1950s and circa 1965, contribute to the character of their surroundings and add to the vibrancy of the Town.
21st Century: Creating a Thriving Downtown District
Urban renewal efforts, modernization, and other forces later destroyed the busy commercial and residential area of West Main Street from Madison Road to Caroline Street, untouched by the 1908 fire. Much of this impact may have been as a result of the Caroline Street corridor (U.S Route 15) becoming a major automobile thoroughfare.
In late 1991, Orange citizens and government officials, concerned with the economic and physical decline of the town center, created a downtown revitalization organization. The Orange Downtown Alliance, Inc. (ODA) was established as a non-profit [501(c)(3)], community-based corporation having evolved from The Greater Orange Association. The Greater Orange Association had communicated this need for downtown Orange’s revitalization to both the public and private sectors. ODA’s mandate was to preserve the special historic amenities and characteristics along Main Street, to revitalize downtown in the face of dramatic late twentieth-century business and shopping trends, to foster and promote a healthy climate for existing and potential new businesses in that corridor, to provide technical assistance with rehabilitation/renovation efforts of vacant buildings and to encourage adaptive business reuse of these structures. Citizens, businesses, property owners, and local government gave three-year pledges to initiate funding for this downtown program. In summary, ODA’s mission is and continues to be “economic revitalization within the context of historic preservation” for the downtown Orange commercial business district or Main Street Project Area.
Orange as a Main Street Community
ODA is affiliated with the Virginia Main Street Program and is one of the current 20 designated Main Street Community programs located in the various towns and communities of Virginia. ODA is also a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’ s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). This agency provides logistical and technical assistance to designated Main Street communities, and 50 DHCD affiliate communities. The Virginia Main Street Program encourages the use of the Main Street Approach TM, also known as the Four-Point Approach, which was developed by the National Main Street Center for downtown revitalization and addresses. This nationally recognized methodology addresses;
- economic restructuring, and
In 1991, ODA applied for and received official “Virginia Main Street Community” designation from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Orange was selected as one of Virginia’s first “Small Town” Main Street programs in August 1992. ODA was given the responsibility for setting project goals and objectives and for building consensus on solutions to downtown problems including downtown businesses closing or relocating from downtown Orange to outlying suburban strip shopping centers and malls.
Revitalization, Renovation, and Community Outreach
ODA, Town and County officials, and private property owners have been working together to create a more diversified downtown community by promoting the redevelopment of existing buildings to create greater infill growth and investment in the downtown area. Presently within the central downtown district and major transportation corridors leading into the downtown, there has been an increase in the renovation and revitalization of historic or structures and recreational areas. These include:
- Train Station Renovation.
- Orange County Court House expansion and renovation.
- Railroad Avenue redevelopment.
- Hazel Sedwick Community Playground for toddlers.
- Preservation of Chatter Island.