Preston Place, the oldest house in Salem, is now under the stewardship of the Salem Museum & Historical Society. Thanks to significant community support, the organization has successfully preserved and restored this nationally recognized historic landmark!
New Life for an Old Home
Once renovated, Preston Place would need a tenant to make the project sustainable and fund the upkeep of the historic home. After considering many possibilities, the Salem Museum & Historical Society was delighted to find an established tea room—the White Oak Tea Tavern—that would return life to the house, establish regular hours for public visitation, complement the colonial atmosphere of the home, and attract a new business to Salem.
The White Oak Tea Tavern is a destination restaurant previously located in Troutville, Va., and well-known for its lunches, scones and bagels, gift shop and—most especially—its teas. The Tea Tavern is located at Preston Place at 1936 W. Main St. Open Monday–Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. 540-387-3000.
Dr. Esther Clark Brown, one of the first female physicians in the Roanoke Valley and a Preston family descendant, was the last to live in Preston Place. Her heirs donated her home, built in 1821, to the Salem Museum & Historical Society in 2014. Since then, the organization has been working to renovate the house which it will continue to own, while searching for the right tenant to make the renovation sustainable.
“Two years after we began work on Preston Place, we were fortunate to find our ideal tenant—the White Oak Tea Tavern,” said Fran Ferguson, executive director of the Museum & Society. “They have been incredibly successful in their Botetourt County location, and we’re excited to welcome them to Salem.”
The Tea Tavern was previously housed in an historic, but very small log cabin in Troutville. Kim Arney, the owner of the Tea Tavern, was looking for an historic structure where she could expand the kitchen and dining areas. “Preston Place is the perfect fit for our old-fashioned tea room,” said Arney. “Our ‘new’ old home will triple our space. We are expanding our gift shop and we’ll be able to offer outdoor seating on the patio.”
White Oak serves lunches, bagels and scones, but it is especially renowned for its array of teas, including its own tea label and other unique blends. One of its dining rooms is designated for groups. “We have lots of bookings already for bridge clubs, book clubs, showers, and events for small groups who are looking for that intimate, historic atmosphere,” said Arney.
Renovations to the home were extensive, from the structural work necessary to provide a suitable kitchen and ADA access, to electrical work, new HVAC, landscaping, and a fresh coat of paint throughout. Required archeological investigation in the rear of the home and finding a way for a full-size fire truck to turn around posed special challenges.
“The Salem Museum & Historical Society is so grateful to the Brown family for their incredible gift of the home and grounds, to the City of Salem for its assistance, and to all the donors to the project and hardworking volunteers who made this dream come true,” said Ferguson. The Museum & Society’s Preston Place Committee that brought this project to fruition includes Ginny Savage, chair, Alison Blanton, Dave Foster, Spencer Frantz, George Kegley, Whitney Leeson, John Long, Cindy Miller, Marlene Preston, Mike Pulice, Dave Robbins, Marsha Shortell, Jack Susser, and Chum White.
History of the House
While local legend and some family traditions date the Preston Place to the late 18th Century, the better architectural and documentary evidence places the construction of the house circa 1821-22. Prior to this, the property was most associated with blacksmith John Cole, who owned a house on the site. Interestingly, some original materials from that earlier home may be incorporated into the existing structure, such as floor joists from the earlier log cabin. Thus, Preston Place may contain some of the oldest building material in the Valley.
Cole’s house seemed to be a way station for travelers along the Great Road, and it is pretty well attested that Davy Crocket, Louis Philippe (future king of France) and perhaps Andrew Jackson stayed on the site (though most likely not in the home that currently stands).
In 1821 or so the entire extended Cole clan (including John Cole’s sister Susannah, Salem’s “founding mother”) seemed to have packed up and moved to Missouri. Cole sold his tract for $10,000 to the John Johnston family, who likely built the extant house. However, the possibility that Cole built the existing house just prior to his move can’t be discounted completely. The deed mentions the “old brick mansion” on the site.
After these murky origins, the history begins to clear up. The Johnston family owned the property until 1879, when it was sold to Charles I. Preston (right) for the suspiciously low price of $600, perhaps indicating that the house and lands were in some state of disrepair at the time. Preston was a Confederate veteran and tradition states that he served as a courier to General Robert E. Lee during the war. He later served as sheriff of Roanoke County, and according to census records farmed the land (which extended to the other side of Main Street in the 19th Century). After his death (1894) and the death of his wife Mary (1924), various of their children kept the home until 1974. In that year Mary Preston Clark bequeathed the house to her daughter Esther Clark Brown.
Through this time period the historic integrity of the original house remained intact, though early outbuildings were lost over time. About 1950, the original (or at least very early) 1-1/2 story rear ell was expanded into a two-story, two-room addition, retaining much of the original structure including the impressive fireplace in the kitchen.
Today Preston Place stands as a testament to the Roanoke Valley that once was–not only the oldest house in Salem by most accounts but also likely the fourth oldest house in the entire Roanoke Valley.
National Register Listing and Preservation Easement
Preston Place is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (listing #129-5018) and the corresponding Virginia Landmarks Register, one of only fourteen such listings in the City of Salem (and the oldest property of the fourteen). Soon after this listing, Dr. Brown (Left) donated a historic easement on the property to the Department of Historic Resources (the only such easement in Salem), which restricts use of the property and preserves the historic integrity of the house. The Salem Historical Society encouraged, endorsed, and assisted Dr. Brown with both of these efforts.