Preston Place, the oldest house in Salem, is now under the stewardship of the Salem Historical Society. The museum is raising funds for the preservation of this nationally recognized historic landmark.
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 fabric from that earlier house may be incorporated into the existing structure, such as floor joists from an 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 in question 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 fabric 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.
PAST PRESERVATION EFFORTS:
Since its founding in 1970, the Salem Historical Society has been one of the most successful such groups in our region in promoting historic preservation, an idea which was the original raison d’être of our forerunner the Save Old Salem Committee. Below are some of the projects in which SHS has been involved prior to the offering of the Preston Place to our organization:
- The Williams-Brown House: In 1986, the owner of this important structure (1845) donated it to what was then a fledgling group. Conditions of the donation required the house be relocated, a major undertaken which was accomplished and paid in full over the next few years. The building today houses the Salem Museum, and has recently been expanded with a $3 million addition.
- First Baptist Church: in the late 1990s SHS worked with the membership of the oldest African American congregation in Salem to preserve their historic 1875 sanctuary. We assisted with redrawing expansion plans to save the original building, received a grant to fund important research into the African American neighborhood, and helped to document the history and architectural importance of the structure. Unfortunately, in 2010 the congregation decided that the resources needed to renovate a building which did not meet modern expectations of a church would be better spent elsewhere, and this important piece of our heritage was lost forever.
- Howbert House: When demolition of a fire-damaged, clap-board sided house revealed a very old log structure underneath, researchers discovered it to be the remains of the Howbert (or Hubbard) House at the corner of Peter’s Creek Road and Lynchburg Turnpike. SHS joined other preservation groups in the Valley in urging (ultimately to no avail) the salvation of this early structure.
- Monterey and The Clay Street House: Longtime SHS member and supporter Katherine Burke lived in the spectacular antebellum mansion Monterey on High Street. SHS assisted her in the mid 1990s in listing her home on the National Register of Historic Places and in advising her on preservation of the property. When Roanoke College acquired the property after Katherine’s death, we again assisted in providing information and encouragement to the new owners. In addition, SHS has encouraged the College to preserve two other structures on the site: a rear outbuilding and a circa-1850 frame building at the corner of Clay and Thompson Memorial (known as the Clay Street House or the Tanyard Cabin). In part due to our intervention the College has committed to saving these important structures.
- Andrew Lewis High School: When the City of Salem envisioned plans to renovate or possibly replace the 1934 school building, SHS encouraged the City and School Board to preserve the historic façade and other architectural features. They listened, and the subsequent renovation proceeded with the historic integrity of the beloved landmark in mind.
- The Wiley House: In 2000, expansion of the Salem Post Office on Main Street threatened two historic homes. One was acquired and moved by a private owner; the Salem Historical Society intervened to relocate the 1883 Wiley House, a charming cottage associated with the legendary physician and Civil War veteran Dr. Oscar Wiley. The house was successfully relocated to Chestnut Street and sold to a private owner, with restrictive covenants in place to preserve the architectural features. While SHS took a small loss on the project overall, we accomplished our mission of preserving our heritage.
- Valley Railroad Arch: most recently, SHS and DHR encouraged radio station WSLQ to nominate for the National Register an historic railroad arch just north of town on the station’s property. We endorsed the project, and also assisted with research and advice. Later we were instrumental in encouraging the City of Salem to carry out some needed repairs on the arch, helping to stabilize this intriguing remnant of our local past.
This is an impressive record for a small organization, and speaks well of our longtime commitment to historic preservation. In each of the above cases, our Board of Directors identified the need, recognized the value of the project, engaged our members and the public as needed, plotted a definitive course of action, and fought the good fight. Where we have not been successful in trying to save our architectural heritage, it has not been for lack of trying.
OUR PLANS FOR PRESTON PLACE:
After considering many ideas for the site, the Salem Historical Society is now advancing a proposal that calls for a small, tea room-style restaurant accompanied by a gift shop. An application has been filed to rezone the property for light commercial use. Currently, the site is zoned residential.
The idea of bringing in a tea room appealed to the historical society as it would return life to the house and establish regular hours during which the public could visit. It also seemed to mesh well with the colonial atmosphere of the home.
The historical society is hopeful the tea room will open in early 2017. Officials say a tenant has been located, but didn’t immediately announce the name as a lease won’t be signed until after the rezoning request works its way through the approval process. The request cleared its first hurdle Wednesday when it gained unanimous support from the Salem Planning Commission.
The historical society hopes to kick off a fundraising campaign for necessary renovations as soon as next month. The renovations will be in keeping with the standards required by a historical easement that the property operates under.