200 Years of the Preston Place
The Preston Place is believed to be the oldest existing home in Salem, Virginia, with two centuries of stories to tell. Alex Burke, the Museum’s assistant director, relates the history of the home and the families who have lived there, as well as the Salem Historical Society’s restoration efforts. Watch the video.
The Preston Place, the oldest house in Salem, is now under the stewardship of the Salem Museum & Historical Society. 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.
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 archaeological investigation in the rear of the home and finding a way for a full-size fire truck to turn around posed special challenges. Thanks to significant community support, the organization has successfully preserved and restored this nationally recognized historic landmark. Preston Place is located at 1936 W. Main St.
New Life for an Old Home
Once renovated, Preston Place needed a tenant to make the project sustainable and fund the upkeep of the historic home. In 2017, the White Oak Tea Tavern set up shop in the Preston Place and brought the old home back to life. Unfortunately, the Tea Tavern ceased operations in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Salem Museum & Historical Society hopes to find a new tenant that can return life to the house, establish regular hours for public visitation, and complement the colonial atmosphere of the home.
The Salem Museum & Historical Society is grateful to the Brown family for their 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. The Museum & Society’s Preston Place Committee included 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 Crockett, 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.