Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities


Organized in 1889, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), currently known as APVA/Preservation Virginia, was the nation’s first statewide historic preservation organization. Spearheaded by an elite mix of female antiquarians and their “gentlemen advisers,” it became a sanctioned instrument of conservatives who strove to counter social and political changes after the American Civil War (1861–1865) by emphasizing southern history and tradition. The APVA enshrined old buildings, graveyards, and historical sites—many of which were forlorn, if not forgotten—and exhibited them as symbols of Virginia’s identity. As the national preservation movement evolved, the APVA became less overtly political and now identifies itself as a professional organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the Commonwealth’s heritage.

Early Years

Virginia’s defeat in the Civil War and the subsequent years of social, political, and economic unrest set the framework for the APVA’s formation. Its preservationists, who followed in the footsteps of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, were women who acted to protect domestic values. Their male associates, on the other hand, often pursued a political agenda aimed at restoring antebellum restraints on the lower social orders and improving Virginia’s national standing.

Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan

Founded by Cynthia Beverley Tucker Washington Coleman of Williamsburg and Mary Jeffrey Galt of Norfolk, the APVA reflected a deeply rooted localism as it established branch chapters, mostly in eastern and Tidewater Virginia. The organization was headquartered in Richmond. Its first president, Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan, was married to Joseph Bryan, a Richmond newspaper publisher, industrialist, and president of the Virginia Historical Society (VHS). Around them gathered an influential cadre of Old South traditionalists, including not only Lucy Parke Chamberlayne Bagby, widow of author and raconteur George William Bagby, but also such Lost Cause writers as Thomas Nelson Page, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, and Mary Newton Stanard. Through the association’s balls, pageants, and many programs, they formed a social network that, with the VHS and other groups, defined polite Virginia.

The APVA was formed initially in Williamsburg to acquire the deteriorating Powder Horn. Built in 1715, the Powder Horn was a storehouse whose weapons had once deterred slave rebellions in colonial Virginia, supported anti-British patriots during the American Revolution (1775–1783), and assisted Confederates during the Civil War. It was a symbol for the APVA as much as it was a building. Celebrating Virginia’s role in representative but limited government, the APVA also acquired in 1897 the vacant site of the colonial capitol, which it ceremoniously marked with a bronze plaque. Hoping to improve Williamsburg’s image, which had been recently shaped by its lunatic asylum and poverty, preservationists like Tyler wanted to capitalize on the peninsula’s history.

Jamestown and Beyond

300th Anniversary Celebration of the Founding of Jamestown

In 1893, the APVA acquired a 22.5-acre parcel of Jamestown Island containing the church tower (the primary extant structure, dating back to 1639), its graveyard, and nearby Confederate earthworks. While dedicating numerous monuments on the island and along the path of the 1607 expedition, the group organized pilgrimages, particularly on May 13, the anniversary of the first English settlers landing in 1607. Thus began the tradition of Virginia Day. With elaborate pageantry, the APVA reclaimed Jamestown as the nation’s Anglo-Saxon birthplace, and thereby tried to legitimate Virginia’s traditions of white supremacy, states’ rights, and elite rule. Yet, the James River was eroding the island, and the association successfully pressed Congress to build a seawall. While the revetment’s engineer, Samuel H. Yonge, an amateur historian, suggested in 1904 that the 1607 settlement still lay buried on the island, others like Tyler prevailed, arguing that it had washed away. The APVA also first called on the nation to celebrate Jamestown’s Ter-centennial, but the subsequent celebration in 1907 was dominated by and commerce.

Elsewhere, the APVA was enshrining sites, establishing house museums, and trumpeting traditionalism. As it promoted tourism and preached local pride, it preceded the state government in erecting roadside markers (Virginia’s program was established in 1926) and marketing historical attractions. In its first half century, the APVA developed museums at such sites as the Mary Washington House (acquired 1891) and the [future url="RisingSunTavern"]Rising Sun Tavern (acquired 1907) in Fredericksburg, as well as the John Marshall House (leased 1911, acquired 2005) and Old Stone House (acquired 1912) in Richmond. The group also acquired the Cape Henry Lighthouse (1930), which was the site of the first English landing in 1607, and Smith’s Fort Plantation in Surry County (1933), which included earthworks from 1609.

The Richmond branch, under the pioneering hand of Mary Wingfield Scott, who confronted the realities of color and poverty in segregated Richmond, acquired the Adam Craig House in 1935 to create a Negro Art Center. Still, the association principally focused on houses important for their ancestral or patriotic connections. Continuing that trend into the 1950s and 1960s, the association purchased in 1958 a deteriorated Scotchtown, Patrick Henry‘s home in the 1770s in Hanover County, and opened a museum there in 1964.

Modern Times

The APVA is still a keystone in Virginia’s traditional identity, but it has evolved from a mostly volunteer-run operation to one with a broadened focus and a three-dozen-strong professional staff. In a 1990 award, the American Institute of Architects honored the APVA for its innovations, including property transfers, coalition building, and public advocacy of preservation. Like others in the field, the APVA saw its funds stretched by the increasing costs of preservation and maintenance; it thus began to sell some properties with deed restrictions to sympathetic buyers.

While the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the Magazine in 1986, and the Craig House was sold in 1998, the City of Virginia Beach arranged a ninety-nine-year lease of the Lynnhaven House (1725) in 2006. Though the APVA established its own small revolving fund to protect threatened sites, its operations expanded significantly in 1999 when the Commonwealth delegated it to administer a $1.5 million fund. As a result, more than a dozen properties have since been bought for resale, most notably the remarkable Colonial-era Wilton in Middlesex County and the long-neglected Prentis House in Suffolk.

Additionally, the association has emphasized coalition building. In 2004, it combined with the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, expanding the organization’s name to APVA/Preservation Virginia. It has also tried to reach a more diverse audience and expand its programs. For example, it established joint ticketing and programs in 2006 for the Marshall House and nearby related museums. In other public advocacy, the APVA has published an annual list of endangered sites, publicized pending legislation affecting historic properties, and disseminated preservation news.

Bacon’s Castle and Jamestown Rediscovery

Work at Bacon’s Castle in Surry County and at Jamestown illustrates the modern APVA. Acquired in 1972, Bacon’s Castle is one of the nation’s oldest documented brick houses. An architectural gem finished in 1665, its construction displays rare Jacobean features. The association began a research and restoration effort of Bacon’s Castle in the 1970s, preserving a Greek Revival wing, an addition that was added to the house when John Henry Hankins purchased the Castle in 1844. Later, the APVA partnered with the Garden Club of Virginia in 1989 to uncover and restore the seventeenth-century garden that sits next to Bacon’s Castle, which is considered one of the nation’s oldest formal gardens.

Across the James River, Jamestown Island has been the APVA’s centerpiece. After the establishment of Colonial National Historical Park in 1930 and the purchase of more than 1,500 acres at Jamestown, the National Park Service (NPS) has shared the island and the ticket booth with APVA since the 1940s. Yet to boost tourism and highlight Virginia’s claim to prominence, the state erected Jamestown Festival Park less than one mile away for the 350th anniversary. It includes an approximation of the second fort (1610) and reproductions of three vessels. Renaming it Jamestown Settlement in 1990, and thus confusing visitors, the state expanded its operations and opened in 2006 a large exhibition hall. In contrast, the island held by the APVA and NPS, which is called Historic Jamestowne, was pushed aside by the state initially in the preparations for the quatercentenary. In redesigning the roadways, composing the planning committees, and promoting tourism, the state seemingly put the interests of its hypothetical fort first. The APVA and NPS cried foul, citing Historic Jamestowne’s undeserved lower priority.

William M. Kelso at Jamestown Archaeological Site

Meanwhile, the APVA was, surprisingly, unearthing the remains of the 1.75-acre fort of 1607 and, in turn, revising historical interpretations of the settlement. Late in 1993, the APVA hired archaeologist William M. Kelso to oversee its newly established Jamestown Rediscovery project. Thanks to the island’s earlier abandonment, Yonge’s revetment, and the APVA’s restrictions, Kelso’s crew, which included hundreds of volunteers, uncovered not only the fort’s original triangle, minus a corner that had washed away, but also an amazing cache of artifacts from the first English settlers. Late in 2002 archaeologists even unearthed a grave reputedly of Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the colony’s founders. Besides creating a seamless visitors’ experience with the NPS, the APVA has partnered in storage and exhibition space, operational planning, and public advocacy. It opened the Archearium Museum in 2006, which illustrates the archaeological story of 1607 Jamestown. Finally, in May 2007, the four hundredth commemoration of English settlers’ arrival put the world spotlight on Jamestown. While Queen Elizabeth II repeated her trip of 1957, the events drew the nation’s president, vice president, and numerous dignitaries. All told, however, the state’s reproduction (Jamestown Settlement) continues to outdraw the real Jamestown.

Artifacts Excavated at Jamestown

The quatercentenary revealed the APVA’s challenges. Despite the pressures of fund-raising due to the lack of state funding, the APVA’s two dozen properties include some of the state’s historic jewels, and Jamestown is one of the nation’s most important archaeological sites, with many years of digging ahead. Yet, unlike the organization’s founding generations, the APVA’s current administration early in the twenty-first century admitted that the history of those sites, to put it lightly, can be “uncomfortable and unpleasant” to recount. Moreover, the era of house museums is waning; their upkeep is expensive, visitation decreasing, and the future demands innovative steps. Furthermore, the APVA’s past orientation to Tidewater and Richmond has left the state’s western counties disconnected, though the association did open a Shenandoah Valley office in 2006 to promote preservation planning. Lastly, with its traditional focus on colonial and antebellum architecture and culture, preservationists are pressed to incorporate the perspectives and heritage of African Americans, Virginia Indians, and many others of both old and new Virginia. The APVA mandate is inclusive, however, as the organization is dedicated, it says, “to preserving and promoting the state’s irreplaceable historic structures, landscapes, collections, communities and archaeological sites.”

February 13, 1889
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, the first statewide historic preservation organization, is formed.
March 1893
The APVA acquires part of Jamestown Island containing the church tower, its graveyard, and nearby Confederate earthworks.
The APVA acquires the vacant site of the colonial capitol in Williamsburg and marks it with a bronze plaque.
The APVA acquires Scotchtown, which was Patrick Henry's home in the 1770s.
The APVA hires archaeologist William M. Kelso to oversee its newly established Jamestown Rediscovery project.
The Commonwealth of Virginia administers a $1.5 million fund to the APVA, which it uses to help purchase more than a dozen properties for resale.
The APVA combines with the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, expanding its name to APVA/Preservation Virginia.
May 13, 2006
The APVA opens the Archaearium Museum, which illustrates the archaeological story of 1607 Jamestown.
  • Dean, Catherine E. Bacon’s Castle. The Creative Company, 2005.
  • Lindgren, James M. “‘For the Sake of Our Future’: The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the Regeneration of Traditionalism.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97 (1989): 47–74.
  • Lindgren, James M.. Preserving the Old Dominion: Historic Preservation and Virginia Traditionalism. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993, xiii, 316 pp.
  • Lindgren, James M. “‘Virginia Needs Living Heroes’: Historic Preservation in the Progressive Era.” The Public Historian 13 (1991 Winter): 9–24.
  • Packer, Nancy E. White Gloves and Red Bricks: APVA, 1889–1989. Association for the Preservation of Virginia, 1989.
APA Citation:
Lindgren, James. Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/association-for-the-preservation-of-virginia-antiquities.
MLA Citation:
Lindgren, James. "Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, January 13
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