ARCHITECTURAL GHOSTS OF VIRGINA #01

May 14, 2014 | Peter LaBau


All that remains of a post-civil war rural cabin up behind my house in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Every since I arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2004, I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring the back roads, searching out places on my motorcycle that are new to me, and that are often accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles or motorcycles like mine. I have a few BMW “Dual Sport” bikes that are built to handle off road conditions, but that also do just fine on the pavement. I’ll probably never exhaust the seemingly endless quantity of fire roads, logging trails, dirt, and partially paved roads that have etched their way across the mountains and through the valleys a day’s ride from Charlottesville, which is just to the east of the Blue Ridge Mountain in west central Virginia. A long day ride west takes me across the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Valley out into the Allegheny Mountains and home again. This part of the western edge of Virginia and into West Virginia is the very heart of what is known as Appalachia. Here time seems to have stood still, and the architectural ghosts of Virginia and West Virginia abound.

There are small towns and villages that have their structures, and these can be quite beautiful, unusual, and intriguing, but I’m particularly attracted to the buildings living and deceased that appear in the most remote, lonely, and inhospitable places imaginable out beyond the town limits. These are the hardscrabble places, where life must have been almost unbearable at times, but also sublimely beautiful. It’s a heartbreaking balance. The places I find appear today much as they would have in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, and that makes the experience of discovery even richer. There is very little to bring the modern visitor into the present.

In this part of my Architectural Blog, I’ll share with you some of what I find, and let you know how you can find these places should you choose to go exploring yourself. You can always contact me for more exacting directions, I’m happy to oblige. But don’t wait too long. Much of what I’ll show here won’t last much longer. These places are deteriorating as I write this. Wood and brick dissolve relatively slowly, but as every year passes, there is less to see of the buildings, and the trees and undergrowth will soon engulf them completely, making them even harder to locate. Luckily, the remains of the old roads usually pass close by these places; to live further out would have been suicidal for the early inhabitants. 

Read on for an introduction to Architectural Ghost #1:

 

Virginia Ghost Town

February 17, 2014 | Peter LaBau

Mouth of Wilson, Grayson County, Virginia


Looking east along route 58, route 16 heads south to the right 

My first motorcycle trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2004 planted the seed for my future move down to Charlottesville, VA a year later.  I had a series of revelations in the course of that first trip. Some involved profound human interactions I had, and some were based on various observations at a time when my eyes were wide open to this new part of the country. It’s funny how a new place will excite my senses, and equally saddening how that freshness wears off after becoming acclimated to it. On this first trip to Virginia I saw a quote from Marcel Proust on a coffee mug in a gift shop window in Lexington, VA: The only real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in developing new eyes with which to perceive them”. Proust had it right, as far as I can see, and I’m inspired ceaselessly to adhere to his maxim.

 

One of the more moving sights on this first ride through southwestern Virginia was a town named “Mouth of Wilson”, at the North Carolina border, at the junction of routes 58 and 16.  This town looks like many other timeworn places I’ve seen and photographed, but this one stands apart because it’s commercial center appeared to be completely abandoned. I’ve seen many towns in many parts of this country that had a period of prosperity reflected in the town’s architecture, but that progress had left behind. Once formidable buildings are slowly sinking into disrepair, some too far gone to realistically bring back for any current usage. Some of these places were on back roads where traffic had long ceased to flow. But this place, Mouth of Wilson, was right at the “T” intersection of two busy roads- route 58 that runs east west along the border of Virginia and North Carolina, and route 16 that runs south to North Carolina. This is still a rural area, but there was an intermittent flow of traffic on both roads while I spent an hour or so there.