Up the Main Street hill, just west of Danville’s River District, sits “Millionaire’s Row,” a stretch of Victorian and Edwardian historic houses that many residents consider one of the city’s must-see attractions.
Unlike modern neighborhoods, no two houses here look alike. Homes of brick, siding and stone sit side by side, each one varying in color with its own combination of columns, porches, turrets, and intricate rooflines.
The sprawling Millionaire’s Row mansions, which have an average size of 6,000 square feet, are neighbored by other historic homes on adjacent side streets. These are often smaller, but just as idiosyncratic.
This is Danville’s Old West End, a neighborhood of historic houses in various stages of restoration. A microcosm of the city’s revitalization, the 130-acre neighborhood provides a glimpse into Danville’s past, while simultaneously being important for its future growth.
Some houses, like the 1890 Richardsonian mansion where resident Paul Liepe lives, have been fully restored. Others are in phases of partial restoration, and still others are completely unlivable.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources says the neighborhood “boasts what is perhaps the Commonwealth’s most splendid and most concentrated collection” of Victorian and early 1900s residential architecture.
Today, the Old West End, and especially Millionaire’s Row, is a tourist attraction and a source of local pride for many residents.
But the neighborhood wasn’t always one of Danville’s highlights. At one point, many of the houses were deteriorating and at risk of demolition — and some of them still are.
Decades of preservation efforts
In the 1970s, the city of Danville began tearing down some of the Old West End’s historic houses because they were in such bad condition.
Back then, this area of the city was rife with blight and crime, said Lawrence Meder, founding member of Friends of the Old West End, a nonprofit organization that works to promote the neighborhood.
In 1971, the Danville Historical Society was formed with the initial purpose of saving these historic homes from demolition. The effort was largely successful, and Millionaire’s Row is still standing as a result.
And in 1973, the Old West End was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places.
This register is “the official list of structures, sites, objects, and districts that embody the historical and cultural foundations of the United States,” according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources website.
But this designation is strictly honorary. It encourages preservation of historic sites but does not actually require it.
This means that the threat of demolition has been ongoing throughout the decades. About a decade ago, many of the houses were again at risk of being torn down because of age and dilapidation.
“Many of the houses were in the hands of, well, I’ll be kind and say out-of-state landlords,” said Liepe. “As a result, they were deteriorating even though people were living in them. Some people were living in absolutely terrible conditions.”
Liepe is a resident of the neighborhood and another founding member of Friends of the Old West End.
Meder said the city’s solution to blight in 2012 was the same as in 1970: bulldoze.
But if the city bulldozed too many houses, the neighborhood might lose its designation with the National Register of Historic Places, Meder said.
This would be a shame, he said, because “our historic district is the most varied as far as architecture in the state of Virginia, and one of the best I’ve seen in the U.S. as far as different styles.”
So around 2013, a group of residents, including Meder and Liepe, came together to start Friends of the Old West End.
“We went to the city and asked that they stop demolition and work with us,” Meder said.
The city agreed and put in its first rental overlay district in the Old West End. This meant that landlords couldn’t rent a property unless it was up to code, Liepe said.
The people who were living in the deteriorating houses were either unable or unwilling to fix them up, he said, so the city bought those properties through its housing authority.
So began a collaborative effort between the city and the Friends of the Old West End. The city buys the houses, and the nonprofit markets them, writes the listing and takes potential buyers through the homes.
“We began looking for the small needles in the large haystack, which were the people that would be willing to take on these houses and fix them up,” Liepe said.
‘A labor of love’: restoring historic homes
It takes the right kind of person to take on these projects, Liepe said.
“It had to be somebody who loves old houses, and it had to be somebody who has some financial resources,” he said. “There are no grants and the banks won’t loan any money on these houses until they’re fixed.”
And there was a caveat: No “flipping” houses, or fixing them up just to sell them off, because the Old West End wanted to attract residents, not just developers.
“If you bought the house, you had to live in it for five years,” Meder said.
The housing authority bought 40 to 45 houses, he said, and about 35 to 40 of them have been sold.
The people who were interested in living in these houses financed the restorations themselves and were often personally involved in the physical work, Liepe said.
This was the case for Liepe, who said he didn’t have much prior experience restoring historic houses before he moved to Danville almost 20 years ago.
His 8,000-square-foot home on Main Street has four floors, a greenstone and brick facade, and 22 exterior windows.
It was built by William Patton, a third-generation Danvillian whose grandfather was one of the city’s founders. Patton and his family were the first residents of the house.
After changing hands, the house was converted into apartments around 1940, Liepe said. It stayed that way until 1965, when the city attempted to tear down the home and replace it with an apartment complex.
“You could’ve fit a 50-unit apartment building on this lot,” Liepe said. “The neighbors got together at the City Hall and raised all kinds of ruckus, and that was the early formation of our historical society.”
The neighbors prevailed and the house remained standing to eventually become a commercial space, where an orthodontics practice operated in the late 20th century.
Liepe and his late wife, Marjory, bought the house in 2003 and began converting back into a single-family residence.
“I’ve put it back the way I think it was in 1890,” Liepe said. “I don’t have any blueprints or anything, but I can read the shadows. If you look inside a wall and it’s got new 2x4s, it needs to go, because it’s not original. That’s basically how it was done.”
Liepe didn’t hire any outside craftsmen, he said. He taught himself how to do plasterwork and rebuilt the staircase on his own.
“I was fortunate, and many of the people on Main Street were fortunate, because houses here were not in as bad of shape as they are on the side streets,” Leipe said.
One of those side streets is Chestnut Street, where Meder’s restoration efforts are concentrated. He’s affectionately called “the Mayor of Chestnut Street” because of his involvement fixing up houses there, many of which he owns.
He said that most people don’t realize how expensive the houses are to fix up.
“These houses cost more money than they’re worth to bring them back,” Meder said. “The numbers will blow your mind. If you have to worry about eating, you can’t do a house like this.”
It often costs over $100,000 to fix up one of these houses, and Friends of the Old West End doesn’t finance the restorations. Instead its purpose is to connect homeowners, residents and local businesses and preserve the history of the neighborhood.
It also markets houses that are either move-in ready or fixer-uppers on its website and social media sites to attract buyers.
Meder, who was a board member of the nonprofit for many years, works through his company, Mader Restorations, to fix up houses in the neighborhood that he owns and sells them when complete.
“If we own a house, we finance the restoration ourselves,” Meder said. “If somebody else owns a house, they finance it.”
Meder said he’s been restoring historic houses his entire life, learning as he goes. His company does almost everything in-house, in order to keep costs low.
“If you want to bring them back correctly and not go to jail because you can’t pay your bills, you’ve got to try to do as much as possible in-house,” Meder said.
He calls one of the houses “The Last House,” because “that is absolutely the last house I’m doing.” It sits at 142 Chestnut St. and has been severely damaged by rain because of holes in the roof.
The house was built in 1907 by Bettie A. Strother, “a married woman holding separate estate,” and was intended for the use of her heirs and dependents, according to Friends of the Old West End.
It’s just over 3,000 square feet with a white siding facade and a covered porch. It was slated for demolition a few years ago and would’ve been torn down if it hadn’t been sold.
Depending on the day, between eight and 14 people are working to restore the house, Meder said. So far, the team has poured cement into the basement to stabilize the foundation, torn down damaged walls and ceilings and rebuilt the porch.
It’s taken a lot of time and money, Meder said, and there’s still a lot to do. The work is a labor of love, he said, and he is passionate about saving these historic homes.
“Ten years ago, when they were tearing down these houses right and left, I finally got to the point, I said if you want to tear down another house, I am chaining myself to the front door,” he said.
That’s when he and Liepe started talking about creating a nonprofit to work with the city and save the houses, instead of tearing them down, he said.
But this doesn’t mean that every house in the neighborhood is safe from demolition. In the past three years, at least three houses have been bulldozed, Meder said.
“We’re probably still going to lose one house a year,” he said. “There’s not enough money to go around. And there’s not enough crazy people to restore them.”
The Old West End’s commercial history
While the Old West End is almost completely residential, it does have a history of some commercial presence, like the orthodontics office building that Liepe now lives in.
Another iconic business in the Old West End was H.W. Brown Florist, which opened in 1883.
The Chestnut Street floral shop was run by the Brown family until 2022, when Virginia native and florist Katie Wright Thomas bought the building to keep the Brown legacy alive.
And though she now calls the business KatieDid Florals, Wright Thomas kept the H.W. Brown Florist sign outside the front door.
“When I bought the building, I also purchased the Brown name, so in perpetuity, it is still the longest running continuous florist in the city of Danville,” Wright Thomas said.
The shop uses local flowers grown within a 50-mile radius from Danville. In addition to the retail shop, Wright Thomas also does floristry for weddings and other events.
The renovated building’s standout feature is its vintage greenhouse. The greenhouse is relatively in good condition, but Wright Thomas said she’s been applying for grants to restore it.
“We want to bring it back to its 1920 heyday,” she said. “Maybe we’ll turn it into an event space, maybe have open houses, or even just grow things out there.”
Wright Thomas, who is originally from Warrenton and moved to Danville in 2015, said she loves being a part of the Old West End community.
“This area is being completely revitalized,” she said. “It’s so nice to see these old homes being loved again.”
How Danville’s past can contribute to its future
Restoring the Old West End neighborhood is about more than historic preservation, though that’s certainly a passion of many involved.
It’s also brought a lot of money into the city, Liepe said, and there’s been a lot of private investment in the neighborhood.
Renovated houses in the Old West End are now selling for around $250,000, said Meder. When he was buying houses that were “a wreck” in the early 2010s, they were going for between $10,000 and $20,000.
“Overall, it’s a win-win,” Liepe said. “It’s a win for the city because once the houses improve, they get more taxes. It’s a win for the neighborhood, because the better it looks, the more my property is worth. And we get a lot of delightful, new people.”
There’s a great community in the Old West End, Liepe said.
“We often party together,” he said, referencing annual ice cream socials, free burger nights, and even holiday events like Halloween parties.
Restoring the Old West End also contributes to Danville’s future growth by not only attracting new residents, but new companies as well, Liepe said.
“If you’re driving through town trying to decide if you want to locate your factory here, and you’re looking at a bunch of houses that are falling down, are you going to come to Danville?” he said. “If the president of a manufacturing company looks around and doesn’t see a house that he would want to live in, he won’t consider it.”
In fact, this has happened before.
More than a decade ago, the CEO of a major manufacturing plant and his wife came to Danville unannounced, said Telly Tucker, who was economic development director at the time.
This is normal in economic development, he said, as companies like to do their research before locating somewhere.
“They took one drive up Main Street and saw a bunch of boarded-up buildings,” he said. “It didn’t take long for them to say, ‘This is not the place where we want to put our business.’”
Friends of the Old West End recently put QR code markers outside of about a third of the houses in the neighborhood. People can scan the code to learn more about the properties.
And the Danville Historical Society hosts an annual holiday tour of the homes, businesses and churches in the neighborhood. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the tour.
In addition to the holiday tour, walking tours of the Old West End are available anytime.
Those interested can either participate in a formal walking tour through the nonprofit or the Danville Historical Society, or do a self-guided tour with a booklet describing each site, which can be found at the Danville Welcome Center or the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.
Liepe said he loves interacting with tour groups when they come by his house. Usually, tour-goers want to talk to the people who were involved with the restoration, he said.
“If I’m home, I bring them in, take about 15 or 20 minutes and tell them the whole story of this house,” he said. “Sometimes, I drag people in off the street.”
The considerable revitalization that the Old West End has seen in the last five years has made it a major feature of the city, one that appeals to both the aesthetic and historic interest of visitors and locals.
“It’s sort of funny to think that rebuilding houses is economic development, but if you follow the money, it’s true,” Liepe said.