Even on a sunny, autumn afternoon, it requires an active imagination to replace the barren roads and abandoned warehouses of Roanoke’s Norwich neighborhood with the bustling, industrial center it once was in the early 1890s. A lone dog walker strolls with her black Labrador along a street that once would have been full of men, women and even children, heading to work in one of the several mills and factories nearby.
While no longer Roanoke’s beacon for industrial prowess — that did not involve the railroads — traces of Norwich’s golden years are still evident in the shotgun-style houses and now-repurposed mills. The city is attempting to preserve these historical elements by including roughly 300 of Norwich’s properties on the Virginia and national registers of historic places. A public meeting to introduce the proposal will be held at 6 p.m. Monday at the Raleigh Court Library.
“Historic resources are the jewels of our communities,” said Parviz Moosavi, Roanoke’s historic preservation planner. “If we allow them to be demolished or taken away or altered somehow that would really have a negative impact on the area, then that’s a loss for the city. I don’t think we want that. I don’t think the property owners would want that. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Nelson Harris, a former mayor and local historian, is also eager to see this neighborhood receive national recognition and protection.
“From a historic perspective, it is probably one of the remaining intact, working-class neighborhoods in the city that either hasn’t been eliminated or hasn’t been over-developed,” he said. “It still has much of the remaining look to it that it had, say, 100 years ago. And that’s unusual for a neighborhood.”
Though its heyday was in the late 1800s, Norwich retains a majority working-class population. If granted a spot on the National Register of Historic places, property owners will have an opportunity to apply for tax credits and other land protection. As stated on the public meeting announcement released by Roanoke’s Planning, Building and Development Department: “Inclusion of these properties in the Virginia and the National registers of historic places would enable property owners or investors to make improvements to their buildings using incentives such as state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, as well as the city’s real estate tax abatement program.”
Along with potential monetary benefits, a district with this level of historic recognition also receives another layer of protection. Various modifications made to the area that are deemed as damaging can be prohibited by the local government. Examples of this could include constructing a cell tower, widening roadways or improvements from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Moosavi. Companies trying to enact such projects are required to go through Section 106, a four-step review process described in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 that “requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and give the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation a reasonable opportunity to comment,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.
Some of Norwich’s residents can proudly say their family has called this patch of land nestled in the curve of the Roanoke River home for five generations, according to Harris. Yet the push for historic recognition came entirely from Moosavi’s department. The neighborhood is lacking an active community group and the historic preservation communication team reached out to the three churches located within the proposed boundary with no response, according to Moosavi. Cardinal News attempted to contact the Norwich Neighborhood Alliance listed on the roanoke.gov website with no response.
Moosavi has operated as Roanoke’s historic preservation planner and agent of the Architectural Review Board for the past nine years. One of his main objectives is to add a different historic area of Roanoke to the National Register every year, or as often as possible. Last year, the historic preservation department successfully appended the Belmont area in southeast to this historic canon, which included the Belmont Methodist-Episcopal Church and Roanoke City Firehouse No. 6.
After setting their sights on Norwich, they received a matching grant of $20,000 from Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources. With a sum of $40,000 allocated toward the project, they hired a consultant from a Michigan-based architecture and historic consulting firm called Kraemer Design group to survey the 300 properties, take pictures and provide a narrative of each building.
The shotgun-style cottages were first built in the late 1800s to provide housing for the white employees of the Norwich Lock Company and Bridgewater Carriage Company, as well as other foundries and mills that were constructed alongside the river. William Persinger purchased the land in the early 1800s and built the first house in 1825, a two-story brick building on the corner of what is now Roanoke Avenue and Burks Street. Norwich Lock Company arrived in 1891; the owner hailed from Norwich, Connecticut, and carried the name with him to Southwest Virginia. Just as the district was drawing up plans for a hotel and railroad station, economic hardship struck the area from 1893 to 1897 followed by a devastating tornado in 1899.
“You probably have a myriad of factors that are in play for Norwich,” Harris explained. “From the industrial heritage that it has to the kind of working-class, domestic architecture that’s still present there.”
Another key feature of the neighborhood that will be preserved is the Norwich cemetery that holds over 100 graves dating back centuries.
Norwich found its way to the national spotlight several years later, though for less-than-ideal reasons. In the early 1900s, an anti-child-labor movement was sweeping across the country, and the factories of Norwich came under fire. The National Child Labor Committee hired a well-known industrial photographer at the time, Lewis Hine, to document the living and working conditions of child laborers all over the East Coast. In May 1911, he made his way to Roanoke and photographed the many young children that worked in the Roanoke Cotton Mill, which had taken over the empty structures once belonging to the Norwich Lock Company. Though child labor abolition groups did their best to publicize Hine’s work, the practice was not outlawed by Congress until 1938. Hine’s original photos, including ones taken from the cotton mill, can be found in the Library of Congress with copies held in Roanoke Library’s Virginia Room.
“For a lot of us who think about Roanoke’s industrial heritage, it’s all driven by the railroad,” said Harris. “But for Norwich, it’s very different. Certainly, the railroads served the industries that made and created Norwich back in the day. But Norwich had its own little niche, so to speak, in terms of its industrial heritage. So it is very unique in that sense.”