A Charming Journey through Staunton, Virginia: Unearthing Historical Treasures
Greetings fellow history enthusiasts and wanderlusters! Today, I’m taking you on a delightful journey through the picturesque streets of Staunton, Virginia. Nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, this quaint town is a hidden gem for history buffs and lovers of Southern charm. From its beautifully preserved architecture to its rich cultural heritage, Staunton promises the perfect weekend getaway that you won’t soon forget.
The Blackburn Inn: Where History Meets Luxury
Originally known as the Western State Lunatic Asylum, the building was designed by renowned architect Thomas Blackburn and completed in 1828. Blackburn was a prominent figure in Virginia’s architectural landscape, and his work is celebrated for its neoclassical style and meticulous attention to detail.
The asylum was at the forefront of mental health treatment during its time, representing a significant shift in the approach to mental health care in the early 19th century. The design of the building, with its grand columns and graceful proportions, reflects the belief that an aesthetically pleasing environment could positively impact the well-being of patients. Patients were allowed to roam freely on the property and even worked the surrounding land.
Over the years, the institution underwent various transformations and expansions to meet the evolving needs of mental health care. In the late 20th century, the original building ceased its institutional function, and the property went through a period of disuse.
In recent years, the Blackburn Inn has been meticulously restored and repurposed into a luxury boutique hotel. The restoration process retained much of the original architectural splendor, including the stately columns, high ceilings, and expansive windows that flood the interior spaces with natural light. This careful restoration effort ensures that guests can now experience the grandeur of the building while enjoying modern amenities and impeccable service.
The Blackburn Inn also has a fantastic spa! We enjoyed pumpkin facials and rejuvenating messages at the end of a fun-filled weekend exploring the history and culture of Staunton.
The Beauty of Shakespeare
Staunton has a special connection to the world of theater, and it is known as the “Shakespearean Capital of Virginia.” Very on brand for me! The American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, an authentic re-creation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater, is a must-visit. Whether you’re a seasoned theatergoer or just looking for a unique experience, catching a performance here is an absolute delight. And don’t miss the chance to explore the Center’s fascinating exhibits, which offer a deeper understanding of the Bard’s enduring influence on the world of drama.
We saw a matinee of Hamlet while in town. Seeing any play at Blackfriars is a unique and memorable experience. The intimate setting of Blackfriars, the lights stay on as they would have in Shakespeare’s day, allows for a close connection between the audience and the actors, creating an immersive theatrical experience. The historic and charming ambiance of Blackfriars, combined with high-quality productions, make seeing a show while in town a must for all theatre and Shakespeare lovers.
A Presidential Stroll
History aficionados will be delighted to know that Staunton is the birthplace of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum provides an intimate look into the life and times of this influential leader. The meticulously preserved birthplace and beautifully landscaped gardens offer a serene backdrop for reflecting on the life and times of Woodrow Wilson. But spoiler! Wilson didn’t actually live in Staunton very long. As his political profile grew, however, he actively sought to associate himself and his upbringing with Staunton, where he was born, as opposed to Augusta, Georgia where he spent the bulk of his youth. He visited Staunton while president and if you asked him where he was from, he replied, “Staunton.” After his death, his second wife purchased the home where he was born and established his presidential library in Staunton.
Embracing Diverse Histories: Frontier Culture Museum
Staunton’s Frontier Culture Museum stands as a testament to the rich tapestry of cultural heritage that shaped the Shenandoah Valley. Unlike traditional museums, this unique institution offers a living, breathing experience of history, where visitors can step back in time and immerse themselves in the daily lives of early frontier communities.
The Frontier Culture Museum is an open-air living history museum that painstakingly recreates distinct cultural environments, providing visitors with a vivid snapshot of life in the Shenandoah Valley from the 17th to the 19th century. These environments represent the diverse communities that settled in the region, each contributing their unique customs, traditions, and ways of life.
What struck me about this museum was not only the attention to historical accuracy but also the thoughtful recognition of the Indigenous and African cultures that shaped the history, agricultural, and cultural development of the Shenandoah Valley.
In addition to historic English, German, and Irish homes, the “Old World” section of the museum recreates the traditional homes of the Igbo, the Western African culture from which roughly 40% of the enslaved Africans in Virginia originated. Each meticulously recreated home or farmstead, many of which are original buildings moved across the Atlantic, highlights the role each culture played in the agricultural and cultural development of the Shenandoah Valley.
The “New World” section highlights how indigenous peoples throughout eastern North America were impacted by European colonization as well as how the communities and cultures like the Eastern Woodlands of the Great Appalachian Valley were essential in the survival of the German, English, and Irish settlers in the Western Virginia frontier. As you move forward in time through the museum, you see how life evolved for indigenous and immigrant communities over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.
What sets the Frontier Culture Museum apart is its commitment to authenticity. The buildings, artifacts, and even the crops and livestock are painstakingly researched and recreated to provide an accurate representation of life in each cultural environment. Interpreters in period clothing bring history to life, engaging visitors in interactive demonstrations and sharing stories of the challenges and triumphs faced by the early settlers.
In a world where history is often confined to textbooks and artifacts behind glass, the Frontier Culture Museum stands as a living testament to the resilience, creativity, and diversity of the communities that forged the foundations of the Shenandoah Valley.
Savoring Southern Flavors
Don’t worry in addition to history and culture, Staunton also provides the opportunity to indulge in some Southern comfort food and so much more! Staunton’s culinary scene has a range of eateries offering everything from mouthwatering BBQ to tacos to delectable farm-to-table fare. Be sure to try some local favorites like fried green tomatoes or classic shrimp and grits.
And if the historical architecture and cobblestone streets of Staunton weren’t charming enough, if you visit between April and October, you will get to experience the city’s “Shop and Dine Out in Downtown.” This is when, every weekend, the city closes the main street to traffic so local shops, cafes, and restaurants can spill into the street! You can stroll, shop, and dine in the fresh air with no traffic! It is truly a delight.
My favorite dining experience was Zynodoa; a culinary treasure that marries the rich agricultural bounty of the Shenandoah Valley with a commitment to innovative, farm-to-table cuisine. We also learned that the name “Zynodoa” is a nod to the original Native American inhabitants of the region, the Shenandoahs. It reflects the restaurant’s deep respect for the land and the heritage of the Shenandoah Valley. The menu at Zynodoa is a celebration of the seasonal produce, meats, and artisanal products sourced from local farmers and purveyors. The chefs take great care to craft dishes that highlight the natural flavors and quality of these ingredients, resulting in a culinary experience that is both rustic and refined.
You also won’t want to miss Chicano Boy Tacos, the pastries at Reunion Bakery, or the pour-over coffee at Crucible Coffee.
As the sun sets over Staunton, you’ll find yourself reluctantly bidding farewell to this enchanting town. The memories of its cobblestone streets, Shakespearean performances, presidential legacies, and culinary delights will linger, leaving you with a newfound appreciation for the rich tapestry of history that this gem in the Shenandoah Valley holds.