Following the formal organization of Augusta County in 1745, county surveyor Thomas Lewis mapped the first plat of what would become Staunton. Though the twenty-five-acre property granted by William Beverley was initially deemed by the committee appointed to review the site “entirely ill convenient and useless, being most barren hill or mountain where the County cannot pretend to sell one lot,” the government in Williamsburg agreed with Beverley and the land became the seat of Augusta County. In 1749, the new county seat was named in honor of Governor William Gooch's wife, Lady Rebecca Staunton. The hilly site, chartered as a town in 1801, has streets that wind up and around sharp inclines and plunge down steep slopes. With its crossroads location, Staunton prospered as a supply stop for travelers. The establishment in 1825 of the Western State Lunatic Asylum (AU27) led to a period of growth for the town, in part shaping its future expansion. Other institutions followed: the Virginia Institute for the Deaf and the Blind (AU16), the Augusta Female Seminary, now Mary Baldwin College (AU18), the Virginia Female Institute, now Stuart Hall School (AU22), and the now-defunct Wesleyan Female Institute.
As the largest town in the upper Valley and lying at the railroad crossroads between Richmond and the west, Staunton became an important supply hub during the Civil War and one that remained under Confederate control until June 1864. After the Civil War, Staunton, with its newly minted 1871 city charter, began another significant period of growth as a commercial and professional center. By the 1880s and 1890s, Hite's Pain Cure, White Star Mills, and other light manufacturers, alongside the promotion of mineral resources by Jedediah Hotchkiss, increased the city's prosperity. During this boom, the Staunton Development Company hired architect T. J. Collins, whose Washington, D.C., family was in design and construction. Collins relocated to Staunton in 1890 and cofounded the firm of Collins and Hackett. After Hackett left the practice in 1894 and Collins's son William joined the firm, it became T. J. Collins and Son. Eventually three more sons joined, and they in turn were followed by two grandsons. Between 1891 and his retirement in 1911, Collins designed or remodeled more than two hundred buildings in the Staunton area and was largely responsible for the architectural appearance of Staunton.
Following the demolition of many historic buildings in the 1960s, a citizens' group formed the Historic Staunton Foundation in 1971 to prevent other buildings being razed for a four-lane highway near the area known as the Wharf (AU2). The foundation then embarked on a program to encourage renovation and restoration of the town's historic buildings. Staunton has also emerged as a regional arts center, most notably with the American Shakespeare Center in the Blackfriars Playhouse (2001, Tom McLaughlin; 10 S. Market Street). This re-creation of the theater in London where William Shakespeare's plays were first performed has a thrust stage and audience seating on two levels on three sides.
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