Lexington was designated the county seat of the newly formed Rockbridge County by an act of the Virginia legislature in 1778. Named in honor of the Revolutionary War battle that had occurred only a few years earlier, the town was located on the Great Valley Road, the principal north-south route through the Valley. Lexington developed rapidly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A center of government for the county, it was also the central market for the region. In 1803 Washington College (now Washington and Lee University; RB16) moved its campus into the town, and in 1839 Virginia Military Institute (RB18) was founded. The presence of the colleges, their faculty, and the lawyers serving the court meant that Lexington had an unusually well-educated citizenry for what was and has remained a small town.
The community's buildings, which include the work of three nationally recognized architects, reflect the sophisticated taste of Lexington's leaders. There were two major events that affected the architecture of Lexington, one was the “Great Fire” of 1796 and the other was the lowering of the streets in 1851. The fire, which started in a livery stable on S. Main Street, consumed most of the buildings in town. Of the two buildings known to have survived, one is the Alexander-Withrow House (RB3). The historic district of downtown Lexington represents the nineteenth-century post-fire rebuilding, and most of it is in brick. This may have been partly a response to the number of log and frame structures lost in the fire, but it is also evidence of the increasing prosperity of the community. That prosperity can also be measured by the fact that the town undertook the extraordinary project of lowering its streets in 1851. The town had been laid out as a neat grid pattern with one central lot preserved for the courthouse and jail. It looked fine on paper, but it was imposed on a hilly terrain. The climb from N. Main Street to the top of the courthouse hill was so steep that the town decided to reduce the top of Main Street by nearly ten feet and raise E. Washington Street. All of the pre-1851 buildings along N. Main and E. Washington streets reflect this street-level change in alterations to their doors and windows.
Though a small town, Lexington continued to prosper, and with the graves of both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, it became a Civil War pilgrimage site. A marble statue of Lee (1883) is the focal point of a mausoleum addition to Lee Chapel (RB16.2) on the Washington and Lee campus. A bronze statue of Jackson (1891) stands in Jackson Memorial Cemetery. Both monuments are by Edward V. Valentine, one of the South's foremost sculptors. Moses Ezekiel, another noted sculptor of the period, provided Virginia Mourning Her Dead (1903) and an image of Jackson surveying his troops (1912) for the VMI campus. These, along with the houses that Lee and Jackson lived in, continue to draw visitors to the community.
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