Set in a natural bowl ringed by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, Roanoke is now a business and cultural magnet serving many surrounding counties. However, for the first hundred years of its existence, it was a small community called Big Lick, named for one of the area's saline marshes licked by animals for their salt content. Change quickened in 1881 when local entrepreneurs heard that the Norfolk and Western (N&W) Railroad was about to locate a crossing for their north–south Shenandoah Valley Railroad and east–west Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio (AM&O) Railroad. They persuaded the railroad's Philadelphia owners to establish not just the junction but also the company headquarters and repair facilities here. In 1882, Big Lick was given the more dignified name of Roanoke, for the area's river. That same year, the railroad's owners and their Philadelphia financiers organized the Roanoke Land and Improvement Company to buy land, lay out streets, and construct houses, a hotel (RK29), the General Offices, South Building (RK30), and shops for building and repairing engines and railroad cars.
The N&W owners recognized the potential of Southwest Virginia's untapped coal and timber resources and in 1883 constructed a branch line from Roanoke to Tazewell County's coal town, Pocahontas. Within a decade, the rich coal fields of Southwest Virginia were opened wide for the N&W to transport the coal. Today, transportation of coal is the company's major tonnage. The railroad, now the Norfolk Southern, maintained its headquarters in Roanoke until 1982 when it relocated to Norfolk. Nevertheless, the rail-road still plays an important part in the city's function as a regional center of commerce, service, industry, and government.
The town's population had jumped from a modest 700 in 1881 to almost 5,000 when Roanoke was chartered as a city in 1884. Soon streetcar lines were spreading out from the center to new residential developments. From around 1882 a neighborhood now known as Old Southwest was developed by one of the N&W's land companies, and early in the twentieth century, many of the city's prosperous citizens were moving into South Roanoke. Also in the new century, the Women's Civic Betterment Club (organized in 1906) began to focus on physical and social improvements to the city. The club's first project was to hire planner and landscape architect John Nolen of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop a plan. Nolen focused on residential development, civic beautification, parkways, and areas for industrial sites. Although not carried out in its particulars, Nolen updated the scheme in 1928 and his vision and recommendations influenced subsequent planning efforts. By then, the downtown was already being transformed. In tune with the bold times, Roanoke's premier architect of the day was Henry Hartwell Huggins, who advertised in 1909: “HURRAH! Roanoke has over 40,000 people, and more of them live in Huggins' designed buildings than in buildings designed by any other twelve architects. A bold assertion, but I can prove it.” At his death it was determined that this boisterous and prolific architect had another life (and family) in Richmond.
The 1920s were hailed as the “Golden Age of Municipal Progress” by leading businessman-developer W. W. Boxley. As a symbol of his resounding success, he erected an office building (RK21) designed by Edward G. Frye, who, with his partner Aubrey Chesterman, headed the region's leading architectural firm. After Chesterman returned to Lynchburg and the partnership dissolved in 1921, Frye began a partnership with Frank F. Stone that lasted until 1939. Another architect, Louis P. Smithey, began his practice in Roanoke in 1920 and, in 1935, was joined by Henry B. Boynton to form Smithey and Boynton, one of the region's most prominent firms through the second quarter of the twentieth century. Roanoke's golden age saw a mix of national and regional architects practicing in the city.
After the lulls of the Great Depression and World War II, midcentury found downtown Roanoke a bustling commercial and service center. To emphasize the city's prominence, local business associations erected in 1949 a neon-lit steel star (RK48) high on Mill Mountain to proclaim Roanoke the “Star City of the South.” Already in 1947 architect E. Paul Hayes had joined with three engineers to form the firm of Hayes, Seay, Mattern and Mattern (HSMM), which designed many of Roanoke's institutional and commercial buildings. And the city expanded with housing developments spiraling up the hills of South Roanoke. But strip development began to take a toll on downtown. In 1961 the Towers Shopping Center opened south of downtown and Crossroads Mall opened to the north. Both were strips of shops, although Towers has some enclosed corridors. Not until the 1970s when Tanglewood Mall opened on U.S. 419 just south of the city limits did Roanokers have an enclosed mall with lofty public spaces that could be used for exhibitions. The areas around and beyond Tanglewood also saw rapid growth with modern office buildings spreading to Salem's city limits. But Tanglewood was soon outsized by the opening in 1985 of Valley View Mall (RK51), the region's largest. And developments such as Hunting Hills just south of Roanoke were attracting prosperous residents.
By the 1970s downtown Roanoke was, like many American cities, becoming a specter of its former self as the commercial life of the city rapidly moved outward. But a revitalization program begun in the late 1970s has been remarkably successful. A number of high-rise buildings went up, with public plazas for outdoor events and parking garages built to attract an automobile-oriented society back to downtown. The City Market (RK25) area was reborn as the cultural center of the city, a position that was greatly enhanced by construction of the Taubman Museum of Art (RK26). As the twenty-first century progresses, the city is attempting to restore residential areas and is encouraging the development of village centers. The largest effort centers on the South Jefferson Redevelopment Plan, which, focused on Carilion's huge biomedical center (RK46), makes Roanoke the medical center for Southwest Virginia.
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