You are here

Lewisburg

-A A +A

Settlement in the “Big Levels,” as this gently rolling bluegrass area was called, began several decades before Lewisburg was established. In 1751 Andrew Lewis, surveying for a land company, found the spring that was later named for him, and Fort Savannah was built nearby some twenty years later. More than 1,000 militia bivouacked here in 1774 before marching to battle at Point Pleasant on the Ohio River. Four years later, increased settlement warranted formation of a new county. Lewisburg became the county seat in October 1782, and forty acres containing sixty-four half-acre lots were laid out in a standard grid pattern, with four lots to a block.

Purchasers were required to build “a dwelling house twenty feet by sixteen, with a stone or brick chimney, to be finished fit for habitation within four years from the day of sale.” Early settlers typically built their houses close to street corners, leaving as much room as possible to the side and rear for gardens and outbuildings, of which a remarkable number survive. Log buildings predominated during these first years. Greenbrier's first county courthouse was of log, as was the first Presbyterian meetinghouse, originally located a mile and a half north of town. Many log structures remain, though most are now encased in clapboard.

In 1782, the same year Lewisburg was founded, the Greenbrier County Court reimbursed five men “for viewing and marking out the highest and best way from Warm Springs to this place.” This road across the Alleghenies and the slightly later State Road brought more settlers. As early as 1795 a French visitor commented that Lewisburg was “a village of considerable pretensions, a place noted for its intelligent and refined society.” Stone gradually began to replace log as the building material of choice, but the name of Lewisburg's bestknown, most loved landmark indicates that it was still not common by the end of the eighteenth century. Had it been so, one doubts that Old Stone Church ( GR1), which replaced the Presbyterian meetinghouse in 1796, would have been named for its material.

Beginning around 1820, the town entered a period of prosperity that lasted until the eve of the Civil War. According to Henry Ruffner's 1839 account, there were three reasons for Lewisburg's growth: “it is near the principal springs; it is on the great central road to the west; and it is the seat of many courts of law.” The James River and Kanawha Turnpike, Ruffner's “great central road to the west,” came through Lewisburg in the 1820s to replace the State Road, though it did not reach the banks of the Ohio until the early 1830s. The courts of law included the Western Division of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, which began sitting in Lewisburg in 1831. The court commenced sessions “the 1st Monday in July, and if business requires, may set 90 days.” Those dates, not coincidentally, coincided with “high season” at nearby White Sulphur Springs. The appeals court and Greenbrier's own county court began to meet in a new brick building in 1837.

Houses and public buildings erected during these prosperous years established Lewisburg's architectural character. Numerous brick houses in the Federal style, generally single-pile in plan with gable roofs and prominent end chimneys, replaced simpler log or stone buildings. Porticoes, generally double-tiered, centered the facades of the most prominent houses. The best of the lot were designed and built by John Weir or John W. Dunn, both thought to have started their careers as stonemasons on bridges for the State Road. Weir was the more pragmatic of the two, at least judging by the buildings ascribed to him. Dunn had more panache, and when he joined forces with master carpenter Conrod Burgess, the two made an unbeatable pair.

As the seat of a county that depended largely on a plantation economy, Lewisburg's sympathies were mostly with the Confederate cause during the Civil War. The Battle of Lewisburg, a brief but fierce encounter that took place on May 23, 1862, was a Union victory, after which the community remained in Union hands throughout the war. After the war, Confederate dead were reburied on a hill west of town, where a bronze statue of a soldier, designed by W. L. Sheppard of Richmond, was erected in 1906. The statue now stands on the grounds of the Greenbrier County Library and Museum ( GR5). Union dead were reburied in the National Cemetery in Staunton, Virginia.

Lewisburg grew at a leisurely pace in the post–Civil War years. In 1870 J. H. Diss Debar, West Virginia's commissioner of immigration, termed it “a very old settled, wealthy town in a beautiful location.” The pace quickened slightly during the 1870s when the C&O Railroad came through Greenbrier County, but not through Lewisburg, on its way to the Ohio River at Huntington. Although the C&O and its branch lines opened other parts of the county to industrial and commercial development, many officials and managers of these new enterprises made their homes in Lewisburg, the most established community in the region.

Existing houses were occasionally remodeled to accord with more fashionable styles, but more often the newcomers built anew. In either case, Lewisburg's sturdy building tradition was maintained. Standard Victorian excrescences are noticeably absent in the city's latenineteenth-century residential architecture. East Washington Street, former route of the turnpike to White Sulphur Springs and always one of the town's most prestigious addresses, still displays a gratifying variety of domestic architectural styles.

In 1942 Ruth Woods Dayton published Greenbrier Pioneers and Their Homes, followed in 1957 by Lewisburg Landmarks. Both volumes have contributed to the study, understanding, and further appreciation of the area's significant historical and architectural resources. The Lewisburg Historic District was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and the nomination form for that designation classified sixty-six structures as pivotal, a huge number for a town whose population was then only 3,000. In 1990 the Greenbrier Historical Society updated Dayton's work by revisiting buildings she had recorded and reporting on their current status in its annual journal. As much as any place in West Virginia, Lewisburg, the county's largest city, with a 2000 population of 3,624, appreciates and preserves its architectural and historical resources.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.

, ,