By Alex Bridges
The fire that destroyed Shenandoah County's Alms House earlier this month also took with it nearly 200 years of local history.
Demolition crews recently reduced the remains of the historic building at the County Farm to piles of bricks and debris. But photographs have captured the image of the Alms House. Documents filed with the Department of Historic Resources give detailed descriptions of the building and its use as a place for the county's poorest residents.
The Alms House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, listed among dozens of landmarks and buildings in Shenandoah County. It continued to operate as a shelter for needy families until its demise.
David Edwards, director of the community services division of the Department of Historic Resources, works out of the agency's regional office in Stephens City. The fact that the county and the Alliance for Shelter kept the Alms House in use likely helped prevent the building from falling into disrepair, Edwards said in a recent interview.
"If the building is abandoned and no longer being used, a lot of things can happen: vandalism, further deterioration and no maintenance can really be a blow for the building's survival," Edwards said.
Historic structures can fall victim to termites if not at least monitored. At the same time, a historic building can lose its integrity if remodeled extensively.
"Sometimes it's good to find these historic buildings and rehabilitate them, perhaps using the tax credits, because they can bring back another use for the building, even if it's not the same purpose that it originally served," Edwards said.
Massey Maxwell Associates for the Glebe Farm Group filed the application to the department seeking the Alms House's inclusion on the register in 1993. The consultants note that while the Alms House had not been the first building in Shenandoah County used as shelter for the poor, it was the first structure made specifically for that purpose. The Alms House served the same purpose until the fire, operated by the county until the early 1990s when the Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter began to use the building for emergency and then transitional housing.
The consultants described the Alms House as "a rare and well-preserved example of a handsome, early-nineteenth-century, Federal-style institutional building."
"The county farm site demonstrates a high degree of architectural and visual integrity in that its original design and materials remain substantially unaltered by changes to the buildings or by surrounding development," the consultants wrote.
The filing with the department goes in to great detail about the building, noting the construction and layout, the structure's make up and the architectural techniques used.
The main building was constructed in 1829 on approximately 220 acres of land near Maurertown the county still owns. A two-story brick kitchen wing to the rear of the main building and a two-story extension to the south end of the south wing were added around 1850. Around 1965 the front porches of the wings were enclosed. In 1991 the south wing was renovated to provide a separate family apartment with a kitchen and bath for temporary residents, according to the consultants.
"The interior contains examples of fine original woodwork and hardware, including mantelpieces, paneling, wall cabinets, door frames and entablatures, and wrought-iron door hinges," the consultants wrote. "Despite several minor modern additions and alterations, the almshouse and its surroundings possess a high degree of architectural and contextual integrity."
The consultants described the main house at the time as in fair to good condition but noted the poorly drained site caused some damage to the wood and masonry.
Beyond the physical description, the consultants described the Alms House and the County Farm's role in the community.
"In another setting this design might have served for a regional college or boarding school," the consultants wrote. "In Shenandoah County it provides a physical record of a long-lasting vision of a secure and dignified life for those who, because of age, circumstance, or incapacity, could not cope with the full rigor of rural existence."
The consultants report "the almshouse and farm have played a central role in the county's efforts to provide for the welfare of its citizens and are important in the history of public welfare in the Commonwealth."
"While some counties preferred to dole 'outside relief' to the needy, the Shenandoah County almshouse and its counterpart in neighboring Frederick County (built in 1820) served as architectural and social models for counties that established poor farms in the years before and after the Civil War," the consultants wrote.
During the Civil War, federal forces under the command of Major Gen. Lunsford Lomax used a small part of the County Farm as a campground on the night before the Battle of Toms Brook. But the County Farm and the Alms House survived the Civil War and continued to function, with its residents working and living on the site.
In 1908, the State Board of Charities and Corrections conducted the first statewide survey of county and city almshouses, according to the consultants' findings. Published the next year, the report "noted that the Shenandoah County Almshouse was 'one of the best institutions in the State.'" The survey showed that 31 people resided at the poor house.
In 1918, the Virginia General Assembly, at the board's urging, allowed counties to pool resources to set up district homes for the poor. But Shenandoah County resisted this approach, consultants wrote, noting that the county chose instead to continue operating the Alms House on its own.
By the 1980s, residents no longer worked on the farm. The county at that time leased the fields to local farmers and residents no longer tended their own garden or performed chores. The county set aside 48 acres of the farm site as land for a recreational park.
A nearly identical building constructed in Frederick County in 1820 still stands but ceased operation as a poorhouse in 1947, according to information from the Department of Historic Resources. A private entity owns the property. Another county farm operated in Warren County until 1992, though the building was not originally constructed for that purpose. Many other poorhouses across the state have either disappeared or now are in the hands of private owners. Several of the existing poorhouses have been renovated into bed-and-breakfasts.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org