The first statewide historic preservation organization created in the United States is Preservation Virginia. Today the organization’s mission raises awareness of and ensures that Virginia’s historic places remain relevant and valued into the future.
Preservation Virginia, originally known as The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), was founded in 1889 by Mary Jeffery Galt and Cynthia Beverley Tucker Coleman to preserve and protect Virginia’s landmarks. Their first purchase was the Powder Magazine in Williamsburg, and in 1893 they acquired their premier property: Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement in North America.
The Barney Family donated 22 ½ acres of Jamestown Island that included the ruins of the iconic brick 17th-century church tower. In the late 19th century, this western portion of the island was a wooded, quiet place where locals would picnic by the tower. The push to preserve this site was driven by ongoing erosion from the James River. Federal funds paid for construction of a seawall by engineer Samuel Yonge. He also conducted a study of the historic property and discovered the foundations of Jamestown’s final statehouses in a complex that stood from the 1660s to 1698. (When the building burned in 1698, Governor Francis Nicholson moved Virginia’s Capitol inland to Williamsburg. Historic Jamestowne’s Archaearium museum now hovers over the Statehouse foundations.)
Preservation Virginia conducted its own archaeological investigations around the church tower in preparations for the settlement’s 300th anniversary in 1907. These excavations found brick foundations that likely belonged to a 1639 church. Within those foundations they identified traces that matched the documented dimensions of a 1617 church, where the first representative assembly in English North America met in 1619. The Colonial Dames paid to build the 1907 Memorial Church on top of the foundations, with glass on each side of the floor to showcase the original foundations of both the 1617 and 1639 churches. The Memorial Church was designed by architect Edmund Wheelwright and is modeled after St. Luke’s Church in Smithfield, one of the oldest churches in Virginia.
There were other additions to the property in the early 1900s: statues to Pocahontas and John Smith, the General Assembly monument, new Preservation Virginia entry gates and buildings, and a 103-foot tall Tercentennary Obelisk provided by the federal government.
In 1934, the National Park Service acquired the remaining 1,500 acres of Jamestown Island that are a combination of woods and wetlands. The National Park Service and Preservation Virginia jointly operate the island today as “Historic Jamestowne,” which includes the site of the original 1607 fort, James City townsite, and Virginia’s first capital. Preservation Virginia began the Jamestown Rediscovery Project in 1994 to prepare for the 400th anniversary of the colony in 2007. With the discovery of the archaeological remains of the James Fort, Preservation Virginia with the National Park Service planned and implemented an expansion plan to support the research and interpretation on site, including the Voorhees Archaearium, research center, visitor center, and interpretive landscape. A major rehabilitation project in 2013 and 2014 preserved the brick church tower by repairing, repointing, and occasionally replacing bricks that comprise the only remaining above-ground feature from 17th-century Jamestown.
Preservation Virginia continues its statewide mission by sharing its more than 125 years of experience and expertise with individuals and organizations to strengthen preservation efforts. The organization is actively working to preserve, promote, and advocate for Virginia’s irreplaceable historic places. Through a variety of programs and initiatives, Preservation Virginia is realizing the vision of our founders, to ensure Virginia’s historic places are vibrant places that serve their communities. To learn more about Preservation Virginia’s other programs, including how to visit its other historical sites, visit www.preservationvirginia.org.