West Freemason: Norfolk, Virginia
Norfolk's West Freemason neighborhood was almost completely destroyed by the British during the Revolutionary War. Since then, the neighborhood has faced obstacles and trials, including one in the 1960s that would have once again leveled the area. Because it survived, West Freemason contains the majority of Norfolk's pre–Civil War structures.
West Freemason, bounded by the Elizabeth River to the west and south, is west of Boush Street and south of West Brambleton Avenue.
West Freemason's historic architecture, cobblestone streets, brick sidewalks, and cast and wrought iron fencing and railings create a 19th century feel. It's a contrast with the other side of Boush Street, the neighborhood's eastern boundary, where downtown shopping, dining, and entertainment options abound.
In the early 1900s, public transportation infrastructure throughout the city increased, and residents of West Freemason and neighboring areas moved further away from center city. The change led to years of neglect, disrepair, and demolitions in order to make way for parking lots and newer buildings.
The final act to threaten the neighborhood with extinction occurred during the 1960s when a freeway along the neighborhood's waterfront was proposed. Alarm amongst the remaining residents grew when they realized that if nothing was done their neighborhood would disappear. Working with the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, citizens initiated preservation efforts and fought the highway proposal. They succeeded in 1968, which led to a historic West Freemason conservation zoning district and formation in 1976 of the Freemason Street Area Association.
Since the 1980s, the city, in concert with the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, has invested $156 million to revitalize the neighborhood. Replacing West Freemason's original industrial waterfront and vacated properties are new townhouses, condominiums, businesses, and recreational areas that complement the neighborhood's historic buildings. The oriental gardens at the Pagoda and the Elizabeth River Trail, which runs along the Elizabeth River and the neighborhood's southern border, are just some of the public green spaces that have been created. The Tide Light Rail has a stop in the neighborhood, which connects West Freemason to Norfolk State University, Tidewater Community College, the Eastern Virginia Medical Center, and other stops.
Defining Characteristics, Features
- Named after Freemason Street, which derived its name from the location of the original Norfolk Masonic Lodge (just east of the neighborhood)
- In 1776, two-thirds of the city was destroyed during British Revolutionary War attacks; buildings that remained standing were later burned to the ground by patriots for strategic reasons
- Rebuilding of 70-acre neighborhood began just after the Revolutionary War and continued into the mid-1800s
- Starting in early 1900s, with more reliable and affordable public transportation options, residents moved further outside of the downtown area
- During both world wars, homes were turned into rooming and boarding houses for shipyard, military, and other defense-related workers
- By the 1950s, many of the largely blighted neighborhood's homes had fallen into disrepair
- West Freemason was first neighborhood to be rebuilt after the city was almost entirely leveled during the Revolutionary War
- Listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1971; designated a National Historic District in 1972
- Oldest existing houses in the district were built in the 1790s — the Allmand Archer and Taylor Whittle houses; Selden House was built in 1807 and served as the headquarters for the Union occupation of Norfolk during the Civil War
- Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Beaux-Arts Classicism, Queen Anne, Georgian Revival
- West Freemason Street retains the city's oldest surviving cobblestone paving, granite curbs, cast iron fences, brick sidewalks; all characteristic of early Norfolk
Planning and Community Engagement
- In 1956 a new master plan was drawn that included a new waterfront freeway that would bisect West Freemason; residents lobbied to prevent the district from being split
- In 1971 a new plan was adopted that would preserve the historic neighborhood and called for redevelopment of the waterfront's warehouses and industrial areas south of the historic district
- Established as a Norfolk Local Historic District in 1968; subject to the city's historic district zoning design guidelines, which include development standards and use limitations
- Freemason Street Area Association founded in 1976 by business owners and residents; involved in clean-ups, block parties, and Pagoda gardens today
- The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority oversaw the transformation of the area into today's mix of townhouses, condominiums, businesses, and recreational spaces
- Neighborhood land values have increased five-fold since 1990; book value of residential and commercial development now $2.1 billion
Physical Attributes, Amenities
- Serviced by bus and one of the Tide Light Rail's 11 stops at York Street and Freemason near the north end of the neighborhood; part of Norfolk's 7.4-mile light rail system; completed in 2011
- Access to the waterfront promenade; Elizabeth River Ferry provides connection to the Old Town area of Portsmouth
- Elizabeth River Trail extends 9.5 miles along the Elizabeth River between downtown, Old Dominion University, and the Norfolk Naval Station
- The Marine Observation Tower (aka Pagoda); built in 1989; a gift from Taiwan honoring trading ties with Virginia; features oriental gardens; part of Friendship Park and Freemason Harbor
- The YMCA and Wisconsin Square — featuring memorial to seamen lost while serving on U.S. Navy ships homeported in Norfolk — are also within the neighborhood
- Adjacent to the Tidewater Community College's downtown campus (to the east) and the Eastern Virginia Medical Center campus (to the west)
- Hosts portions of the city's annual Harborfest; attracts thousands of visitors; in 37th year