Petersburg's architectural heritage has a long and rich history, reflecting centuries of occupation by Native Americans and over 300 years of European settlement. Beginning as a frontier trading post with the Virginia Indians, Fort Henry was established here in 1646. As the Virginia frontier moved further westward, trade and commerce continued to grow in what is now the Old Towne area. The city's early development was shaped by a network of Indian roads that followed the high ground between ravines and swamps originally leading to Native American settlements along the Appomattox River. Petersburg's primary streets—Sycamore, Halifax, Old and High—all followed these early roads and trails leading into the heart of Old Towne. This informal layout was long reflected in the nature of the buildings in the town, which for a century remained vernacular structures built of wood and field stone. Few brick buildings were built until after the Revolution.
In the later eighteenth century, a tradition of fashionable brick construction grew up in the close-in neighborhoods of the town. Examples can be seen today at Blandford Church, built between 1735 and 1737, the Georgian house Mayfield, built in 1750, and the Palladian villa called Battersea, built by John Banister III.
The Great Fire of 1815
In July of 1815, an event occurred that would change Petersburg's townscape forever. Overnight, a great fire raged through the center of town, destroying upwards of 600 buildings. Petersburg's response was just as swift. Fueled by the prosperity of the time, and by insurance money, three hundred new three-story brick structures were built by the end of 1817, mostly in a spare Federal style. Craftsmen came from all directions to join Petersburg's own builders in this work. These included James Dinsmore and John Neilson, who had been working with Thomas Jefferson on Monticello.
War Takes its Toll
The Civil War, in particular the Siege of Petersburg, which lasted nearly ten months, constituted another major watershed for Petersburg. A few buildings of significance, including the Iron Front Building, First African Baptist church, and the Sutherland-Hite House, were actually completed during the early years of the war. However, at least 800 buildings were struck by Union shells during the Siege. A Union soldier, viewing the town after it fell on April 3, 1865, had this to say about what he saw:
"The lower part of Petersburg was a desolation?the rolling stock of their railroads hopelessly ruined,—cars, wheels, bolts, and rails warped and twisted by the fire. The town was apparently but little injured by the siege, although it has been stated that eight hundred house were more or less scarred by the iron rain. A few buildings were entirely destroyed; roofs were shattered; gutters, blinds, and windows torn away from their places, or bore terrible marks of the conflict."
20th Century Suburbanization
The early years of the twentieth century brought the automobile and the trolley to Petersburg, creating a new sense of mobility that led many families to begin moving from the city's central neighborhoods to new areas on the outskirts of the city. This led to the creation of several suburban neighborhoods, both to the north of the Appomattox, in what is today the City of Colonial Heights, and to the south in the area now known as Walnut Hill. The Inter-urban Trolley Line connected the city and its newly-developing suburbs with downtown Richmond, creating new regional opportunities for Petersburg.
Today, Petersburg is in the midst of a promising rebirth. Many buildings have been and continue to be renovated, breathing new life into Downtown. Today, a variety of public and private initiatives are working together to continue this rebirth, which, coupled with the dredging of the Appomattox River, will sustain Petersburg far into the 21st century.