Two Gems in the Crown of the Queen City
If fabulous architecture and a trove of rich, exciting history are part of your Shenandoah Valley agenda, then Staunton is a must-see.
Known since the 1880s as the Queen City of the Shenandoah, this hilltop community just 13 miles west of the Iris Inn boasts five carefully restored, award-winning historic districts. Here you can trace Staunton’s journey from frontier outpost and Civil War stronghold to Victorian showplace and modern-day success story.
Popular Staunton Tourist Stop
One of the most popular stops in any tour of Staunton is the old Chesapeake and Ohio railway station at the intersection of South Augusta Street and Middlebrook Avenue.
Staunton Station, as it is known, is the third such facility on the site; the first one, built in 1854, was burned by Union invaders in 1864 and the second one, built just after the war, was demolished in a cataclysmic 1890 train wreck.
Surviving all threats, however, has been the American Hotel, an imposing red-brick structure standing just a few feet from the train concourse. Hard to ignore because of its size alone, the three-story American Hotel is vital to this portion of Staunton’s historic downtown and key to any walking tour of the area.
Add to that its immaculate renovation (which includes restoration of the portico that was ripped off in the late 1800s), and you have a true visual gem in the Queen City’s crown.
It is also Staunton’s only surviving Civil War hotel. Truly, if walls could talk…
The American Hotel
The American Hotel got its start not long after the Virginia Central Railroad reached Staunton in March 1854. The railroad’s proprietors realized that travelers would need a place to stay, so the construction of a new hotel just a few steps from the depot got underway.
Like the Virginia Hotel on South New Street, the American Hotel was of Greek Revival design and was probably one of the last major buildings in Staunton to use this architectural style. While its proximity to the depot made it successful, the hotel was undoubtedly noisier than most, especially when trains rumbled into town just yards from sleeping guests.
Two of its early owners were Samuel B. Brown and Aaron S. Lara. Brown actually ran the place while Lara – a successful Goshen storekeeper – was the financial backer. Brown’s efforts to make the American Hotel a top-notch facility were never ceasing.
War affected the American Hotel much as it did the Virginia. Rooms were quickly commandeered by the military and, as Staunton became a hospital area, the rooms filled up with wounded soldiers.
When Brown and Lara allegedly purchased property further south, they sought to unload the American Hotel. It was sold at public auction May 25, 1863, and records indicate that its new owner was Col. J.Q.A. Nadenbousch of the Stonewall Brigade. By that time the hotel was being used as a hospital by the Confederate government at a rent of $3,000 annually.
Destruction of Staunton Station
When Union Gen. David Hunter and his men invaded Staunton in June 1864, one of the chief areas slated for destruction was the train depot and surrounding buildings. Nadenbousch requested that the warehouse next to his hotel be spared for fear the flames would endanger his own structure.
According to some sources, Nadenbousch – who had retired from the Confederate army because of a groin wound received at Second Manassas – was heartily sick of the war and had made these feelings known to Hunter and his officers. One of the officers, Col. David Strother, formed a quick friendship with Nadenbousch and agreed to spare both the American Hotel and its adjoining warehouse.
Because of Strother, the American Hotel and its warehouse were the only major buildings in what is now known as the Wharf Historic District to escape the torch. Hunter and his men burned everything else.
Famous Visitors to the American Hotel
After the war, the American Hotel had a couple of brushes with its military past. When President Ulysses S. Grant visited Staunton in 1874, the Stonewall Brigade Band serenaded him from the portico of the American Hotel with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Grant is reported to have bowed repeatedly to the band.
Three months later, famed Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard stopped at the American for a night. The band’s serenading of him was so poignant that the former general is reported to have indulged in “emotional reminiscences,” reminding his listeners that he met the band at First Manassas while fighting for a “glorious cause.”
Rebirth of American Hotel
In the latter part of the 19th century, the American Hotel was gutted and used, among other things, as a wholesale grocer outlet and a shoe factory.
In the 20th century, the building became vacant and slowly deteriorated until demolition seemed the only answer.
Historic preservation was not an option until Georgia advertising man Vic Meinert bought and single-handedly renovated the train station complex.
The American Hotel is today a Virginia Historic Landmark and houses a number of businesses, including a restaurant – testimony to the economic viability of preserving and restoring historic structures.
It should also be noted about the train station itself that much of the T.J. Collins-designed structure is now profitably in use by shops and the Depot, one of Staunton’s most successful restaurants.
There’s so much to see and do in Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County. Make your getaway plans to our Virginia bed and breakfast. We’ll give you the inside scoop on all of the best places to see including restaurants, theaters, hiking trails, and music! Book here.