Apr 3, 2023Liked by Addison Del Mastro

"Its origin goes back a decade earlier—to 1749"

It's so long ago that I no longer remember the source, but I recall that land speculation was a major source of wealth, especially for those with investment capital (eg, Washington), for several centuries in American history (even before the railroad). And land speculation usually didn't take the form of, "buy several thousand acres of forest and wait for timber prices to rise" - there was plenty of other forest, labor was expensive, and there was probably no cost-efficient way to get that timber to the European market even if you cut it.

No, land speculation meant: buy 100 acres and lay out a town, then try to sell building lots for houses. If the town takes off, land you bought for cents/acre could you up a hundredfold (just stabbing at numbers here). Often, a group of investors would go in together. The fact that surveyor was a common profession for well-to-do young men was no accident; it was driven by land marketing schemes.

Classic example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ohio_Company. For a later example of this phenomenon, see "Sons of the Profits", and note that much of the drive to develop Seattle was in order to increase the land value so that the original founders would make more when they sold it in small pieces.

Of course, the frequent success of these attempts was driven by America's explosive growth in population, thanks to immigration. Selling off bits of this country to newcomers for high prices is a storied part of our history.

I don't know specifics of Culpeper, but it would be interesting to see who owned the property in 1759 - was it Thomas Fairfax? - and how the vote in the House of Burgesses was influenced.

Point being: historical urbanism is about investment, growth, and profit. The creation of cities and towns is often intentional and driven by fundamental human desires and economic forces.

Expand full comment

I recently visited Culpeper for a wedding, and I was charmed by its downtown. I didn't realize it had such historical roots and it's more akin to a city than not. Interesting piece!

Expand full comment

I’m curious. Your Culpepper photos include buildings, cars, streets and stores but no people. It must be intentional. Why?

Expand full comment

I love the comparison to Brooklyn blocks and buildings! Also your mentions of Staunton and Frederick as cities because of their urban design as well. Charlottesville is many things, but not a city: it is a college town, built around UVA, and people have a really hard time with that - I guess size matters, even when it's your hometown? (I wonder if you would include Berryville in this urban-model-defined group of cities - I cannot think off the top of my head of any Brooklyn-esque architecture, but it has always seemed more built and rail-dependent than the towns on 7 in Loudoun on the east side of the mountain.)

One thing I love about Culpeper is that the bypass takes such a wide swing around it. So it's a trek to get into town. (The Warrenton bypass is a bit closer to town; when I was in college, you just went through town and could stop and eat at the Frost Diner.)

When development really began in the 80s, first to Loudoun, where it was unbridled by our Board of Supervisors, Counties down the Piedmont took note, as did the powerful Piedmont Environmental Council. To some degree, even here in Albemarle, we benefit from the lesson of Loudoun (of course, fewer commuters are willing to drive from Culpeper and Warrenton to the Dulles corridor/DC as well). Cate Mageniss started Journey Through Hallowed Ground to protect the US 15 corridor between Gettysburg and Monticello, which has limited the widening of 15 and 29 in an effort to curb development along this historic route. While nothing will prevent growth - and shouldn't - Virginia's tourism industry is a big part of our economy, and we want our towns to remain accessible and attractive.

Young men with money are still eyeing Culpeper; my ex-husband, a trial lawyer, recently told me he had gone to Culpeper for business and said it was flourishing, and mentioned wanting to invest in apartments. I have never been a fan of the crummy buildings that pop up on the outskirts of any of these towns (where more generous zoning exists); yet we are in dire need of more housing. If only developers would hire architects and builders who would create buildings that would comport with Culpeper, rather than ones you would find in Dallas or Milwaukee suburbs.

Expand full comment

Lovely read and images

Expand full comment