Norfolk was founded in 1682 and has been creating history ever since.
Although no structures in the city date back to that year — and despite overzealous revitalization efforts that left many historic buildings demolished — Downtown Norfolk is still home to a plethora of free historic sites. “Free” means accessible to all, so it’s worth noting how much of Norfolk’s history is free and open to the public. So let’s go take a walk and see what the city’s history has to offer.
A sound introduction to the fabric of Downtown’s historic architecture is the Cannonball Trail History Tour.
The Cannonball Trail is a self-guided walking tour that offers a rich telling of Norfolk’s 400 year history. There are dozens of sites on the trail including historic buildings, homes, and monuments. Starting at Freemason Street Baptist Church, follow the granite inlays and round medallions that lay in the sidewalks throughout downtown. Although walking the tour and viewing these buildings is free, some of the homes and buildings on the tour are not free or publicly accessible; however, their stately facades exude urbanities that enrich downtown’s architectural fabric and are therefore worth including here.
Not included in the Cannonball Trail is the Slover Library, which is comprised of three buildings from three different centuries: the Seaboard Building (1800s), the Selden Arcade (1900), and the new six-story tower that was completed in 2015. If you enter the Seaboard Building to the left of Slover’s main entrance and go to the second floor, you’ll find the Sargeant Memorial Collection (SMC), Norfolk’s local history and genealogy archives. There you’ll discover large interactive touchscreens that display digitized images from the Sargeant’s impressive collection of historical photographs. Visitors can search for specific pictures, enlarge images, and move them about the screen with a flick of the finger.
The SMC also provides assistance with genealogy research, archival access, and local history expertise, all free of charge with a Norfolk Public Library membership.Go to the third floor of the SMC and you’ll find displays of historical artifacts and documents organized by SMC staff.
The current display is titled Relics of Racism Artifact Exhibit and grapples with the historical portrayal of African Americans in advertising. In conjunction with the exhibit, there will be a free lecture and reception at the Slover Library on August 27th from 2-4 p.m. with Therbia Parker Sr., a collector of African American memorabilia who loaned items for this exhibit.
There is also a digital exhibit that focuses on African Americans and Norfolk’s Underground Railroad. The website is full of timelines, interactive maps, audio clips, images, and text which focus on Norfolk’s historic waterfront and its role in providing safe passage to slaves through its wharves, ports, and ships. Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Professor of History at Norfolk State University wrote and compiled extensive research for this site, utilizing over 130 sources.
Speaking of railroads, so to speak, are you someone interested in learning about commerce giant Norfolk Southern? Or railroad history in general? Stop by the company headquarters at Three Commercial Place and check out their Railroad History Museum located on the first floor. With abundant displays of historical photos, railroad tools, artifacts, timelines, as well as a train simulator and life-sized cutout of a locomotive, this museum offers a great overview of Norfolk Southern’s rich history and provides insight into its modern operations.
If you’re less of a land-lubber and more into high seas history, then the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) might be the place for you. Located on the second-floor of Nauticus (visiting the HRNM is free, but Nauticus does charge admission), this museum highlights the 241 year history of the United States Naval presence in Hampton Roads. The HRNM is a series of family-friendly exhibits touting Hampton Roads’ contributions to naval combat and humanitarian missions throughout the centuries. It offers a narrative of paintings, ship models, videos, interactive displays, as well as a series of online exhibits that are also freely available.
Speaking of museums and the Navy, another fascinating historic site is the MacArthur Memorial. Five-star General Douglas MacArthur is interred in the memorial building, which is dedicated to him and the millions of people who served with him during both World Wars and the Korean War. The campus, located next to MacArthur Center and its adjacent light rail stop, also contains a military history library, visitor center, small museum, as well as a 150-seat theater, all of which are free to enter. Every second Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m., the Norfolk Historical Society hosts a history lecture inside the MacArthur Memorial Visitor Center Theater. These lectures are presented by different historians each month and are also free and open to the public. Next month’s lecture is titled “The Seaside Calls: A Visit to Fort Monroe in 1901,” and will be presented by Darcy Sink, Education and Volunteer Coordinator for the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe.
Nothing exemplifies local history more than historic house museums. In Downtown Norfolk, the Willoughby-Baylor House (WBH) and Moses Myers House (MMH) provide free access to Norfolk’s past every Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. The MMH contains the original furniture and rich narratives of the five generations of Myers family who lived there, including a grand dining room, a contemporary glass exhibit of Myers’ artifacts, original clothing items, and painted portraits. The WBH does not contain the original holdings of its first family, but has been retrofitted to display the “Norfolk History Museum.” The first floor of the WBH contains a rotating gallery space that focuses on Norfolk themes or artists, while the second floor has a permanent installation of historical paintings, sculptures, furniture, and silver items. Both houses are administered by the Chrysler Museum of Art, which is also free, in downtown, and open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
In tandem with its displays of military history, Downtown Norfolk dedicates space for several public memorials, all of which are free to view and enjoy. The Armed Forces Memorial at Town Point Park and the Confederate Monument at Commercial Place and Main Street commemorate soldiers from different wars in very different ways.
There is also a memorial (outside of downtown but important to note) that is dedicated to African-American Civil War veterans in West Point Cemetery, north of Princess Anne Road. Completed in 1920, it was the first monument in the South dedicated to African-American Civil War veterans, and is one of the reasons that West Point Cemetery is a Nationally Registered Historic Place. These monuments are all thought provoking toasts to soldiers of foreign and domestic wars that are freely viewable to anyone.
The NEON District comprises the northernmost sector of downtown. There you’ll find its walls and streets bejeweled with the brilliant paints and metals of creative spirits. Murals, street sculptures, and interactive works make the newly-minted NEON District the epicenter of public art in Hampton Roads. Which begs the question; what’s so historic about a bunch of art made in the last few years? True, the public art you’ll find in the NEON is not historic in the literal sense. In fact, all the artwork there is contemporary, and the district itself is only a few years old. However, the NEON contains within its boundaries the Auto Row Historic District, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014 due to its historical ties to Norfolk’s automobile industry.
What’s more, much of the public art found in the NEON is either displayed on or inside historic buildings, making the NEON’s inclusion here appropriate. It doesn’t cost anything to walk down the streets of the district and enjoy the dozens of public art works that now pepper the neighborhood.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully provides a thorough introduction to Norfolk’s early history. Prepare to do a lot of walking and thinking! There are several historic attractions in Downtown Norfolk that do not have free admission, including Nauticus and the Hunter House Victorian Museum, that deserve our patronage and support nonetheless. Please visitor them all and contribute to the vibrancy of Norfolk’s past!
Also, if you’re more of a visual learner, check out this map of historic sites mentioned here!
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