Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Bright Time in the Olde Town

Middle Street, 2011

One of the bright spots in Portsmouth, Virginia, is the old waterfront residential area now known as Olde Town. I say “now known” because a friend of mine who grew up there recalls that Olde Town used to just be called “downtown,” and what allure is there in that? Faced with a declining tax base and the flight of affluent residents to the leafy suburbs, what city couldn’t be forgiven for trying to spruce up the image of one of its most appealing neighborhoods and tourist attractions?

It’s said that Olde Town has one of the, if not the largest collection of continuously occupied Colonial and Revolutionary-era residences in the country. That may be an exaggeration. But the fact is that Olde Town is a superb and extensive collection of Colonial and Revolutionary-era residences. They survive not because of any noble efforts, but rather because developers never gave downtown Portsmouth much attention and consequently never came through and bulldozed Olde Town into the history books. So you could say that Olde Town owes its survival to failure.

North and Middle Street, 2011

North & Court, 2011

In considering a place like Olde Town, you have to understand that our region is woven around a network of winding rivers, inland bays, creeks, the Chesapeake Bay and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. When I was a child, you couldn’t get from one city to the next without taking a ferry. Today tunnels carry traffic under just about every major body of water. The same Elizabeth River that wraps around Olde Town also isolated Portsmouth and allowed it to essentially whither during the late Twentieth Century while Norfolk, its neighbor across the river, thrived.

Still, if there’s a word that describes what is special about Olde Town it must be authentic. I live in a Colonial revival-style home. In Olde Town, there’s no revival about it. It’s the real thing. Clapboard-sided homes and brick townhouses date from the Eighteenth Century. A structure considered “new” in Olde Town means it was probably built in the Nineteenth Century.

I’ve been taking pictures in Olde Town for years. It’s a great place to walk and look at houses. In the summer time it’s cool walking along its tree-lined streets. Gentle breezes blow in off the river. You see grand homes in Colonial and Georgian styles with a few Italianate gems thrown in. There’s some modern infill that isn’t very thoughtful. But it’s easily overlooked.

Court Street, 2011

Queen Street, 2011


  1. I don't know if I've ever been through Portsmouth, but your photos sure make me want to see it. It looks lovely! I always enjoy your photos of buildings.

  2. You mention that Olde Town is one the bright things about P-Town. Is there something else that I missed? I'm not really being facetious. :-)

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  4. I'll try that again using spell check.

    In 1970 the service station chain I worked for sent me and several of my co-workers to fill in at their Victory Blvd. location. Seems that store was having a tough time keeping staff because of armed robberies occurring an average of once a month.

    I never knew Olde Towne or Port Norfolk existed until I went to work for a fire and flood restoration company in the late 80s. Before that entering Portsmouth meant laying my pistol on the seat beside me and not touching the brakes until I was in a tunnel or had passed Bowers Hill.

  5. The very first time I ever lived on my own was in Old Towne. I had an apartment in what was once the Macon Hotel on North St. It was the only place I have ever lived that felt haunted. Perhaps the fact that it was used as a hospital during the Civil War had something to do with that. I still visit Old Towne frequently.