Mary Baldwin, Shakespeare, Woodrow Wilson, and Stonewall Jackson are among the many names that play major roles in the history of Staunton, VA (pronounced STANN-tun), situated approximately 1-1/2-hours north of Roanoke and a tad longer than that west of Richmond.
Mary Baldwin University, founded in 1842 as Augusta Female Seminary and later named Mary Baldwin College, is named after Mary Julia Baldwin, one of the first 57 students. Established as the oldest institution of higher education for women in the nation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, it was one of the first dozen doctoral programs of occupational therapy in the nation and today the home of the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership. The university also expanded to welcome the first residential men to campus in 2017.
Another of Staunton’s claims to fame, remarkably so for a boutique community of approximately 24,000 denizens, is the American Shakespeare Center, the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse - the Black Friar’s Playhouse. Since it was built in 2001, the Center has expanded from single home and road troupes to a world-class, integrative cultural arts entity offering an international biennial conference for scholars, and an MFA program in Shakespeare and Performance (at Mary Baldwin University).
To date, performances at the Black Friar’s Playhouse have been enjoyed by an estimated two million people from all over the world, including produced all of William Shakespeare’s 38 plays, and three dozen plays written by his contemporaries. In addition to these world-renown plays and performances the Center also offers very popular behind-the-scenes tours. A cultural icon and architectural masterpiece, a visit to the American Shakespeare Center is not to be missed.
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum celebrates the life, work and legacy of this nation’s 28th President. The property encompasses his Birthplace -TheManse, a beautifully restored Greek Revival building; the official Museum, housed in an adaptively-renovated chateau style mansion; The Smith House, a gift from the late Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and where you’ll find The President’s Shop; and the Historic Gardens.
Inside, visitors will find and experience state-of-the-art interactive exhibits, Woodrow family and period furnishings, photographs, printed documents and newspaper clippings, clothing, presidential gifts, historical timelines that take you through pivotal events in our nation’s history, and more.
The jewel of the museum is Wilson’s beautifully restored 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine The museum also offers two special tours: Behind-the-Scenes and Wilson & Slavery. Both offer fascinating insights into the life and times of Wilson and the nation back in the day.
The Stonewall Jackson Hotel & Conference Center, originally opened in 1924, an Historic Hotel of America, and Staunton’s only full service hotel, is named after its namesake—Stonewall Jackson—a Confederate general in the American Civil War.
Considered a stellar example of the Colonial Revivalist style, the hotel features many of the original detailing and architectural elements including original railings, a fireplace façade, and marble floors, among many others (you can learn more about the hotel in their hotel magazine).
Amenities here include accommodations for up to 400 guests dispersed between two wings—the King Wing and the Queen Wing—plus one-bedroom suites (and the hotel is pet-friendly), an indoor heated pool and hot tub, fitness center, business center, and gift shop, and 8,500 square feet of meeting space which draws a large number of meetings and conventions to town year-round.
Dining options here include Sorrel’s Lounge, named after Jackson’s horse and specializing in comfort foods and seasonal specialties, and Magnolia South Breakfast Restaurant, where both guests of the hotel, other visitors and locals come for their delicious weekday and weekend breakfast buffets.
Staunton’s African American History
In Staunton and the surrounding you will find a wealth of known, as well as untold stories, surrounding black history. From enslaved blacks to freedmen and women, about its American soldiers who participated in the Civil War, and early cultures from other parts of the world, Staunton played an integral role.
One way to learn about some of that history here is via the Staunton African-American Heritage Guide which details many of the current and former sites of related interest. Fairview Cemetery, established in 1869 by freedmen and women from Augusta Street Methodist Episcopal Church and Mount Zion Baptist Church, both originally located within Augusta County, was the designated final resting place for people of color, many of who were denied burial in the city’s Historic Thornrose Cemetery (the latter is home to fallen soldiers from America’s armed conflicts dating back to 1849, and considered by some to be one of the most historic and visually stunning facilities of its kind in the nation).
The Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia is the place to learn about the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to Colonial America, establishing their own social, political, commercial and religious communities in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Encompassing 10 permanent, outdoor exhibits, the museum offers a unique, hands-on experience of each of these cultural enclaves. The 1700s West African Farm shares the story of the close to 250,000 Africans brought here against their will and enslaved as domestic servants, agricultural plantation workers, and natural artisans to help flourish the thriving Virginia tobacco industry here.
At each of the exhibits, including the 1600s English Farm, 1700s German Farm, 1700s Irish Forge, 1700s Irish Farm, 1700s Ganatastwi (representing the probable livelihood of a small group of Native Americans from that era), 1740s American Farm, 1820s American Farm, 1850s American Farm, and Early American Schoolhouse, costumed interpreters (not reenactors), some descendants of the original families, provide oral history and artifact demonstrations of what life was life during those periods of history.
Another wonderful way to experience the history Staunton and the surrounding area is through its music. Ranging from Americana to classical, jazz, blues, and other genres, the music tells the story behind the people at live music venues dotted around town. Among them is The Pompeii Lounge, highlighted by two floors of live music entertainment on an open-air rooftop terrace and a balcony overlooking the city. The Stonewall Brigade Band presents a free concert every Monday night in the summer months at The Stonewall Brigade Bandstand in Gypsy Hill Park featuring close to 70 musicians playing brass band music.
One of the most popular annual musical events is the Staunton Music Festival, held each August over 10 days and featuring 30-plus concerts and free, one-hour daytime programs and ticketed evening performances involving over 80 world-class musicians. The Heifetz International Music Institute at Mary Baldwin University presents over four dozen concerts featuring some of the most talented and promising young chamber music musicians in the world.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of all that Staunton has to offer.
Check out these other features about what makes the city a great travel destination!