A beautiful new chapter for Washington's historic district

A marriage between innovative rehabilitation and an unwavering commitment to honoring the past makes Washington's historic district a must-visit location for North Carolinians.
Posted 2023-02-02T14:54:30+00:00 - Updated 2023-06-08T09:00:00+00:00

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority

While Washington, North Carolina, is known to many as, ‘Little’ Washington, it’s truly the original Washington. In 1776, the town was the earliest to honor our first president with a town named after him.

But the town and area were established before the moniker was adopted. Nestled at the junction of the Pamlico and Tar Rivers, the community served as an important port and commerce town for North Carolina’s first settlements. Shipbuilding, trade, agriculture, and fishing industries flourished in early colonial days.

This history is important to the people of Washington. That much is evident with every step you take in the historic downtown district. As people and businesses continue to discover the opportunities that abound, leaders are working to ensure a beautiful marriage between maintaining history and meeting the needs of today.

Domini Cunningham is the Historic Preservation Planner for the City of Washington and helps residents navigate the waters of renovating an historic building. While the projects are always exciting, they can also be daunting. To be deemed an official historic district, there are national guidelines that must be followed. Those are outlined in the National Park Service’s Sector of Interior Standards for Design.

Because of the intrinsic connection to the history of the waterfront, Cunningham says that while those standards are followed, Washington’s standards are even more specific. On the city’s website, you can find a link to Washington’s Historic Preservation Commission’s Design Standards. The detailed document describes a wide range of design aspects and gives guidance for renovations and rehabilitations.

While some may see hurdles, a growing number of people see the opportunity and understand that because of the focus on preservation, Washington is truly unique. In fact, as Washington’s design standards manual says, “The City of Washington’s ongoing preservation efforts have made its historic district one of the most historically intact districts in the State.”

“People are passionate about the historic district,” said Cunningham. Because of that passion, many things remain true in Washington. There are unobstructed views to the river throughout the city. You won’t find chain hotels in the epicenter of town. And, perhaps most importantly to the residents, there is a community feel that can’t be manufactured.

“I think the word that comes to mind is the story, the story of the town,” said Warren Allen, co-founder of Allen, along with his fiancé, bought the property at 100 West Main Street and is actively renovating it into a 6-apartment micro-hotel/Airbnb property dubbed The West Main. The building was originally the home of The Savings and Trust Company Building, founded in 1908.

Since his move to downtown Washington, Allen said, “I walk to work every day, and I feel like I live this, sort of, old school way of life. I’ve lived in places where I walk past 100 people and don’t know any of them. In Washington, even though it’s a five-minute walk to the office, it turns into a 15-minute walk because I talk to four or five people on the way. I think it’s a more enjoyable way of life in this town.”

In Allen’s opinion, to continue to work toward this community feel, it is vital to keep the buildings that tell the story of the town intact. Which is part of his goal with The West Main.

While the interior of the building needed extensive work, they are saving beams, woodwork, flooring, everything they can that will keep the history alive. Specifically, they are creating a nautical theme to the property, as a nod to the town’s shipbuilding history. Each apartment will be named for a ship that was built nearby and the “M” of The West Main’s logo resembles sails in the breeze. While staying in an immaculate and adorable apartment in the heart of a waterfront downtown, visitors will also be learning about and touching history.

Cunningham says that it’s this kind of passion for renovation that is breathing new life into the historic district. “Renovation is done right when someone is willing to put in the work and do the research for their property. They’re willing to listen and really look at the design standards,” he said.

Throughout the historic district, there are several projects being done, from minor home renovations to major projects. Major projects can apply for tax credits from the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office.

According to Cunningham, there are approximately 30 active tax credit projects in the Washington Historic District. From places filling a demand for visitor lodging, like The West Main, to new businesses looking to thrive in an underutilized waterfront location, to people’s dream homes, these projects represent a variety of industries and interests. All of them seek to maintain what is so special about Washington.

While Washington is already a favorite weekend destination for many travelers, these renovations are sure to boon tourism and visits to the town. Distilleries, breweries, rooftop decks, the freshest seafood possible, sublimely located vacation rentals and a brush with history are just some of the reasons that visiting Washington’s ‘new’ historic district should be on the ‘bucket list’ for every Carolinian.

While many towns may boast cool spots to visit, Washington invites you to something bigger, to be part of a new chapter in a story that’s still being written. Allen said, “Each one of us is sort of a little character in the story of this town and for this [enjoyable way of life] to continue, I think the historical integrity of these buildings needs to be preserved so there’s a nod to the former story. We are all a continuation of that.”

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority