The Fredericksburg Area Museum at the Historic Town Hall and Market Square
The Fredericksburg Area Museum is located at the town’s historic Town Hall and Market Square. The market square dates back to the 1730s; the town hall was constructed between 1814 and 1816. The property is significant as the civic, social, and economic center of Fredericksburg for much of its early history, as a headquarters and hospital during the Civil War, and as the only surviving town hall/market complex in Virginia. The museum was established in the town hall in the mid-1980s after city government relocated to a different building. It moved its main exhibits to the Catherine W. Jones McKann Center from 2004 to 2015 but returned to the town hall after auctioning the McKann Center in 2016. Today, the museum features multiple exhibits detailing Fredericksburg’s storied past, from prehistoric ages to the current day.
Backstory and Context
The historic Fredericksburg Town Hall was constructed between 1814 and 1816 to replace a structure built in the early 1760s. This earlier structure was quite important in its day, having been visited by George Washington several times in connection to the Masons, the Society of the Cincinnati, and a Peace Ball held in 1783; however, it had fallen into disrepair. The new, Federal-style town hall served as the seat of city government, with a market (Market Square) in the paved area behind the building. Market Square long predates the town hall, having been in use since the 1730s. The brick and stone town hall was designed to incorporate both civic and economic functions, as it featured an arcaded basement level on its rear with space for shops and sandstone steps connecting it to the main open square. (The arches in the back of the structure were originally open; stucco walls were constructed over them around 1912, when modern stores that had developed around the property mooted the aging market.) The construction of the town hall transformed this site from a hub for farmers and craftsmen into the true focal point of the city.
Fredericksburg was an early and important commerce hub in Virginia, and one of several towns that erected a combination market and town hall. The idea, connecting what were two essential city functions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was adopted from England but Americanized in design and execution. The Fredericksburg Town Hall specifically flourished as a center for business and government, as well as important civic functions (such as a ball in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824). The Confederate and Union armies also used the building as a headquarters and hospital during the Civil War. It is also significant statewide, as, “the sole Antebellum survivor of what is probably the most important urban civic building style type found in early America.”
In addition to the market space in its basement, the town hall was designed with a public gathering space on the second floor and rental office space in the wings. Over the years, modern conveniences were installed, and large rooms were subdivided and reoriented multiple times into smaller offices. This resulted in the loss of most of the original interior decorations; however, late-1980s renovations restored some of the original floor plan. Fortunately, the town hall’s exterior remains largely intact.
The city government moved out of the historic structure in 1982. The Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center (FAMCC) was chartered three years later and took over the old town hall. The property is now part of the 40-block Fredericksburg Historic District and was added to the National Register of Historic Places individually in 1994.
In January 2004, the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center purchased the 1927 Planters National Bank building (also known as the Farmers & Merchants State Bank and the First Virginia Bank) and the adjacent 1890s Carley building on Prince Anne and William Streets. The buildings were christened the Catherine W. Jones McKann Center, and the FAMCC spent millions converting these buildings into its primary location. Despite a large donation campaign, the museum was forced to go into significant debt. The effects of the Great Recession and an unprofitable operations plan spelled an uncertain future for the FAMCC, and operations were suspended in April 2015. The McKann Center buildings were ultimately auctioned for $1.4 million in February 2016, and the museum moved back into the Town Hall, where it reopened as simply the Fredericksburg Area Museum (FAM) in April 2017. Today, the FAM is dedicated to preserving and promoting the story of Fredericksburg by means of its large collection of artifacts from the region’s prehistoric settlers to recent development. The museum features exhibits on Fredericksburg’s history, the Rappahannock River, and historic furniture; displays a large general collection and a “People’s Gallery” of locals’ collections; and is currently gathering objects and stories related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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2) Fredericksburg Area Museum. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://famva.org/.
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8) Hise, Judith. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form - Fredericksburg Town Hall and Market Square, Virginia Department of Historic Resources. July 22nd 1994. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/VLR_to_transfer/PDFNoms/111-0057_FredericksburgTownHallAndMarketSquare_1994_Final_Nomination.pdf.
9) History, Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. Accessed January 4th 2017. http://www.famcc.org/visit/about/history/.
10) Jett, Cathy. Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center building brings top bid of $1.4 million, Richmond Times-Dispatch. February 12th 2016. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://richmond.com/news/virginia/fredericksburg-area-museum-and-cultural-center-building-brings-top-bid-of-1-4-million/article_114b4842-b7ab-535f-9d21-380725e833bc.html.
11) Schemmer, Clint. Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center to suspend operations; future uncertain, The Free Lance-Star. August 23rd 2016. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburg-area-museum-and-cultural-center-to-suspend-operations-future-uncertain/article_3d9df0b1-a4f1-5f68-a8fc-51d1d99d9385.html.
12) Wrenn, Tony P. Window on a bank, The Free Lance-Star. May 6th 2015. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/town_and_countylocal_history/window-on-a-bank/article_938864bc-bf54-54f2-82ef-d3fbb3288dda.html.
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