Old Salem Historic District historical marker

Old Salem Historic District (J-126)

Est. 1948 here as first local historic district in N.C. Prototype for state’s local historic preservation laws.

Location: NE quadrant of traffic circle on SR-4315 at Salem Ave., Winston-Salem
County: Forsyth
Original Date Cast: 2023

The Old and Historic Salem District is a historic district located in Winston-Salem which helps protect and preserve the architecture of the 18th and 19th century Moravian settlement of Salem. It was the first historic preservation district of its kind in North Carolina and among the first of its kind in the country. It is a model for similar historic preservation districts protected by legislation including those at Halifax, Edenton, New Bern, and Bath, among others. Moreover, the Old and Historic Salem District is important because large portions of the district are interpreted as a living history museum, operated by Old Salem Inc., which highlights Moravian art and culture in the state.

As a living history museum, Old Salem was in part influenced by the restoration work carried out at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s and earlier efforts in Europe. Funded by John D. Rockefeller, the Colonial Williamsburg project was a major step forward for historic preservation in the United States. Now, rather than preserving a single building or home associated with an important figure, an entire town or neighborhood was protected. By preserving the whole town as a form of village museum, Rockefeller’s goal was to ensure that Williamsburg remained “free from inharmonious surroundings.”

In 1931 Charleston, SC’s local government took the village museum model and expanded upon it, formally establishing America’s first historic district with the passage of a zoning ordinance. Exterior construction in the “Old and Historic Charleston District” required approval from a Board of Architectural Review in the form of a Certificate of Appropriateness. As Winston-Salem would do seventeen years later, Charleston passed this ordinance at a local level without state enabling legislation. Quickly, other cities with historic cores followed Charleston’s example and passed laws to protect and preserve historic buildings: San Antonio (TX) in 1939; Alexandria (VA) in 1946; Williamsburg (VA) in 1947; and Winston-Salem in 1948.

Historians have often noted that many of these early local historic districts established between 1931 and 1951 were primarily created in response to threats, and the same was true for Winston-Salem. In 1947, the owner of Gaines Cash Grocery bought a vacant parcel – the original site of the Moravian “Fifth House,” which had been moved to the western side of the block – with the plan to build a larger store. Residents loudly objected to the business moving south into the historic area and submitted a petition to the Board of Alderman to zone the commercial blocks of Salem as residential. In October, the alderman for that area, one William Shaffner proposed a 90-day halt on the issuance of building permits in parts of Salem and that a “Special Committee of persons familiar with the historical value of the areas in the vicinity of Salem College be appointed ... to study the feasibility of establishing the area ... as an historical reservation for the protection of historic sites and buildings.”

The Citizens Committee for the Preservation of Historic Salem (CCPHS) held its first meeting on October 29, 1947. The Committee agreed to analyze historic preservation ordinances passed in other cities to develop a draft ordinance for use in Winston-Salem. In June, CCPHS presented the Board of Aldermen with a plan to preserve the character of Salem. Their models included Charleston, Williamsburg, and the Vieux Carre in New Orleans.

On December 21, 1948, the Board of Aldermen adopted a new citywide zoning ordinance, which established the Old and Historic Salem District and created a Board of Architectural Review to approve plans for exterior alterations.

Winston-Salem’s use of the Charleston model is evident in the name of the district and the review body given authority over design review; both cities use the Old and Historic District and Board of Architectural Review terminology, as did Alexandria’s Old Town. The beginning of Section 14(b): “In order to promote general welfare through the preservation and protection of historic sites and buildings” departs from Charleston’s ordinance only by changing “places and areas of historic interest” to “sites and buildings.” As preservationists Lina Cofresi and Rosetta Radtke observe, the Old and Historic Salem District and others like it were created “often independently of local planning programs. Nonetheless, these cities were the true pioneers of the American preservation movement at the local government level, and they deserve commendation ....”

In 1963, the NC legislature began to consider statewide historic preservation policy at the urging of the State Department of Archives and History and Institute of Government at UNC. The Legislative Council studied a report by Philip Green Jr. from the Institute of Government, which determined that there was no overarching state statutory authority for municipalities to prevent inappropriate alteration or demolition of historic buildings and sites. Green also noted that the attorney general had concerns regarding the legal authority for the establishment of the Old and Historic Salem District. In response, James A. Gray Jr., the president of Old Salem Inc., and Ben Rouzie, Planning Director, met with Green to encourage drafting statewide legislation and establish a better legal basis for the Old and Historic Salem District. While the bill was under review in the General Assembly, Edenton, Bath, and Halifax also asked to be included. They were, and the bill, commonly known as the “Old Salem Act,” was enacted into law on May 12, 1965. In 1967, local bills adding Hillsborough, Murfreesboro, and New Bern to the Old Salem Act were passed, and Wilmington was also added in 1969. In 1971, the General Assembly passed statewide enabling legislation, giving all communities the power to establish local historic districts through zoning authority with a standard framework, which though amended through the years remains in place. Over 100 North Carolina communities, including municipalities and counties, have an active local historic preservation commission, which now gives the option for designation of and design oversight over local landmarks as local historic districts

“Aldermen Adopt New City Zoning Ordinance,” Winston-Salem Journal, 22 December 1948, 1.
Marie Belk. “Group to Study Architectural Review Board: Citizens’ Committee Will Confer Tuesday,” Journal and Sentinel, 26 October 1947, 14.
Marie Belk. “Salem Seeks to Save Heritage by Rezoning Ancient Section,” Journal and Sentinel, 27 July 1947, 12.
Lina Cofresi and Rosetta Radtke, “Local Government Programs: Preservation Where It Counts.” in A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century, 117-156. 2003.
Chester S Davis. “New Zoning Plans for Winston-Salem’s Future,” Journal and Sentinel, 29 August 1948, 27.
Elizabeth S. DiIorio, “Historic Preservation Legislation in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, North Carolina: Origins, Developments, and Trends.” Master’s Thesis, Wake Forest University, 1990.
Heather Fearnbach. Winston-Salem’s Architectural Heritage, 2015.
“For Historic Areas: City Asks Zoning Authority,” Winston-Salem Journal, 22 April 1965, 9.
Frances Griffin. Old Salem: An Adventure in Historic Preservation, 1985.
Diane Lea, “America’s Preservation Ethos: A Tribute to Enduring Ideals.” In A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century, 2003.
“Leinbach is Named Chairman of Salem Preservation Group,” Winston-Salem Journal, 29 October 1947, 4.
NCGS Chapter 160D, Article 14, Chapter 504, 1965.
“Old Salem Preservation Plans Made,” Winston-Salem Journal, 26 November 1947, 20.
“Preserving Its Charm,” Winston-Salem Journal, 10 June 1948, 8.
Norman Tyler. Historic Preservation: An Introduction to its History, Principles, and Practice, 2000.
“Zoning Law to Protect Old Salem,” Winston-Salem Journal, 29 April 1948, 1

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