Virginville Historic District
The Virginville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Virginville Historic District is significant as an intact linear village typical of Pennsylvania German-influenced rural Berks County. The district features the architectural influences frequently found in the region, including Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, and Italianate. The district's period of significance begins in 1874, with early resources dating to the village's initial growth spurt and ends in 1930. The placement of a railroad stop next to a country store in 1874 provided the impetus for the village's growth, which continued into the early decades of the twentieth century. After c.1930, new construction in the district virtually ceased. Few other places in Berks County contain a cohesive and intact group of buildings that illustrate the appearance of rural Berks County villages in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this dearly.
The village of Virginville straddles State Road 143 (Main Street) at the northern edge of Richmond Township, just below the Perry and Greenwich Township borders. The northern end of the village is marked by the converging Saucony and Maiden Creeks. Several roads intersect near the northern and southern ends of the village. These roads played an important role in the very early settlement of the village. Present-day Virginville started out as farmland owned by the locally prominent Dreibelbis family, purchased by Jacob Dreibelbis from George Merkel in the mid-1700s. Adjacent to the Dreibelbis farm, at the current intersection of State Road 143 and Gilardone Road, was a log house and hotel built by Jacob Boyer to serve travelers. This was the first of the commercial enterprises in the Virginville area. In 1839, William Dreibelbis purchased the Boyer property and replaced the log building with a stone building known as the "Dreibelbis Hotel." Both the Dreibelbis farm and the Dreibelbis Hotel remain today. Although both are outside the Virginville Historic District boundary, they played a role in the development in the area, as the hotel provided incentive for other businesses, and the farm provided the land. In 1809, Jacob Dreibelbis built a stone 2.5-story general store on a piece of farmland just below the juncture of the Maiden and Saucony Creeks and north of the Boyer property.
The Dreibelbis family continued to own and slowly develop the area around the Dreibelbis Store, the area encompassed by the Virginville Historic District. By 1862, with just a small duster of buildings, this area was known as "Virginsville." In 1874, the Berks County Railroad (later called the Berks and Lehigh, then the Schuylkill and Lehigh) cut through the Dreibelbis farm and into Virginville. A depot was constructed next to the Dreibelbis Store and the Dreibelbis family began selling more lots in response to the increasing railroad activity. The 1876 township map shows streets and a small group of buildings. By 1886, Virginville had three taverns, a store, a number of "fine" residences, and a church. These buildings included the 1885 Mansion House Hotel. Francis Dreibelbis, Jacob's son, opened a feed mill and lumber yard behind the Dreibelbis Store about that time, and the Heinly Wagon Works was operating across the street.
The tavern and hotel business in early Virginville benefited from a local tourist attraction. An 1854 township map of Berks County shows the Dreibelbis Store and Hotel buildings, as well as the "Dragon Cave." The existence of the cave was known before the Dreibelbis family purchased their land. It became an early attraction, bringing visitors into the area from as far away as New York and Philadelphia. In 1871, Crystal Cave was discovered on a farm nearby and overshadowed Dragon Cave's popularity. Crystal Cave is part of the same system as Dragon Cave, but is larger. The owners of the property marketed the site, taking advantage of the new railroad in Virginville. Tourists would come to the Virginville depot and take a carriage from Virginville to Crystal Cave. The taverns, hotels, and stores in Virginville not only served their local community and regular patrons of the railroad, but also the many seasonal tourists coming to see the cave.
It appears that many of the houses on the east side of Main Street were built between c.1875, after the railroad arrived, and c.1890, as they are similar in appearance and share the Italianate influences found on the 1885 Virginville Hotel. The houses with the Gothic Revival-influenced cross gable appear to have been built after 1885. One of the most stylish of the houses in the district was built in 1891 and features both Gothic Revival and Queen Anne details. The house was built for Elias and Mary Hein, but is better known as the Tom Werley property. Werley was a livestock trader, known locally as a "cow jockey," who used the railroad to transport animals and housed them in the barn behind the house. The railroad played a vital role in the businesses of Werley and the other Virginville residents. Francis Dreibelbis, who owned the feed mill and lumberyard, was also one of the primary builders in Virginville. He is credited with building many of the houses along Main Street. He hired carpenter Seth Heinly, who had his own shop, to do much of the finish work and exterior trim on those houses, including his own. Heinly constructed the non-denominational Sunday School building, St. Paul's Chapel, in 1903. The Methodist Church that was mentioned in the 1886 description of Virginville only functioned for a short time. Following its demolition, no new church was constructed, and the Sunday School became an important part of life in Virginville.
Like other small towns and villages throughout Berks County, Virginville was able to serve most of the needs of its surrounding farming community. A creamery purchased and sold milk for local dairy farmers. Blacksmiths, tinsmiths, shoe makers, butchers and other small businesses sprang up in the backyards of the village. The historic district's resource inventory notes the locations of some of these businesses.
By 1910, most of the houses in the district were constructed, and all new construction in Virginville appears to have slowed. Only five primary buildings in the district were built between c.1910 and c.1930. Balthaser's Garage was built in 1921 on the site of the Heinly Wagon Works. Next door a small general store building, which also housed the post office, was built c.1930. These two commercial buildings anchor the northern end of the district. The garage was a significant business in the area and also operated as a car dealership. Three houses in the district were constructed c.1930, an American Four Square and two Dutch Colonial Revivals.
The way of life in small villages dominated by railroads, including Virginville, changed in the twentieth century as automobiles began replacing passenger and freight cars. Tourists no longer used the railroad to reach Crystal Cave, and high school students were no longer taking the train to Slatington (Lehigh County) to attend classes. Residents began converting stables for use as automobile garages, although they continued to keep chickens and pigs in their backyard coops and pens. The end of the period of significance for the Virginville Historic District, c.1930, was also the end of an era in Virginville. The village was losing its role as a vital railroad stop. The nearby towns of Fleetwood, Hamburg, and Kutztown continued to grow, but growth in Virginville during the 1930s and 1940s was minimal.
The stable next to the Virginville Hotel served the fire company in the 1940s. The Virginville Grange purchased the building and renovated it in 1956, sharing it with the fire company until their new building, outside the district, was complete in the 1960s. Most of the small businesses in Virginville closed by 1955. The railroad depot was closed and removed in the mid-1950s when the railroad ceased operation. The Dreibelbis Store was destroyed by fire in 1963 and never rebuilt. Francis Dreibelbis' mill and lumber yard became part of Harvey George's contracting business and the mill is no longer recognizable.
Following World War II, some new houses were constructed in Virginville, mostly along Main Street on the south side of the village, all outside the district. Asbestos siding was added to some of the buildings in the district in the 1950s, and new garages were built. Some of the original slate or metal roofs were replaced with asphalt shingles, but the original roof pitches remained the same. Likewise, when front porches were replaced on a few of the houses, the shape and scale of the original porch was usually retained. These changes to the facades of the buildings generally have little impact on the streetscape or integrity of the district. The only major new construction within the district was the Virginville Grange and a residence.
The majority of the houses in the district are substantial 2.5 story brick or frame, typically with a gable side roof and an L-shape. The district is made up of vernacular buildings, common types of houses and outbuildings found in southeastern Pennsylvania during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They exhibit stylistic influences usually found in this period, primarily Gothic Revival and Italianate. The district is mostly residential, and its five non-residential primary buildings as well as the outbuildings are also vernacular. The properties have overwhelmingly retained their integrity and are in good condition.
Individually, many of the buildings in the village are not architecturally exceptional or noteworthy. Their impact as a district, however, is significant. Together, the district's buildings dearly illustrate the appearance of a typical rural Berks County village between 1874 and c.1930. The Virginville Historic District compares favorably to other historic districts in Berks County. There are no village districts in the immediate vicinity of Virginville, although there are National Register-listed farms (including the adjacent Dreibelbis farm), mills, and a covered bridge nearby. The National Register-listed districts in Womelsdorf and Stouchburg in western Berks County and the village of Oley in the Oley Township District share many similarities with Virginville. All four districts are in villages where most of the buildings line one primary street. The growth of Womelsdorf and Stouchburg, as in Virginville, was also closely linked to transportation, in their cases a canal. All four districts included small, family run businesses that served their rural farming communities. The other districts have periods of significance that begin earlier than Virginville's, but extend to include architectural examples similar to Virginville's from the same period. The integrity of the four villages is also similar, with limited modern construction or changes to streetscapes or facades.
While the Virginville Historic District is similar to Womelsdorf, Stouchburg, and Oley in size and integrity, it differs dramatically from some other small, rural villages. Nearby villages along Route 222 have been decimated by new commercial construction and cannot convey much of their historic roles, settings, or appearances. Villages of a similar size and scale in other parts of Berks County, including Bethel, Rehrersburg, and Gibraltar have much less integrity than Virginville. While they have not suffered as much demolition or new construction, their buildings have a much higher rate of replacement siding and porches and other changes to their exterior. They have many buildings similar to Virginville's in construction and function, but are much less original in appearance.
The Virginville Historic District is one of the best examples of a linear, late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century village in Berks County. What began as an outgrowth of the Dreibelbis Store became a full-fledged, self-sustaining village following the arrival of the Railroad in 1874. Its architecture and setting have survived largely intact for seventy years, presenting a remarkably original streetscape to passersby. Over two-thirds of the vernacular houses, commercial, and religious buildings with their assorted outbuildings contribute to the significance of the district. Their shapes, sizes, and stylistic influences (predominantly Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne) are all typical of rural Berks County between 1874 and c.1930. The Virginville Historic District, with its limited post-1930 construction and minimal changes to the contributing resources, continues to exhibit the appearance of a typical rural Berks County village between 1874 and c.1930.
School District: Fleetwood