Back to list

Destination Downtown: Historic Graffiti and the Harrisonburg Homes Team

July 16, 2019 by Jeslyn Stiles

As we know from home renovation shows, old buildings can be full of surprises — both good and bad! Luckily the Harrisonburg Homes Team of Kline May Realty was in for a treat when they renovated their Downtown office space in 2012. As they tore down drywall in the former Wilson Jewelers location, they uncovered a wall full of curious writing and fun illustrations. This artwork turned out to be graffiti that dated back to the 1890s — a piece of Harrisonburg history, perfectly preserved in time.

The Harrisonburg Homes team knew that they had uncovered something special. They were reluctant to cover the newly discovered wall back up, but it wasn’t feasible to keep the area permanently open. They had the graffiti extensively photographed and compiled into a booklet for posterity, then installed drywall back over the area and continued the renovation. Although it was covered, it was never forgotten — when HDR announced that applications were open for their Destination Downtown Grant in the summer of 2018, HHT knew just what they wanted to apply for. They teamed up with Charles Hendricks of the Gaines Group Architects to help them design a movable wall solution and apply for the grant, and they were ultimately selected as grant recipients.

closeup of historic graffiti

A closeup of the graffiti details

With the grant money secured, the Harrisonburg Homes team harnessed the power of the Harrisonburg community to get the project done. Kline May, the Harrisonburg Homes team’s brokerage, stepped up with a matching contribution to supplement the Destination Downtown grant. Using plans designed by Charles Hendricks, Herr & Company took on the fabrication and construction of the doors and track in late November/early December 2018. Claire Wayman, Marketing Director for the Harrisonburg Homes Team, told me that the doors weren’t quite ready for the big reveal come the Harrisonburg Homes holiday open house — so she wrapped up the entire area in wrapping paper and a giant bow to hide the surprise:

Holiday art museum event in Downtown Harrisonburg

Holiday cheer was far from Claire’s only contribution to the graffiti project — she and Penny Imeson from the Heritage Museum researched the names featured within the graffiti to piece together as much as they could about their stories. Using the Newspaper Archive, they searched old newspapers for mentions of the artists and the businesses that resided in that building in the late 1800s, along with publicly accessible ancestry, death, and census records. Although the research is still a work in progress, the pair made some interesting findings – most of the people named were in their 20s, and a few – Daniel Dechert and Emil Amiss — were found to have attended grade school (and made the honor roll!) together. I asked Claire if she had an inkling as to why the graffiti was made — did any of the names work in construction? Was there anything written down that was relevant to the building? Aside from a few words that look like they may have been paint pigment names, there was little there to explain why this artistic pursuit occurred – it seems that young people in the 1890s, much like modern-day teenagers, liked to pass the time by drawing on the walls.

Newspaper clippings about Wilson Jewelers and Avis Drug Store
Newspaper clipping about Wilson Jewelers and Avis Drug Store
Newspaper clippings about Avis Drug Store

Newspaper clippings about Wilson Jewelers and Avis Drug Store, stores that occupied the building before HHT

Although few of the names could be traced back to construction, many were pharmacists — which is unsurprising, considering that the building was Avis Drug Store in the late 1860s. John Taliaferro then opened a jewelry and optometry shop there in 1879, where it operated until William Wilson purchased the store in the 1960s. Wilson Jewelers was open on Main Street until 2011, when the Harrisonburg Homes Team moved in. The history of the building remained preserved through its series of tenants — Claire showed me an Avis Drug Store medicine bottle that they had found in the basement after moving in. It was incredible to sit there in that building, examining the intricate medicine bottle, 120-year-old graffiti on the walls behind us — there’s so much rich history in our Friendly City, and we’re lucky to have so many community members who are dedicated to collecting and sharing it.

The graffiti finally enjoyed its big reveal during this May’s First Friday, drawing a large crowd of excited onlookers. Claire told me that they also continue to see a steady stream of walk-ins who heard about the graffiti and want to come see it for themselves, including kids who bring their parents in so they can look at the graffiti and ask questions. The Harrisonburg Homes team has been excited to see so much community involvement and love being able to share such a unique view into a snapshot of Harrisonburg history.

Announcement for big reveal of graffiti project