By Gregory S. SchneiderSeptember 24, 2020 at 8:00 a.m. CDT
RICHMOND — A spot on the James River thought to be the lost capital of the Monacan Indians — but where local counties plan to build a water-pumping station — is one of the most endangered historic sites in the country, according to a list released Thursday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The site, about 45 miles west of Richmond, is among 11 threatened landmarks nationwide highlighted in the annual list by the D.C.-based nonprofit, which this year also includes a Native American village buried under a parking lot in California, an affordable housing project for Mexican Americans in Texas and a residence for a historic Black opera company in Pennsylvania.
“This year’s list underscores that many cultural perspectives have helped define what it means to be American,” National Trust President Paul Edmondson said in a statement. “We believe that diversity in preservation can help change false narratives that can lead to misunderstanding and division in our society.”
Rassawek was a major trading center and home to several hundred Native Americans when English settlers began venturing out from Jamestown in the early 1600s. Capt. John Smith placed it on a map at the point where the Rivanna River flows into the James, at what is now the village of Columbia in Fluvanna County.
“Our capital city was a contemporary of Jamestown, but much larger and more complex, and it lasted as a community far longer,” Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham said in a news release. “It is for us a sacred place of great cultural significance, and it is for all Americans a place of historical importance.”
Today the James River Water Authority, a coalition of Fluvanna and Louisa counties, wants to put a facility on the site to pump water to a treatment station that will supply a commercial area developing along Interstate 64.
The project has been mired in delays, particularly since the Monacans won federal recognition in 2018 and were then able to be more closely involved in the permitting process.
The tribe raised questions about an archaeological survey that concluded there was no evidence of special significance at the site. The state agreed that the review had been conducted improperly and withdrew a preliminary permit. That caused the water authority to have to reapply for federal clearance through the Army Corps of Engineers.
Though the counties reaffirmed their commitment to the project earlier this year, they have since asked for a pause in the permitting process as the water authority considers another possible site.
When the English colonized Virginia, the Monacans were the dominant tribe from the falls of the James west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. They spoke a different language than the Powhatan Indians, who ruled in Tidewater, and were more hesitant to interact with the European settlers.
The English had pushed the Monacans off their land by the early 1700s, scattering the tribe into Tennessee, North Carolina and beyond. About 500 Monacans now live in central Virginia, out of about 2,400 in the tribe overall.
While the site of the Powhatan capital of Werowocomoco was discovered in 1977 on the York River in Gloucester County and is becoming a national park, Rassawek was lost except for the spot on Smith’s 1622 map.
In the 1980s, work on a gas line uncovered evidence of an Indian settlement at the point of land where the two rivers join. It has been believed to be the site of Rassawek ever since.
The water authority selected the site several years ago for a water intake station and built a treatment plant just across the Rivanna River.
Earlier this summer, Preservation Virginia listed Rassawek as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state and nominated it to the national list.AD
The site’s inclusion is “final proof that the eyes of the nation are on the fate of Rassawek,” said Greg Werkheiser, a lawyer at the firm Cultural Heritage Partners, which represents the tribe.
The other landmarks on this year’s National Trust list, and the organization’s reason for including them, are:
●Alazán-Apache Courts, a public-housing complex for Mexican Americans that opened in San Antonio in the early 1940s. The local housing authority plans to demolish it.
●The Hall of Waters at Excelsior Springs, Mo., about 30 miles northeast of Kansas City. A health resort built in 1938 with help from the federal Public Works Administration, the building is deteriorating and needs $16 million in restoration work.
●Harada House in Riverside, Calif., belonged to a Japanese American family that challenged racist ownership laws until being sent to an internment camp during World War II. The house is empty and in danger of collapse.AD
●The National Negro Opera Company House in Pittsburgh served as residence for the nation’s first Black opera company beginning in the 1940s. Built in 1898, the structure is vacant and deteriorating.
●The Ponce Historic Zone in Puerto Rico is an architecturally significant area in the island’s second-largest city. Earthquakes and hurricanes have caused extensive damage.
●Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago was the site of the 1955 funeral for Emmett Till, the Black youth who was murdered in Mississippi after being accused of whistling at a White woman. The building is little used today and in need of extensive repair.
●Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel in Jackson, Miss., was a gathering place for civil rights leaders in the mid-20th century but has sat vacant for two decades. The state is planning to demolish it to build a parking lot.AD
●Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati was completed in 1948 as the first hotel designed by the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and it featured the work of pioneering female architect Natalie de Blois. It has been mostly vacant since 2008.
●The West Berkeley shellmound and village site in Berkeley, Calif., was settled by the San Francisco Bay area’s Ohlone tribe at least 5,700 years ago. The site is still revered by the Ohlone people, but it lies under a parking lot and has been slated for a condominium project.
●Yates Memorial Hospital in Ketchikan, Alaska, was built in 1905 and became a hospital in 1909. Residents hope to establish a museum there to honor its staff of female nurses, who worked under trying conditions during the city’s boom years, but the building has been vacant for 15 years and is deteriorating.