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An old town with a new attitude.
Manassas is a unique city that recalls
its history fondly, while keeping an eye on the future. Located 30 miles
southwest of Washington,
D.C., and only a short drive from the countryside, the city balances a
mixture of urban amenities and historic interest.
The 10-square-mile city provides
residents and visitors with the best of these two worlds. The center of
activities is located in the historic downtown area, commonly called Old
Honored as a Virginia Main Street
Community, Manassas is indeed a classic American community, steeped in
history and tradition, welcoming visitors year-round from around the
Town Manassas, winner of a Great American Main Street Awardm, is
home to an enticnig array of shops, museums, galleries, and
The city’s superb variety of shops,
museums, galleries and restaurants — and its robust calendar of
festivals and events — provide an endless source of interest and fun.
“Old Town Manassas, winner of the
Great American Main Street Award, is always an unforgettable destination.
For weekend romantics or families on holiday, for a fascinating tour
through history or a leisure day trip, Old Town is one place in time. We
residents and businessmen all work together, giving the community a lot of
charm and ambiance,” says Joanne
Wunderly, president of the Old Town Business Association.
Visitors can begin their visit at the
Manassas Train Depot, the signature icon of Old Town. Built in 1914, the
renovated depot is now home to the Historic Manassas Visitor Center and
the James and Marion Payne Railroad Heritage Gallery.
The site is also a busy stop for daily Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express
commuter trains connecting Manassas
D.C., and beyond.
Nearby, the Manassas Museum offers an
intimate glimpse at the rich history and culture of the Northern Virginia
region through a living-history program and permanent, as well as
“We are very rich in history with
the Manassas Museum System overseeing eight diverse historic sites.
Whether you want to explore 300 years of American history or purchase a
remembrance of your visit, Manassas has it all with a wonderful historic
district,” says John H. Verrill, director of historic resources.
Robertson is executive director of Historic Manassas, Inc., which
oversees the Farmers' Market.
“Manassas is unique in that we have
what so many areas lack, and that’s a sense of community. The trend
today is for builders to spend millions of dollars to create a Town
Center, but Manassas is the ‘real deal.’ We actually are a working
town with a first-class quality of life. Our city offers arts and
entertainment such as the Loy E. Harris Pavilion, Cramer Center, and on
the lawn of the Manassas Museum, and thousands of people seeking that
sense of belonging come here to enjoy who we are. When people come here
and see our historic district, the great restaurants and beautiful shops,
they walk around and fall in love with our Old Town,” says Linda
Robertson, executive director of the award-winning Historic Manassas, Inc.
Prior to the 1850s, the Manassas area
was no more than a collection of small farms known as “Tudor Hall.”
Through the efforts of a group of enterprising Culpeper businessmen, who
saw the railroad as the best way to transport their produce to Alexandria
and Washington, D.C., the Orange & Alexandria Rail Line was completed
in 1851. A few years later, with the joining of this line with the
Manassas Gap Railway, the hamlet began to grow, becoming known as Manassas
Junction, then Manassas.
These very rail lines that brought new
promise to the area would put Manassas at history’s crossroads during
the Civil War. Manassas Junction was a strategic location for both Union
and Confederate forces. Twice, armies met at this site to battle over the
railroad linking Washington, D.C., with the South. Battles on July 21,
1861, and in August 1862 left the entire area in ruins.
Museum Inc. hosts a Civil War ecampment each year on the lawn.
Thousands of men lost their lives at
Manassas, but the region’s notoriety as a crossroads for battle — and
its unique position as a railway depot just miles from the nation’s
capital — brought it fame and prosperity in the late 19th century.
Stores, homes, hotels and eateries opened and the economic boom in
Manassas continued into the 20th century. The richness was not to last. In
the 1970s, Manassas — like so many other historic main streets —
encountered another invader, suburban sprawl. Attracted by new strip malls
and office parks, businesses abandoned the Victorian downtown.
Forty percent of shops were vacated,
and 33 empty buildings stood as quiet ghosts along the once-bustling
streets. The sight of dilapidated and decaying buildings in the
once-prosperous downtown was alarming to the remaining businessmen,
particularly insurance broker Loy E. Harris, who led the charge to begin a
revitalization of Old Town. Other business leaders followed his example
and Old Town was transformed into what it is today — a historic district
providing an old-fashioned setting for restaurants, boutiques, antique
shops, barbershops, coffee shop, candy and ice cream shop, museums, art
galleries, craft shops, Manassas and Virginia souvenir shops and other
“Although located in the City of
Manassas for more than 20 years, the Prince William County-Greater
Manassas Chamber of Commerce has been privileged to serve the businesses
of not only the city, but Prince William County and the City of Manassas
Park as well. When I leave my office and walk down the streets of Old
Town, I never fail to run into someone I know. That’s why I think the
city offers the best of both worlds: the friendliness and charm of a
small, meticulously preserved, old-fashioned community set amidst the
hustle and bustle of a prosperous and growing county,” says Debbie
Jones, president of the chamber.
D. Hughes, Manassas city manager, in front of City Hall.
The leadership and vision of Historic
Manassas, Inc., and its supporters has yielded enviable success. “Our
business leaders played a key role in shaping the business environment of
Manassas as a center of commerce, culture and community life that is
essential for business attraction and expansion. The city’s progressive
planning approach to creating a unique lifestyle has been instrumental in
positioning Manassas to compete on a regional and global level. Bold
initiatives such as the restoration of the Old Hopkins Candy [facility]
into the home for the Center for the Arts and the construction of the Loy
E. Harris Pavilion have resulted in Manassas becoming a magnet in
attracting visitors and businesses to our community,” says Lawrence D.
Hughes, city manager.
Annual events in Old Town draw upwards
of 200,000 people. These events include the Manassas Heritage Railway
Festival in June, which is a family celebration of the rich railway
history that Manassas has to offer; the Manassas Wine and Jazz Festival in
June; Celebrate America, with the largest, choreographed fireworks
extravaganzas in Northern Virginia on July 4; Manassas Fall Jubilee in
October, in which more than 100 vendors
offer handmade jewelry, woodcrafts, handmade candles and other
unique arts and crafts; and Merry Old Town, the first weekend in December,
during which the streets in Old Town become a page out of a classic
of the stately mansions that adorn Grant Avenue in Manassas.
The Merry Old Town weekend starts off
with Santa Claus arriving by train at the Victorian railroad station to
light the Christmas tree amidst carolers, ice skating and hayrides.
Saturday features the Greater Manassas Christmas Parade, the largest
holiday parade in Northern Virginia, with more than 2,000 participants
including floats, marching units, and high-flying balloons. The merchants
of Old Town host their annual open house with refreshments, free
horse-drawn carriage rides and shopping-spree giveaways.
Gallery walks and concerts on the lawn
of the Manassas Museum, Cramer Center, Center for the Arts and in the Loy
E. Harris Pavilion are part of the vast array of entertainment the city
has to offer.
Partnerships are key
According to Debi Sandlin, the
economic development manager for the city, “The renaissance Old Town has
enjoyed over the past 15 years can be directly attributed to the
public/private partnerships that have been created between the business
community and the city leadership. Fifteen years ago, Manassas faced what
other cities across the nation were facing — how to compete with the
growth of regional shopping centers. To meet the challenge, the city’s
leadership and the business community came together and formed a
partnership that has resulted in a vibrant downtown that is attractive to
visitors, business owners, investors and residents.”
Homeowners lucky enough to live in one
of the Victorian- or Colonial-style houses in the heart of the city can
walk to the thriving business sector or take in one of the many cultural
“I can walk home at 11 p.m. and not
worry about crime,” says Jan Alten, who owns the Opera House Gourmet, a
gift and wine shop that offers wines from Virginia and 15 different
regions of the world. “This is a wonderful place to live and run a
business ... we have a real sense of community. Would you believe that Old
Town had more than 80 free concerts last year?” The nearby Nissan
Pavilion features big-name pop and country stars in the summer.
Sandlin, economic development manager, in front of a restores
caboose in Old Town.
For over a century, people have been
coming to Manassas to shop. Today, the tradition continues with an
outstanding variety of unique establishments. Manassas is a fascinating
blend of old and new where antiquing is a serious pursuit. Offering a
wealth of vintage furnishings, country crafts and works of art, the
area’s charming shops have become a source for hard-to-find
collectibles, and visitors will find that Old Town merchants are a wealth
of anecdotes and inside information about their
wares, as well as Old Town itself and adjacent stores and shopping
“We offer something for everyone,”
says Christine M. Finnie, owner of Whimsical Galerie in Old Town, which
sells gift items, toys and souvenirs. “I find that customers coming into
my store are some of the nicest in the world. I really enjoy meeting
More than 50 buildings have been
renovated, attracting upscale boutiques along with an eclectic mix of
restaurants. The sidewalks, adorned with flowers and turn-of-the-century
lampposts, beckon travelers and residents alike to slow down and enjoy
their surroundings. Once again, the heart and soul of the community
sparkles by day and comes alive at night with sounds of music filling the
The southern tradition of hospitality
lives on in Manassas, evidenced in the greetings you receive as you walk
down the streets or step into a shop. No matter your pleasure: business or
history, gourmet dining, art or antiques, in Manassas you will find the
perfect memory to take away with you.