It was first known as the Great War, and even as it spread vast and bloody across the heartland of Europe, its origins remained complex and confusing — a bullet from an obscure assassin that inflamed ancient hatreds, a martyred British cruise ship that eventually helped drag the United States into the conflict.
None of this, of course, had any direct bearing on the city of Lynchburg.
No German armies were massing for an assault on Central Virginia, no primitive warplanes were circling overhead. Nevertheless, the Great War soon became Lynchburg’s war.
And it still is, thanks to the ornate and classically inspired Monument Terrace, the city’s defining architectural creation. Although what eventually became known as World War I was fought largely across the fields of western Europe, Lynchburg’s citizenry fiercely adopted the cause.
Hundreds of Central Virginians enlisted for overseas combat. A portable kitchen was erected alongside the railroad tracks bearing some of these volunteers to their ports of exit, supplying hot meals and inspiring a wry civic nickname — ”Lunchburg.” The city’s elite contributed mightily to war bonds drives.
In his book “Lynchburg, Virginia: the First Two Hundred Years,” James M. Elson included this quote from a Great War memoir by Edley Craighill: “Coming back to their native haunts on being discharged, the soldiers of the legions of Pershing looked about and saw that a mighty change had come over our people. The soldiers of yesterday let them forget.”
For it had been 54 years between the end of the Civil War and the victory over the Kaiser — time, perhaps, for many Southerns to put their own grim wartime history aside and embrace fighting for a unified cause in a new century. Perhaps the “soldiers of yesterday” who let them forget wore gray.
Meanwhile, Monument Terrace was waiting. It had started out as a humble dirt footpath traversing the steep incline between Church and Court streets. In the late 1800s, city engineer August Forsburg built a fountain, with steps, to make the uphill trek easier and at the same time honor the five Lynchburg firefighters who had perished fighting a blaze at the Daily Virginian newspaper building.
Once the local troops returned from Europe, though, the terrace project was caught up in a wave of post-war relief and gratitude. In 1923, Aubrey Chesterman, of the local architectural firm Frye and Chesterman was commissioned to expand Forsburg’s work to include a plaque honoring the city’s 43 Great War dead. Chesterman’s goal was not just to honor the war dead, but to do it in such a way as to give downtown Lynchburg an architectural feature it craved.
His first move was to relocate the fireman’s statue from the bottom of the steps to Miller Park and replace it with his own work featuring water-spouting dolphins. Within two years, that piece itself was removed and placed in storage, making room for the bronze “Listening Post” statue, locally referred to as the Doughboy, by Charles Keck that remains today. Chesterman also added a double row of 141 limestone steps with brick paving on the landings, granite for the super structure and a list of names, separate for black and white soldiers.
The timing and the architect were a perfect match. Largely unscathed by the Civil War, Lynchburg had rebounded into a period of prosperity and already had appropriated $120,000 for the Forsburg steps and the fireman’s statue.
Chesterman was a native of Richmond who had served five years as an apprentice to a seasoned architect there, then worked another five years for the rising firm of Noland and Baskerville. He and Edward Frye set up their Lynchburg office in 1900.
Almost immediately, Frye and Chesterman made an impression on Lynchburg, designing the Aviary in Miller Park (1902), the Academy of Music on Main Street (1904), and the Krise Building (1905).
Stanhope Johnson, the third local architect to put his stamp on the terrace, added the final touch during the 1950s when he replaced the original row of Lombardy poplars with dogwoods, azaleas and magnolias.
Wrote Lynchburg architectural historian S. Allen Chambers: “Monument Terrace is the civic amenity in the best tradition that goes back centuries to the renaissance and baroque periods in Italy, both in its conception of its design inspiration. Monument Terrace value is symbolic. Practically from the day it was completed, it became the city’s trademark. Few places have a better one.”