November 14, 2014

Hanover Tavern in Hanover, Virginia

Hanover Tavern view from street

photo by: Jimmy Emerson DVM, Flickr

Hanover Tavern has hosted a wide array of historical figures throughout its nearly three centuries in operation.

George Washington slept here. So did Lord Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Patrick Henry. Edgar Allan Poe and P.T. Barnum passed through its doors, as did Charles Dickens and Chief Justice John Marshall.

But Hanover Tavern isn’t one to name-drop. Its status as one of the oldest taverns (and one of the few surviving Colonial-era taverns) in the United States, though, certainly gives it bragging rights.

The history of this Hanover, Virginia, establishment goes back to 1733, when a license was issued for a tavern at Hanover Courthouse. The 12,000-square-foot, 27-room tavern once sat on 550 acres, part of a plantation at the courthouse. A fire devastated the original structure, but it was rebuilt in 1791.

And throughout its nearly three centuries, Hanover Tavern has seen many big moments in American history. As a young, relatively unknown lawyer, Patrick Henry stayed at the tavern after arguing the Parsons’ Cause case in Hanover in 1763 -- a case that famously challenged royal authority, and is said to have helped set the stage for the American Revolution, in addition to cementing Henry’s reputation as a gifted orator.

Hanover Tavern foundation sign

photo by: Hanover Tavern

The Hanover Tavern Foundation acquired the aging building in 1990 and launched a successful restoration.

Henry had lived at the tavern for many years prior to this case. He was married to Sarah Shelton, whose parents, John and Eleanor Parks Shelton, owned the tavern throughout the 1750s and 1760s. Henry assisted his father-in-law, greeting guests and tending bar. He would even play his fiddle there for guests' entertainment.

Decades later, in August of 1800, several enslaved African-Americans from the tavern complex participated in Gabriel’s Slave Rebellion, a revolt thwarted by torrential rains and a betrayal from within the group. And during the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops, alike, stopped at the tavern en route to battlefields.

Fast forward to 1953. Hanover Tavern was worn, in need of attention. A group of six actors from New York came to its rescue, purchasing the tavern and founding Barksdale Theatre, a dinner theater that went on to receive national acclaim. It also was the first performing arts organization in Virginia to welcome integrated audiences in the wake of Jim Crow laws.

The actors made necessary repairs to the building and, for years, lived upstairs while staging performances downstairs. Hanover Tavern, once again, teemed with life and activity.

Hanover Tavern side view, daytime

photo by: Hanover Tavern

The original 27-room tavern from 1733 was devastated by a fire; it was rebuilt in 1791.

In 1990, with maintenance becoming increasingly difficult, the theater sold the aging tavern -- now on 3.5 acres -- to the nonprofit Hanover Tavern Foundation, which raised funds for and completed a large-scale restoration, completed in two phases.

Hanover Tavern Restaurant & Pub re-opened for business in July 2005. Curtains lifted on the 155-seat theater once again in January 2006. And the Hanover Tavern Foundation continues to raise funds and provide support for the tavern's continued maintenance and educational opportunities.

Today visitors flock to the National Register-listed Hanover County Courthouse Historic District (which includes the tavern, courthouse, jail, and clerk’s office) to catch a play, indulge in rich Southern cooking, and take in a bit of America’s history.

Hanover Tavern at night

photo by: Hanover Tavern

Ready to raise a pint in the same halls as George Washington and Patrick Henry? Here’s what you need to know before you go:

Location: 13181 Hanover Courthouse Rd. (Route 301), Hanover, VA 23069

Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Mondays.

What to order: Try the shrimp and grits or the Cornish game hen. Wash it down with one of the many craft brews offered.

Leave room on your schedule: Hanover Tavern offers several tour options, including a self-guided audio tour and a tour of the basement and first floor. There are a number of exhibitions throughout the year, as well as special events such as the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner, an annual event, and the Historic Christmas Open House.

On stage: Virginia Repertory Theatre’s They’re Playing Our Song runs through January 4, 2015. Next spring, purchase tickets for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Best Yelp review: “We followed the brown ‘historic site’ signs on a whim and ended up being treated to a dining space with some great … character, the house's excellent taste in music, and some truly wonderful food. It turned out to be the best night out for dinner we've had in a long time.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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