It was the first week of my freshman year at Mary Washington College, and my historic preservation professor announced that we were going on a walk. Awesome. A stroll through Fredericksburg, Virginia, was better than a dark classroom, even if we were sweltering in the late August heat. We fell into line behind the tall man as he led us toward the southern end of campus. When we reached a small grassy mound, he stopped and turned, gesturing us closer. His eyes shone in a way I would come to know well during the next four years. “What time is this place?” he asked. We stared. He repeated the question. No one answered, which he had apparently expected. He began weaving a story that began with prehistoric people who once lived where Fredericksburg is today. He spoke of Marye’s Heights, and the urban Civil War battle. The grass mound before us (a lunette, he called it) once sheltered a Confederate cannon and soldiers. He told us about our college’s founding in 1908 as a school to train teachers, and how we could still find evidence of this in seals and old doorplates. We walked through the woods to the crumbling and disused amphitheater, and he told us to picture a smaller school. One where the small, quiet grove could hold the families for the entire graduating class. This place should be kept, he said. We continued into the residential neighborhood that nudges the campus, stopping at this and that building, and he showed us how to look for clues of their age. We passed a Georgian plantation house whose presence revealed how the land was used before other houses eclipsed the fields. One broad street was wider than others because water that powered a paper mill once coursed down its center. I was entranced, and at the end of that day I knew for sure what my major would be.
I thought of that day as I walked through the campus for the first time in years. My college roommate met me in Fredericksburg for lunch, her kids in tow, as it is an easy meeting point between her home in the Tidewater, and mine in Arlington. Our first stop was Sammy T’s, a favorite restaurant for a generation of students. Here I celebrated my 18th birthday with my parents, siblings, uncle, aunt, and cousins. Two years before the first Starbucks opened on the East Coast, my friends and I sat in the dark wood booths and drank cup after cup of the flavored coffee of the day. When my first job after college landed me in a rural farming community an hour away, Sammy’s was my weekly road trip when I needed to escape the country.
After lunch, we headed to Mary Washington, now a university, for a look around. The campus was eerily quiet at 1 in the afternoon. We surmised that the students were still sleeping off Friday night. I tried (and failed) to remember how I spent a typical Saturday all those years ago. We sat under the porticos of both dorms where we lived, our conversation dancing and laughing onto old friends and stories and dreads and enemies. Place has a way of bringing certain memories into focus. We stopped in the bookstore to buy souvenirs, and the student cashier, in jean shorts and a t-shirt, looked no different than her predecessors of 25 years ago. She asked when we graduated, and at the answer gasped and told us it three years before she was born. Evidently alumni seem just as old to students today as they did in the early 1990s.
Time has not touched Mary Washington a great deal since we left it. Yes, there are new buildings and gone buildings, but the school’s pervasive Jeffersonian revival style architecture works wonders at dimming those differences. I still am not sure what time the place where I spent four bright and anticipatory years is, but until the brick paths and we who walked them are gone, it belongs to us.