In general, though Mather Architects has received many accolades over the years, the testament to our work that pleases us most is seeing the impact we’ve had on our clients and their communities. However, there’s one honor we’ve received that makes us especially proud because it exemplifies a dearly held principle of ours we bring to every project we undertake: that of balance. In 2004, Mather Architects won the Best Public Building Award, from the Valley Conservation Council, for the Town Center that we created for Mount Jackson, Virginia.

The Council bestows this award every year under its Better Models for Public Development program. It created the program in 2000, with the aim of helping Shenandoah Valley balance the demands of growth and development with the preservation of its irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage. The program embraces the idea that, rather than being in conflict with each other, a community’s economic development and its unique cultural assets can each be integral to the other. New development, according to this way of thinking, can build on and express a community’s natural, cultural and historical character, while bringing the advantages of revitalization and making room for growth.

This idea perfectly encapsulates the mindset that we brought to the Mount Jackson Town Center. A small town with the same development challenges facing many rural and small-town communities, it nevertheless boasts a loyal, committed population of citizens who prize Mount Jackson’s unique character and history, and wanted to see that character expressed in its public buildings and spaces. The town wanted to attract more tourism, but never lost its focus on the quality of public life for its own residents.

Our approach to balancing these needs included two central ideas. First, we proposed combining the town’s administrative and public offices with its tourism and visitors center. This allowed Mount Jackson’s moderate resources to be put to dual use, and ensures that visitors are welcomed to a place that bustles with local activity and gives an authentic taste of the town’s character. It also makes a statement about how Mount Jackson views its development: namely, that it welcomes tourists and makes residents at home in equal measure.

Our second idea was to build a new structure that gave the appearance of being an historical artifact. The proposed site had once been home to a Mount Jackson train station; that building no longer existed, but we felt we could pay tribute to the town’s history and evoke a feeling of an earlier time by creating a turn-of-the-century-style railway station. Our version was updated, however, with an open feel, abundant natural light, and of course all of the modern amenities needed to support the smooth functioning of the town’s offices and services.

We designed the building so as to leave space for a Town Green adjacent to the Visitors Center — and we have been elated to see that this space has since been developed by the Town to include walking paths, a gazebo, and infrastructure for vendors at community festivals. Receiving the Best Public Building Award was the crowning testament to a building whose impact on its community continues to be felt — and that continues to make us proud to have designed it.

Cultural heritage and historical interest can be a community’s greatest economic development assets, serving as a unique draw for tourism and residents alike; and the development of these assets and the community around them can be the best path to preserving them for the enjoyment of future generations.