Many of the houses built along Unison Road in the 1800s are still standing, and the old general store, though closed, still marks the only intersection in the western Loudoun County village for which the road was named. If time has passed Unison by, that is the way its 50 inhabitants like it.
Last week, when the state declared the village a historic district, it handed residents a shield against the advance of paved roads and subdivisions marching from the east. The designation isn't bulletproof, but it does give property owners in the crossroads community an organization and a voice -- not to mention a tax credit for preservation work.
"It gives us clout," said Mayo Brown, president of the 18-month-old Unison Preservation Society. "If two people write letters, no one listens. Now that we are a district, somebody has to listen."
Unison is not the site of a famous Civil War battle nor is it the birthplace of a president, and its architecture is not prepossessing. But what it lacks in textbook significance, it makes up for with a streetscape that looks like the past itself. It is the kind of place where someone will go out to offer a toddy to a couple of neighbors exercising their horses along the snowy road, eventually drawing much of the village outside and into the conversation.
What Unison has done is unusual, said David Edwards, director of the Winchester regional office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Loudoun County is full of historic districts, but most were sponsored by the county government, he said.
"In this case, the county had nothing to do with it," he said. "The community wanted it and supported it. We don't normally get a a district created on its own."
Unison might have remained another blip on a back road, a collection of people going about their business, hoping things would never change but knowing they would. Then, five years ago, the general store, in business since 1880, closed because there wasn't enough trade to keep it alive.
"We heard people were going to buy it and tear it down," said Paul Hodge, a retired Washington Post editor who was an organizer of the society and is now its spokesman. "Mayo and I kept talking continuously about what we could do to save the store."
He approached a number of nonprofit groups about buying it but none was interested. So he and Brown decided that if the community became a historic district, a developer might be found who would buy and renovate the building to take advantage of the tax credits.
"We made the historic district to save the store," Hodge said.
In the spring of 2001, they launched the historical society, applied for federal nonprofit tax status, raised more than $8,000 and hired a professional team to research Unison's history and write the state application.
Among the residents interviewed by historians Maral S. Kalbian and Leila O.W. Boyer was Anna Beavers, who moved to Unison when she married into a longtime Loudoun farming family in 1947.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Beavers said of the historic designation. "We want those old buildings to stay just the way they are, to be the little quaint town I came to as a new bride."
The store, she said, was the heart of the community.
"Back then, they had the potbelly stove and the nail kegs where the men would sit to tell stories," she said. "They'd tell things about their day, how much corn they planted and how much they'd raised."
Hodge said the store also was the scene of the only major crime in Unison in the last century, the fatal shooting of the owner in a robbery in the 1920s. "We haven't had anything since then," he said.
A year ago, a buyer was found. Coe Eldredge, who lives about a mile away, bought the building at public auction for $120,000 after Hodge and others assured him that if he saved it, he would have their support before the county Board of Supervisors for a zoning variance if it was needed.
The store isn't going to be a store again but rather an office for Eldredge's company, a shop for a woodworker and an apartment on the second floor. Although the potbelly stove is gone, there will be a place for the community to gather because Eldredge is giving the village one room as a museum.
Beavers, considered the village historian, is delighted.
"I'm getting all that history framed," she said. "Anything I can get together. It will be all about Unison."