Old Town Manassas is a historical treat that, in many ways, has only recently been discovered.

Just seven years ago, "there were 33 vacant storefronts," said Ray Willis of R.W. Books on Center Street, where classical music plays as browsers poke through crowded stacks of military history books and out-of-print selections.

"It looked like a dying town," he said. "Then a spark lit, and everything took off."

Now, Victorian-style street lamps and comfortable benches beckon downtown visitors to linger, poke in and out of small shops, dine at cafes, or take in a variety of cultural activities. There is ice skating at the Loy E. Harris Pavilion and exhibitions at the Center for the Arts; the two government-backed projects, each with a price tag of about $2 million, were completed earlier this year. Buildings both public and private have been spruced up in an effort to revive the once foundering downtown.

"People who haven't been here in five years would be pleasantly surprised," said Willis, president of the Old Town Business Association.

Many people in the region know of the city of Manassas, with a population of 36,000, as a bedroom community 30 miles from Washington, studded with townhouse developments. At its heart is Old Town, which has a commercial core of five blocks by five blocks, with historical residences in and around the commercial area. Eighty-five percent of the shops have second-floor residences, including many upscale rentals.

"After business hours the town still has life," said Willis, who commutes on foot three minutes from his loft to his store.

When Nancy Hersch Ingram first moved to town in 1957 as a young bride straight out of art school, she recalls, "Manassas was a real farm town where the feed store stayed open on Friday nights."

Today, strolling past brightly decorated shops, Ingram beams, recounting the recent opening of the Caton Merchant Family Gallery. Its inaugural exhibit highlights her artworks in watercolor, oil painting and printmaking. The gallery is in the old Hopkins Candy Factory building, built in 1908. The building is the new home of the Center for the Arts, which plans to host classes and live performances and feature the work of local artists.

Ingram and Willis credit Old Town's kick-start to the late Loy E. Harris, a Manassas businessman who rode his motorcycle across the country and upon seeing cute small towns would say, "We could do that."

"People like Loy and I were laughed at when we began to rehab old buildings," Ingram said. "I had an artist's vision, and Loy had the resources."

Once the spot where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad, Manassas Junction, as the community was known in 1860, was blossoming into a transportation center; the railroad was especially important because no major roads or waterways served the area. At the beginning of the Civil War, Manassas Junction became a focal point: Whichever side controlled the railroads controlled access to key areas in Virginia, and control swung back and forth.

What is now Manassas grew from the rubble that remained at the end of the Civil War. Part of Old Town was destroyed in a fire in 1905, but today the distinctive architecture of the late 1800s and early 1900s remains to anchor the community to its past, in the commercial and residential areas.

Diane Day found surprises in her 1870 colonial, two blocks from city hall. "It has seven fireplaces, but we've only uncovered two of them," Day said. Recently, while trying to figure out why part of their back yard was so marshy, Day's family found a sodded-over, 100-year-old fishpond in the shape of a cross. Now stocked with three goldfish -- Silly, Willy and Billy -- the pond is a delight for Day's two young daughters.

When Jim and Donna Budynas were planning marry two years ago, an expensive wedding was not in the cards.

"We preferred to spend our money on a house," Donna Budynas said. The wedding was held in the garden of the couple's large white colonial, a house they bought from a couple who had similarly used their wedding money in 1935.

The Budynases' home, built by George Washington Hixson, one of Mosby's Rangers during the Civil War, was completed in 1874. It has a dining room spacious enough to seat 25 people.

"I can seat all of my family and all of my husband's family around the table," Donna Budynas said.

Lucy Hutchison, a 45-year resident of Old Town, lives across the street from the Budynases. Hutchison said she enjoys the changes brought by the young couples who have moved in to the neighborhood in recent years. "There used to be a more defined social strata here," she said. "It's friendlier now."

Hutchison and the Budynases live two blocks from the 1914 train depot, which for the past decade has been a Virginia Railway Express station; it also houses the visitor center. "Six hundred riders catch the VRE each day at this station," said Tricia Davis of Historic Manassas Inc., the nonprofit group behind much of the revitalization of Old Town.

When VRE service began there in 1992, Davis recalls, a rider told her: "This is so wonderful. I've gotten two hours of my life back each day."

Emily Kane, who commutes from Manassas to National Geographic in Washington by train, said: "I've read so many books since I started taking the VRE to work."

In the early 1980s, Kane was a preschooler living in a foursquare Victorian house with nine-foot ceilings and horsehair plaster walls, around the corner from where she lives now. The Christmas parade passed by the house while her parents served neighbors hot chocolate from a silver pitcher. Kane recalls how she and her three sisters would walk to the local pharmacy for milkshakes.

Now, Kane walks to the farmers market, to the Cramer Center for its professional Shakespeare productions, and to the Harris Pavilion, where winter ice skating alternates with summer concerts.

"All of my friends think it's cool to live in Arlington, but I live in a place where I can stretch out," Kane said. "You really feel the small-town atmosphere in Old Town, but it's not so laden in tradition that it's overbearing."

Likening Old Town's cozy shops and restaurants to the atmosphere on the once-popular television show "Cheers," she said, "It's really nice to go into places where people know your name."

Joanne Wunderly adjusts the decorations at her downtown shop, and a porch adorned with ribbon adds to an Old Town snow scene.The old train depot is now the Manassas Visitor Center and a Virginia Railway Express station.Nancy Hersch Ingram, who first moved to town in 1957, stands in front of the restored Hopkins Candy Factory building, which is now the Center for the Arts.