A new book celebrates one of Richmond's greatest assets 

Street Smarts

In December, despite it being a frigid, Sunday afternoon, queues of the chilled and curious snaked down granite steps and onto Monument Avenue's sidewalks. Ticket-holders to the Fan District house tour awaited elegant architectural spaces, sumptuous furnishings and over-the-top decorations. The wide-eyed throngs sought romance and connectedness — if only for a day — to something grander and nicer than the sameness and, yes, even tawdriness of daily lives. Malls and Midlothian Turnpike seemed worlds away.

But with every season, Monument Avenue delivers. Big time. Along with the Capitol, it is Richmond's icon. When visitors descend, it's Monument Avenue that we show them. Like Boston's Commonwealth Avenue and Baltimore's Mount Vernon Place (both of which inspired its design), Monument Avenue is one of the nation's most impressive and memorable urban spaces.

The Historic Monument Avenue and Fan District Foundation has published a handsome and beautifully written new pictorial book, "Richmond's Monument Avenue," (University of North Carolina Press, $39.95) as a valentine to this century-plus, tree-lined thoroughfare. But through the research and keen observations of its authors — seasoned Virginia architectural historians Sarah Shields Driggs, Richard Guy Wilson and Robert P. Winthrop (who is also an architect) — the 264-page volume is also an important and refreshing examination of our community's physical, architectural and cultural history.

While the authors write, "Richmond is known as a city obsessed with its past, and Monument Avenue serves as a shrine to that obsession," they also maintain the street is a work in progress: "It infuses the city with a mythology and demonstrates how history and perceptions of the past change, and how new meanings are created."

For most of the 111 years since 1890, when the Robert E. Lee monument was dedicated amid a throng of adoring Southerners, those associations have been overwhelmingly Confederate. But the authors stress, in an interesting discussion of the addition of the Arthur Ashe statue in the 1990s, that the street now welcomes broader audiences. Frequently, African-American tourists are seen photographing the Ashe monument. And hundreds of cyclists riding in a recent, national AIDS benefit wound their salutary way around the statue as they rolled through Richmond.

The book is organized into five chapters dealing with the origins of the street, the six statues, how the neighborhood grew, the specifics of the building styles and architects, and finally, a chapter entitled "Influence, Decline and Rebirth."

The chapter on origins speaks of political, land use and economic forces that shaped post-Civil War Richmond, the cult of the "The Lost Cause" and Richmond's already established tradition of honoring its heroes. In the chapter on the statues we learn that placing Lee's monument on an isolated tract sparked as much controversy as did the Ashe memorial at Roseneath Road — and much of it racial. African-American editor John Mitchell Jr. wrote in his Richmond Planet that the Lee monument offered a "legacy of treason and blood."

We also learn that despite what many consider to be traditionally a residential bastion of blue bloods, the street initially was settled by real estate developers, leaders in the construction and building materials fields and Jewish families who built homes to be near Congregation Beth Ahabah.

The chapter on the street's buildings and architects traces how Monument Avenue's development largely parallels the trends and tastes of upper-middle-class urban Americans from 1890 to 1930, including the increasing acceptance of apartment living.

Like any history, however, this one must be read closely and critically. Since considerable discussion is given to the influence of Capitol Square's Washington monument, it is disappointing that Louisiana Territory explorer Meriwether Lewis is mistakenly said to join John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason and Thomas Nelson at the statue's base. It is actually Andrew Lewis, a general in Washington's Continental Army.

And there is little discussion and few illustrations of the avenue's small-scaled, but considerable gardens. The avenue has some spectacular, private green spaces.

It is also frustrating that the one-story, modernistic office building at 2016 Monument is called "prosaic" and attributed to an unknown architect. The designer of this was Frederick "Bud" Hyland, a prominent Richmond architect, now retired, who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rarely does the prose get as flowery as it does in discussing the Ashe monument: "Facing west is also symbolic, since embedded in American culture is the myth of the West as the future, as hope and freedom."

But this is picking. The book is balanced and a tremendous resource.

The visuals combine archival photographs (many seldom published) and original photographs by John O. Peters, a Richmond architectural photographer. Used as we are to experiencing the street in a kind of blur from a vehicle or in the rearview mirror, seeing the individual buildings in isolated shots is like seeing the street in a whole new light.

But it is the meld, of course, that makes Monument Avenue spectacular. Like a good piece of music or a poem, it is a continuous event that is best taken as a whole, by long walks and rides, not simple one-shot glances. The space is defined and contained by consistent building setbacks, evenly planted rows of trees and residences that generally conform to consistent heights. There is enough of a variety of building designs, however, to keep things interesting. Breaks in the action are provided by the houses of worship.

"Richmond's Monument Avenue" teaches us that great civic places don't just happen, but are the result of constant oversight, attention to detail and respect for the past and the future.


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