A Richmond artist and designer talks about his first book, the one people still call about three decades later.
Pages from the Past
I haven't looked at this in about 30 years," Thomas Hale says slowly, flipping through the musty pages of a book titled simply "The Fan." Glossy images of stately houses, miniature gardens and people walking their dogs appear under his fingers, accompanied by brief columns of text. "Looks like a fun project."
Hale should know. It's his own book he has cradled in his hands, a pictorial volume about the Fan district that was unique when it was published 30 years ago this year.
The book was never meant to be a history or a documentary, Hale says, but simply to record the flavor of the newly revived Fan. The goal was, as author Bill Westbrook wrote, "to catch the people and places and hold them for a moment, and show what's so special here."
That book was followed by a series Hale created with other authors: Maymont, Bon Air, Petersburg and historic Richmond. "There are other people doing them now, but these are the originals and the first," Hale says of his picture-essay books.
He came to Richmond from Charlotte, N.C., in 1969, after a job transfer to an advertising and design agency here. Hale was immediately struck by the Fan's architecture, "and the urban living was so inviting to diversified people," he says. "Richmonders took it for granted, but to me it was all new and fresh."
Hale and Westbrook, who met through work, began to discuss collaborating on a book project on the Fan. "We kind of agreed on what the feel of the book would be," he says. "It should be mainly pictures but still have some romance to it."
So Hale began shooting. It took a couple of years, he says, to get every picture for the book. And that "romance" he mentions colors all of his photographs intimate shots of children zooming tiny cars across the sidewalk, neighbors chatting on porches and Virginia Commonwealth University students lounging companionably on a wide lawn.
Fan residents continue to re-enact the same scenes 30 years later, though a few things have changed. You could still argue that "the dress and color of the university students contribute to the attitude of individuality in the Fan," as Westbrook wrote back then, but the towering Afros and untamed sideburns featured in Hale's flower-power-era pictures are a bit harder to find. Today's students are more urbane than the freewheeling hippies Westbrook describes. "When braless, barefoot girls start walking through your life," he wrote, "it makes you realize that some social changes deserve a second look. No matter how tradition-bound you are."
The book itself is a tradition of sorts, found on quite a few Richmonders' shelves. After 4,500 copies were printed in 1972, selling out at $14.95 apiece, people clamored for more. The book was reprinted in a run of 5,000 three years later and then went out of print. It's been a long time, Hale acknowledges, but people still call him asking where they can find a copy.
"I buy that book all the time," says Nick Cook, owner of Black Swan Books on Meadow Street. Occasionally, people call to inquire if he has it, Cook says, but more often they'll be browsing in the store and spot it themselves: "Oh, there's that book on the Fan!"
Many residents may just flip through it to see if they can spot a particular house in its pages, or to get a sneak glimpse of house interiors and gardens normally hidden from view. But for Hale each photograph has a memory attached from the shot of his wife walking their sheepdog on Monument Avenue to the image of two elderly tea-drinking ladies, one of whom, Hale found out, is author Tom Wolfe's mother.
The yellow-haired boy who appears in a few photographs is Hale's son, David, now 35 and a photographer himself. "He would follow me around everywhere when I would shoot," Hale recalls. In one shot, David sits on a stoop, intensely studying a chrome flashlight clutched in his hands. Hale chuckles, remembering how the "kid would go down the alley and pick up treasures that he would find." Children would always play in the street, he says, have bike races and bounce tennis balls off a tall wall at Allen and Park.
"They probably don't let kids do that anymore," he says. The speeding drivers, parking dilemmas and thefts that give today's Fan residents headaches were then just minor problems, he says. "It was rough on the edges," he says, "but today it's kind of hard in places." Some critics slammed the book when it first came out for skipping over the grittier parts of city life, Hale says. "They were looking for bums in the street and dogs in the alley."
He scoffs a bit at the "Master Plan" for the area that the book describes "Richmond always has a Master Plan," he says. The reduced traffic, crime-free streets and series of parks and bicycle paths are all dreams that never came to pass.
But Hale, now in his 60s, is still fond of the Fan, and sometimes thinks about designing an updated book. He continues to work in a skylight-brightened studio tucked away on Robinson Street, painting and illustrating.
Hale now lives north of the city, but remembers clearly the old house on the book's cover 1721 Park, with a curved brick fa‡ade. It was his. "I wish I still lived there," Hale says, studying the faded photo. "I wish I'd kept