Feature Story: Where Pasts Cross
At a Church Hill intersection, four historical homes get the respect of their owners.
The Grande Dame
Betty Moore came to Richmond to teach at the Medical College of Virginia in the 1960s. She'd been renting a house in the Fan, but a garden tour brought her to an old brick house at 2520 E. Franklin St.; she rented it by 2 p.m. that day.
Moore's home, the Anthony Turner House, was built between 1803 and 1810, and it is one of the oldest in Church Hill. The Federal-style home was inspired by the English cottage design. And as Moore puts it, "The simplicity of the house is breathtaking."
The home's setting is also unlike that of others in the area: It sits way above the road behind a wall of brick and shrubs. Its corner lot has ample front and side yards. Originally the home had several outbuildings and the property ran to Grace Street.
Moore says she holds a "constant vigil" on the house, having the brick repointed every two years and painting a side of the house on alternate years so it doesn't have to be done all at once.
Moore bought the house from Mr. and Mrs. William T. Reed Jr., who'd restored it. The only major renovation Moore undertook was the kitchen. The home's original kitchen had been an outbuilding. But in the 1850s it was disassembled, and the bricks were used to add a wing to the house.
The Reeds put in a kitchen, but as Moore tells it, "Miss Reed had no interest in things like kitchens." On the contrary, Moore, a dietitian and nutritionist, says she cooks "by hobby and by professional training." Even so, she says, "I didn't want to put in an island I didn't want to make it look like the latest Architectural Digest kitchen." Instead, Moore's kitchen has a colonial feel. She used heart of pine for the cabinets and painted them a dusty blue, an early paint color she found on a piece of wood behind the refrigerator. She was careful to keep the inside of the cabinets a natural pine, in case a future owner wanted to turn the room into a library (by removing cabinet doors and converting them to bookshelves) and move the kitchen further into the wing (where she currently has her office). She cleverly took into account the sight lines from the living and dining rooms, putting appliances off to the side so the fireplace would be in view rather than the stove.
Moore, who has watched the area's restoration in fits and starts from her brick perch, says, "If I had been a scaredy-cat, I wouldn't be up here." But she says the area was, and is, attractive to faculty and students of the Medical College of Virginia because of its proximity to the school. She's also quick to rattle off the interesting characters she's met in the area: educators, politicians, psychologists, reporters people she says who "are independent and adventuresome in their lives."
David and Todd Smith went to extraordinary lengths to get their homes. That's right, homes. The 10,000-square-foot four-story Greek revival is actually two homes in one. The Smiths had heard there was a buyer for the property interested in renovating and flipping it, and they quickly made him an offer so they could renovate it themselves. So in 2000 the couple, a retired architect and a graphic designer, left their farmhouse in Ashland to make a lifestyle change.
When the house at 2601 E. Franklin St. was built in 1857, it was a three-story (including an English basement) center-hall Greek revival with chimneys on the outside walls and fireplaces in each room. In 1870 a fourth floor was added and the house was split in two, creating 2603 E. Franklin, with an entrance built to the left connecting the house and its neighbor. This new doorway contains some of the most delicate ironwork in the city.
When the Smiths bought the houses in 2000, they'd been split into six apartments. They rented out the apartments in 2601, on the west, and began turning 2603 into a house again. Now, five years later, they're just six months away from completion, and the 6,000-square-foot house at 2603 is on the market. Now that they've taken away the years of modernizations, they'll sell this part and move next door after they complete renovation there.
"We enjoy the journey of fixing this place up," David says. "We didn't want to do anything to detract from the character of the house."
He says he often consulted his neighbor Bill Crosby, a historical architect with the Department of Historic Resources, for his opinion on what would be correct for the home.
The Smiths put gas lines back in the home so they could power a gas chandelier in the dining room and the two homes' combined 20 fireplaces. They also modernized the electrical and plumbing systems, added a kitchen to the ground floor and renovated all the bathrooms. (In 2601, they will keep the kitchen in the English basement, along with the dining room.)
Crosby points out that while he wouldn't consider it an "academic restoration," the modernization of the kitchen and baths was all done within the parameters of historic walls. "In that case they've been very respectful," he says.
But perhaps the most striking change they made to the old home is the addition of a fifth-floor cupola (at 2603), which they intended to be David's work studio. The square room has windows all the way around, giving it a 360-degree view of Church Hill, the James River, South Side and downtown. "You really kind of understand the city from this viewpoint," says David, pointing out St. John's Church, the city's center, even the South Side landing where slaves were brought in and where the slave trail is today. From this vantage point, David shows off the diversity in architecture in Church Hill, a characteristic he also enjoys about his neighbors, who are from all walks of life, he says. "It's a real mixture, a natural mixture; we love it."
The Smiths are also cognizant of the importance of their renovation to the neighborhood and the importance of returning these grand homes to their single-family glory. "We're trying to give this neighborhood the house it deserves," David says. "When it's done, I think we will have done the neighborhood a service."
Patricia Ann Jamison moved to Richmond from Greenwich, Conn., in 2003 because of her job at Wachovia Securities. Since her childhood in England, she'd always wanted to live in an old house.
In Church Hill, she's found that, and more. Jamison has found the neighborhood to be a "real community," she says. Despite what she'd heard about Richmond being a hard place to meet people, she says, "it's much friendlier than Connecticut." When she moved in, neighbors came over to introduce themselves and to see if it was true that she really was a Yankee. This Northerner also enjoys her five-minute commute downtown, a big change from her Connecticut-to-New York City commute of an hour and 45 minutes.
Jamison lives at the Greek-revival townhouse on the northeast corner of the intersection with her mother, who joined her in the move south.
"It's Greek revival at its best in this city that and Linden Row," says historical architect Crosby, their neighbor across the street. "[Jamison's house] has all the characteristics really large windows, heavy, two-columned entry popular in the last decades before the Civil War."
The heirs of Samuel Adams built the house in 1835. The three-story home, including an English basement, sits high above the sidewalk because of grade changes at the street level. After climbing the stately stone front steps, visitors are rewarded with a view of the river and downtown from the front stoop. One of the most interesting details in the home is the lion motif in the plaster, which creates a sort of border around the living room. It's also echoed in the mantel, which Jamison has played up in a mirror above the fireplace and a lion door knocker.
While Jamison says she wishes she knew more about the history of the home, she's had a little help from previous residents. In the 1960s the home was turned into six apartments; the brick courtyard out back served as a common area. Several of the former tenants have stopped by to see their old digs. In 1997, previous owner Michael Holland turned the house back into a one-family, but he left the old apartment heating. As a result, Jamison has four water heaters. In the renovation, the integrity of the house was restored, including the 12-foot ceilings, large foyer, front parlor, dining room and two upstairs bedrooms. But the kitchen became something entirely new.
The home originally had a basement kitchen. As a way of staying true to the original plan but updating it, Holland removed the floor above it to make a two-story kitchen with a vaulted ceiling. He used the floorboards of the second story to cover the ceiling and give it a rustic Early American feel. The floor joists were turned into steps that lead down to the kitchen from the dining room (a big difference from the steep stairs that usually lead to basement kitchens). This unique cooking space also holds a fireplace and a sitting area that looks out onto the courtyard.
One of the challenges of living in a 19th-century home is adapting to a lack of storage. Jamison had closets built into her bedroom, but despite her 3,400 square feet, she must rent a storage unit for all her holiday decorations.
Pat Squire is a patient woman. For the last 13 years her home has been under constant construction. Her husband, Sydney, has headed up the restoration work on their stately Greek-revival home with careful research and craftsmanship that few bother to carry out so meticulously. "I think if you're going to get the product you want, you're going to have to get involved in it," Sydney says an understatement.
Sydney, who grew up in Church Hill, raised children in Chesterfield County, then returned to the Hill to live in a historic house. He undertook the majority of the work, with the help of a friend in the construction business. He's acquired an arsenal of tools, including a marble cutter, to properly repair and restore the home. And he's a wealth of information about the architecture and design of the home's mid-19th-century origins.
When the Squires bought the house after their children had left for college, it was overgrown and condemned. "We really thought that house was going to be lost," their neighbor Crosby says. "He has literally single-handedly restored it."
Fortunately, much of the ornately detailed interior, like the molding and the carved plaster ceilings, were intact. But it didn't have modern heating and electrical systems. And because most of the walls are solid brick, the challenge was figuring out how to run ductwork without building out the walls (which is what most people do). Because Squire was passionate about maintaining the grandeur of the home and doing things precisely, he managed to find hollow walls between the windows. Another example of his preciseness: After finding the appropriate wooden piece for under the stairs (separating the hallway from the stairwell) in a home of a similar time period, Sydney used wooden pegs instead of nails to secure it, as it would have been done originally.
The Davies House, as it's called, was built in 1858 and named after its most famous resident, a Welsh stonecutter and photographer who was most famous for being the photographer of Gen. Robert E. Lee. He also made his mark on Church Hill by donating the money for the organ at St. John's Church. Sydney believes Davies may have carved the unusual granite front steps of the home.
Sydney has made numerous trips to the library to research Davies and Greek-revival architecture. "Sydney tried to get into his soul so he could think like him," Pat says. Sydney agrees: "You need to get to know their level of wealth so you can know what he might have had, what his tastes might have been."
Sydney's detective work was perhaps best tested with the mantels. They had all been stolen when the Squires moved in, the house having been empty for many years. Sydney researched what type was appropriate for the time period (marble) and then searched for ones that were intact and would fit the size of the fireplaces. After some false matches, the Squires replaced all six marble mantels. The one in the front parlor had a chunk missing from the fruit design, which prompted Sydney to buy a marble cutter so he could replace the piece.
The porches were also a major undertaking. The front porch had gone through a series of replacements that had left it with disproportionately small pillars. Sydney milled new molding that matched interior molding, reconstructed the crown, had new pillars specially made and put it all together. Repairing the rear porches a grand three-tiered structure visible from Main Street required a year of scaffolding on the back of the house.
When asked when the home might be completed, Sydney simply says it's a work in progress, a lifelong project. The Squires hope to have the basement kitchen finished in the next year they had the entire floor excavated and a cement floor poured at which time they'll be able to tear down the temporary second-floor hallway kitchen and begin work upstairs. Each project reveals more information about the home, and Sydney seems undaunted. "It takes money and patience," he says, "but if you enjoy it, boy, it's cool."