One of the most prominent Richmonders — a world traveler, savvy art collector and astute cultural observer — casts a skeptical eye on historic preservation. “Michelangelo couldn’t have designed St. Peter’s Basilica if something hadn’t been torn down,” she once told me about a preservation appeal. “Older buildings gave way for the Louvre.”
It’s true, you can’t save everything.
But Richmond generally has benefited from never growing too fast. It’s no boom town, and as an old city, it’s had the luxury of reflecting on physical growth and measured approaches to urban design. Neighborhood associations and resident review commissions also have a say in things. So development is evolutionary, not revolutionary.
Well, almost. No one saw the automobile coming, and swaths of historic fabric were wiped out for surface parking lots beginning in the 1920s. Egregious losses also came at the hands of wholesale, publically driven initiatives: much of Jackson Ward and all of Navy Hill were destroyed for interstate highway construction and the so-called civic center in the late 1950s and ’60s. Much of Oregon Hill, Randolph and Monroe Ward were eradicated by the Downtown Expressway in the 1970s.
With historic preservation tax credits offering unprecedented incentives for reinvigorating old structures, the challenge is to keep an eagle eye out for what might fall through the cracks. The sharper we get at preservation, the better things look. So when things fall into place — in many ways Richmond has never looked better — we should push for even higher standards in reweaving the urban fabric.
Here are nine places among those most in need of Richmond’s attention.
The Mayo Bridge
When visitors flock to such sublime cities as London, Prague and Rome, among the most wildly popular attractions are the bridges. They offer panoramic views, link ancient neighborhoods and are beautiful objects in themselves.
Richmond’s Mayo Bridge, which would look at home if it crossed the Seine, links Shockoe Slip with Manchester. It’s the city’s oldest bridge — our own Ponte Vecchio, if you will — built in 1910 as a practical and symbolic gesture when Richmond and Manchester merged into a single municipality. The 40 Egyptian obelisks that line the bridge’s sidewalks, each cast in concrete and once wired to power electric lights and street cars, are ridiculous and amazing.
But while the 105-year-old span is aging and a potential challenge to restore, its human scale is its greatest asset as a pedestrian link — not a disconnect — between the old and re-emerging neighborhoods on the north and south sides of the James River, with Mayo Island in the middle. This gentler scale also serves as a built-in traffic-calming device for vehicles passing through Shockoe Slip and into increasingly residential Manchester.
While city, state and federal officials envision a replacement bridge, a discussion that’s continued for many years, they fortunately propose a structure that would replicate the height, scale and appearance of the existing span while adding a bicycle lane and providing better access to the James River. But the option is also on the table of continuing to patch the old bridge.
The Winfree Cottage
The tiny cottage once occupied by Emily Winfree, a former slave, has been up in the air for too long. Literally.
The 700-square-foot former residence, which is at least 150 years old, rests indecorously on railroad ties and steel beams in Shockoe Bottom. There, it awaits its fate as to its resettlement and restoration.
Originally situated in Manchester near today’s Commerce Road, this frame house was purchased in 1866 for Emily Winfree (1834-1919) by her former owner David Winfree, a prosperous Chesterfield County farmer and the father of her six children. When the place was threatened with demolition in 2002, a local preservation group, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, swung into action, saving the building. It was rolled into Shockoe Bottom where, the thinking went, it could become part of the slave-trade narrative there.
The city now owns the old house and it could become a major artifact in an eventual slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom.
But here’s an alternative suggestion: Why not roll the cottage back across the river? It has no connection to Shockoe, and with the current and dramatic repopulation of Manchester — a phenomenon that couldn’t have been foreseen a decade ago — it could provide a historic point of interest. The Bottom already is rich in history and needs no imported attractions. The same can’t be said for Manchester, which has been physically and culturally decimated through the years. A developer or consortium of developers could step up to the plate to provide an appropriate location for the cottage near its original setting. If looted World War II artifacts can be returned to their rightful places, the same principle should be applied here.
The McGuire Cottage, Union Presbyterian Seminary
In the North Side, the Westwood tract is the most cherished, shared feature of the Ginter Park, Sherwood Forest and Laburnum Park neighborhoods. This mostly open expanse of flatland, bounded by Brook, Rennie, Loxley and Westwood, serves as a recreational and parklike hub for residents’ pleasure as well as a tonic for those just passing by. For decades, the property’s owner, Union Presbyterian Seminary, has generously made this land available for mostly passive recreational use.
But the seminary recently proposed major residential development and alternative uses for the tract. And an architecturally and historically important 19th-century cottage sits in the middle of the property. Even if it were incorporated into future plans, it would need major restoration.
The former Dr. Hunter McGuire cottage, a frame Italianate structure with a stucco covering, served as the esteemed 19th-century surgeon’s getaway when Brook Road was the address of choice for well-heeled Richmonders seeking to escape to the country.
The Palladian-inspired house is a fine example right out of a published pattern book by architect Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), a sort of Martha Stewart tastemaker of the mid-19th century. It’s also a picturesque building that grew over time. Its rear wing may date to the 18th century. Step one would be a scholarly study of the evolution of this rambling house to guide its restoration.
This is an important country place and a critical link in understanding Richmond’s rural past and early suburban development. The history of the Union Presbyterian Seminary is richly intertwined with that of that of the Ginter Park neighborhood that it has anchored since 1890s. Working together, an amenable plan for saving the old cottage can certainly be developed.
Westhampton Baptist Church
There’s been a collective sigh over the impending demise of the Westhampton Cinema, a beloved theater in the colonial revival style that long has anchored the vicinity of Libbie and Grove avenues. But a nearby institution, also an early-20th-century building, has an uncertain future: the Westhampton Baptist Church at 6112 Three Chopt Road.
Very much in the shadow of two imposing ecclesiastical neighbors, St. Bridget Catholic Church and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the congregation has a shrinking population. It’s difficult to maintain an aging gothic revival sanctuary and physical plant with diminishing resources.
Things have changed since the church was established in 1911 as the only congregation west of the Boulevard in what was then the old Rio Vista village. Soon thereafter, in 1914, the University of Richmond moved to its new campus just around the bend. As a Baptist-supported college, it helped create a natural synthesis between it and Westhampton Baptist. UR dropped official religious affiliation many years ago.
Richmond has a number of wonderful old churches that long have graced neighborhoods. But worship patterns change when the size of congregations expand and shrink. When it grew, First Baptist South Richmond — Mayor Dwight Jones’ church — expanded into the Chesterfield suburbs. What happens to the wonderful old gothic revival church structure on Three Chopt Road as its congregation makes other plans? Hopefully, a sympathetic buyer will restore it.
The Industrial Building, Virginia Union University
It’s the 150th anniversary of Virginia Union University, marking an especially appropriate time to reflect on the compelling story that begins with of a modest school for freed slaves that grew into a beloved university. VUU has educated a number of Richmond’s most significant 20th-century leaders and residents.
Another remarkable part of the legacy is the university’s collection of Romanesque revival buildings that grace the gentle ridge along Lombardy Street that rises above Bacon’s Quarter Branch — all but obscured by Interstate 95. John Coxhead (1863-1943), a Buffalo, New York, architect, designed a glorious, world-class collection of eight granite-faced buildings that were built to last.
But one building of the original 1880s campus has been overlooked in recent years. This small, former industrial building sits on the southern edge of campus just beyond the Wilder library. Although it’s the architectural equal of Coxhead’s contemporary buildings, it sits vacant and decaying.
One potential solution is to make it a gallery or use it for mixed fine arts. Its proximity to the university’s library, archives and art museum, along with its surface parking, makes it a natural fit. Tax credits could aid its rehabilitation costs.
Progress is a word that should be used cautiously when it comes to public housing and social engineering. But the Richmond Housing and Redevelopment Authority has recently undertaken an ambitious project. It’s replacing the institutional-looking buildings of 21-acre Creighton Court with 300 new residences — single-family homes, townhomes and apartments.
Richmond’s inner-city neighborhoods such as Creighton, Gilpin and Fairfield courts comprise, in total, the largest concentration of public housing between Washington and Atlanta. While memories run deep, some people won’t shed tears in the coming years while these unlovely, ill-landscaped masonry housing blocks give way to something, anything, new.
But a question some historians and preservationists are asking is whether or not some part of these complexes should be retained. They contain poignant history. Not only were they homes for hundreds of families since the middle of the 20th century, they are the manifestation of a great social experiment dating to before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal years.
The General Assembly Building
It gets little respect. But if you stroll to the vicinity of Broad and Ninth streets and look — really look — at the General Assembly Building, your eyes will feast on a midcentury modernist landmark of elegant proportions and tremendous urbane dignity.
The building was designed in 1964 by the blue-chip Richmond architecture firm of Marcellus Wright & Son. Soon after its completion, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts included it in a hardbound book celebrating the Commonwealth’s finest architecture. For some time now there’s been a drumbeat to tear it down. Detractors say it’s inefficient, moldy and ugly.
The loss of the elegant, state-owned Eighth Street Office Building — which once stood at Eighth and Broad streets — was the result of a kind of “Sophie’s Choice” tradeoff: It was sacrificed, while the Ninth Street Office was deemed worthy of restoration.
The loss of the Eighth Street building should serve as a cautionary tale about being too quick to destroy our architectural patrimony. A long-vacant lot resulted from its demise. Why not build a new legislative building, with underground parking, there? Then, careful and surgical renovation of the current General Assembly Building can proceed and invigorate its two architectural faces — the modernist International Style side near Ninth Street and the brilliant Beaux Arts structure on Tenth.
When something works, it works. Richmond’s baseball fans flock to The Diamond despite its obvious — and fixable — shortcomings. Why tear it down? It’s a rare local icon.
Thomas Hanson, the engineer who helped conceive the distinctive, concrete, spiderlike stadium which opened in 1985, says that the structure has a life span of at least 100 years. But he’s the first to agree the place should be remodeled and the surrounding acreage more fully developed. Parking facilities must be enhanced and mixed-use options could give the place 24-hour vitality.
Here’s the thing: The Diamond is a proven drawing card, convenient to highways and public transportation. Like the above mentioned architectural and historical treasures in other parts of town, let’s build on it, not destroy it. And, as baseball season fast approaches, go Squirrels!
It makes sense that the city’s oldest neighborhood, Shockoe Bottom, has been under siege for the longest period of any neighborhood: it’s been around the longest. First came the railroads, then came an interstate highways. Miraculously, the 17th Street Farmers’ Market still clings on by its fingernails. Originally a trading post between the Piedmont and the Tidewater regions, it’s a place where a handful of vendors still sell produce daily.
Ironically, it’s taken the threat of an ill-conceived baseball stadium, which would destroy the historic street grid of the valley, to generate discussion and action on how to both reinvigorate the market and illuminate the rich and tragic history of this place as a slave-trading center. But years of uncertainly over the fate of this old section, and the havoc of periodic flooding, has kept private development from taking full advantage of this area’s full potential.
It’s time for the heavy handed planning conceptualists to back off. Let’s improve overall maintenance of streets and sidewalks, respect the area’s deep historic layering, tighten up the basic infrastructure and let market forces have at Shockoe in an organic way.
Additional small businesses and eateries could be established here knowing that life wouldn’t be disrupted by months, if not years, of construction for a ballpark. It’s clear from the results of recent and considerable investments in market-priced apartment and commercial complexes here, involving both historic and new buildings, what the vibe of the Bottom can be. The only parts of the neighborhood that haven’t evolved were those earmarked for the ballpark scheme. Let’s free up these blocks and let the marketplace determine what comes next. S