Richmond's Quoit Club offers tours of locked historic buildings. 

Behind Closed Doors

That's the best way to get into an abandoned building in Richmond?

Easy. A crowbar and some lock cutters.

The best legal way?

Join the Quoit Club.

The Richmond group's goal is to "crack open doors and vaults the great unwashed can't get into," says its executive director, Don Charles. Officially, the club's mission is to interest a younger crowd in history by arranging monthly tours of often-inaccessible city buildings and landmarks.

About 65 people belong to the group, which was recently revived by the Historic Richmond Foundation. The Quoit Club is named for a 19th-century society that "met on genial Saturdays to eat, drink and otherwise make merry," the group's brochure explains.

Members now meet on jovial Thursdays instead, but still make merry at local bars and restaurants. There are more piercings and fewer gray hairs than one might expect in a group of history buffs. The average age is 30, but members range from 20-year-olds to those in their 70s. Some wear skirts and suits, some jeans and jackets, but all think Richmond history is worth hearing about.

On a recent Thursday, about 35 members gather at 6 p.m. around the reflecting pool of the Turning Basin by the Canal Walk, shuffling their feet. Jim McCarthy, executive director of the Richmond Riverfront Corp., leads the group toward the Lady Byrd Hat Co. building.

The gray brick factory hunkers on its massive stone foundation on the canal front near 14th Street. Built around 1910, it's been vacant for decades, but city regulations prevent its demolition. McCarthy explains the plans under way to transform the building into a complex of restaurants, offices and retail stores, once tenants and a $4 million to $5 million loan are secured.

The group listens politely, but what they have come to see is the plant's mysterious interior, not the architect's rendering of a bright shopping center teeming with tourists. McCarthy leads the group through an unlocked door and ushers them onto the broad factory floor.

The space was gutted six months ago, he explains, so those hoping to see a maze of machines for making Stetsons are disappointed. But members still seem impressed with the vast space, illuminated with glaring construction lights and strewn with piles of boards.

One by one they file down rickety stairs to the factory basement. This looks more like a proper abandoned building, with rusting gears and slanting conveyor belts in a corner and deep pits scattered across the earthen floor.

The developers hope to lower the floor for access from the Canal Walk, but "you can't dig down too much here," McCarthy explains. The stone walls rest on timber supports — disturb them and the walls could collapse.

This news is greeted with some appreciative murmurs, but people are already wandering about on their own, peering at the heavy beams and cobwebbed walls. A young couple, Genevieve and Mark Rockett, stand apart from the group with their 3-month-old daughter, Maddie.

The couple joined the Quoit Club last year on the advice of a friend in the Historic Richmond Foundation. They acknowledge that the whole historic-tour thing isn't for everyone. "I guess you've got to enjoy it and have a sense of excitement about it," Mark Rockett says.

They do. Genevieve Rockett recalls vividly their trip to the Byrd Park Pump House last year and seeing the rooftop deck that once served as a dance floor for parties and cotillions. Since then, some Quoit Club members have volunteered to help renovate the pump house for public use.

Her husband's favorite expedition was a ghost tour that ended in Monumental Church on East Broad Street. "That was very cool," Mark Rockett says. A theater stood there in the 1800s until a flaming chandelier fell on the audience one night and devastated the building, killing 72. The victims' ashes are intermingled in a crypt in the church basement.

No ghosts waft through the Lady Byrd Hat Co., but the tour-goers seem sufficiently impressed. On the way out, club member Morgan Pierce discovers the old steel-doored factory safe and pokes his head inside the tile-lined room. "A safe — sweet!" he exclaims. "I want a safe."

The level of enthusiasm is closer to that of kids on a field trip than of solemn students of antiquity. Those who go on one tour keep coming back with their friends, so membership has swelled to an all-time high.

"I like this," says Paul Brooks, who works for a consulting/engineering firm. "You're seeing things before they're done. Seeing a city come back to life."


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