“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Richmond's Westwood Tract- background information for a nighborhood under assault


The 34-acre Westwood Tract has been a valuable civic amenity in the Sherwood Park, Laburnum Park, and Ginter Park neighborhoods. The Union Theological Seminary acquired it from 1901 to 1906 for purposes of future expansion. As the character of residential seminary's changed over time, Union Seminary developed the edges of the tract by building several apartment buildings for the use of married local and international students. They also added faculty residences, a group of residences for missionaries on furlough, a maintenance facility, tennis courts, and athletic fields.
A current plan for the development of 301 residential units on 15 acres on the eastern side of the tract has proved to be very controversial. It packs in too many dwelling units and takes too little account of the existing patterns of the surrounding blocks. Instead, the new development employs a conventional program with central parking surrounded by massive blocks of apartments built of wood, clad with both brick veneer and synthetic siding, and featuring awkwardly designed porches, out-of-scale windows, and offset gables. The way that the development is organized purely to maximize numbers and obscures the front of the historic farmhouse at the heart of the Westwood Tract. Part of the remaining areas will be leased to Shalom Farms which will use it as an urban vegetable garden.   
Plan of the proposed development by the Timmons Group.
The bloated designs of Humphey and partners of Dallas, Texas, make no attempt to rise to the high architectural level of its surroundings- the City of Richmond and the National Register listed streetcar suburbs of Laburnum Park and Ginter Park. Instead, it resembles anonymous roadside developments found along commercial strips all around the county.
Not least among the features of the tract is the old farmhouse at its heart. The historic house known as the McGuire Cottage has a complex and interesting history, which can be better understood by undertaking research in local institutions. Important facts that have a bearing on its value to the city and region have to do with its greater age compared with nearby buildings and its excellent state of preservation. Although it has sat empty for many years, there is little evidence of moisture-related damage or rot.  The most interesting take-away from our research is that the house took its current form well before its acquisition by Dr. Hunter Homes McGuire in 1887. Instead, the Italianate section facing east appears to have been added in the 1850s.

East front of Westwood (McGuire Cottage) [Style Weekly]
The property known as Westwood began as a 539-acre tract of land “in sight of Richmond” on the Brook Road north of the city.[1] It was acquired previous to 1790 by Dr. James Currie (1756-1805), a Scottish-born physician, who began his long career in Richmond in 1769 or 70. Mordecai in Richmond in Bygone Days says that “at the corner of Broad and Tenth streets opposite the First Presbyterian Church, resided Dr. Currie, a strong contrast to the gentle, kind and graceful physician last mentioned, but he had an extensive practice and accumulated a large fortune, which the other did not, because like many other physicians, he was more attentive to his practice than to his fees, and earned many which were not worth attention.”[2]

Overlay of the modern lot showing possible location of part of the Westwood property in relation to the 1768 Byrd lottery map of Richmond. Each of the lots is about 100 acres in size, so these lots represent about 350 acres, not the nearly 600 acres owned by Currie on the Brook Turnpike. Current Westwood tract shown in light red. The lots ae from the 1850 lawsuit and are numbered from the top, 3, 2, 1 and 8. Additional research could confirm what one deed indicates- that the Westwood tract may have extended to the east side of Brook Road as well.
The tract was similar to others that were owned by wealthy Richmonders who kept farms or villas on the edge of the city, where cool summers could be spent away from the bustle of the city, in addition to town houses on city lots.  Similar “villas” included 400-acre Mount Comfort, the eighteenth-century second home of Samuel DuVal in the area of the present-day Highland Park neighborhood, Col. John Mayo’s retreat at the Hermitage, near today’s Broad Street Station, and the second-quarter nineteenth-century Robinson family summer place of 159 acres in the area of today’s Virginia Museum.
Dr. Currie may well have built the one-story three-room house on a raised basement that survives as part of the Westwood Cottage. That structure, although much altered, shares features, including the floor plan, with other buildings in the Richmond and Petersburg areas that date from the later eighteenth century.  It is interesting that the house does not face towards the Brook Road, but to the south, probably because it predates the current location of the Brook Turnpike. According to the map shown above of William Byrd II’s lottery tracts, the original route of Brook Road (the old road which crossed Upham Brook north of the city) followed a winding path closer to modern-day Chamberlayne Avenue (in fact a section of the “Old Brook Road” still survives east of Chamberlayne Avenue and south of Azalea Avenue). Due to its value as a north-south transportation route, the Brook Road was incorporated as the state’s first turnpike in 1812. It was apparently rerouted at that time to the west of its original location and laid out along the straight line that separated two tiers of the Byrd lottery parcels. 
James Currie’s brother, William Currie came to Richmond from Scotland in 1795. William’s daughter Janetta came to the city two years later. At the death of James Currie without issue in 1805 and of William in 1807, Janetta and her husband Robert Gordon claimed his lands, which included, not only the Westwood tract, but shares in the James River Company, a share of the Dover Mines, and the “Eagle Tavern tenement” on Main Street between 11th and 12th streets.[3] Westwood first appeared on the tax rolls in the ownership of Robert Gordon in 1814.[4]
In 1826, Robert and Janetta Currie Gordon assigned a tract located on the west side of the Brook Turnpike (“now called the Richmond and Charlottesville Plank Road”) to their son Robert McCall Gordon. The elder Robert Gordon had lost part of the Currie estate which his wife had inherited. He honored her wish that the property should go to their son, Robert McCall Gordon by deeding him the Westwood property “on both sides of Brook Turnpike where they both reside.”[5]  The arrangement was intended to benefit Robert and Janetta’s other children as well.  The heirs included Janetta M. Gordon, Isabella Gordon (who married James Hastie Brown in 1824), Catherine Flood McCall Gordon (married Nicholas Brown Seabrook in 1842), and Leila T. Gordon.[6]
In 1820, when the value of improvements was first included in the tax records of Virginia counties, the 539-acre Westwood tract included a building or buildings worth $750. This value could represent the three-room, one-story house that survives as part of the Westwood Cottage. In the following year the value of buildings increased to $1,000. In 1825, an additional $200 was added to make a total of $1,200. This value could well represent a substantial frame house like the original part of the house at Westwood combined with other outbuildings and barns. In 1837, Robert M. Gordon deeded what was described as the Westwood property to his siblings Janetta, Mary, and Catherine Gordon.[7] The value for buildings held steady until the mid-1840s, when it increased to $1,300. At the same time the property decreased in size by 4 acres.

Plat of [Some of] the Lots of the Westwood Tract, divided in 1850 by commissioners of the Henrico County Court. Drawn by Thomas M. Ladd. The Brown tract that contains todays Westwood tract is at the bottom of the plat.
Tax records show that the Westwood property was subject to an ownership dispute among members of the Gordon family.[8] The court ordered that is be surveyed and divided into lots. The lots were divided between Janetta, Mary, and Leila Gordon and several of their heirs. Some members of the Gordon family continued to live on a residue of the Westwood property for years. The 1860 census shows Lilias T. Gordon age 33 (b 1827) living in household with Janetta M Gordon, age 55 (b 1805) in the western subdivision of Henrico Co.

The Smith Map of Henrico County in 1853 shows J. Walker in residence at the location of Westwood Cottage, C. Allen near the location of Laburnum, and J [Janetta] Gordon on a small tract south of the farm of John Goddin, similar to the location of her Lot 3 on the 1843 Plat. Westwood apparently extended south from the Goddin place along both sides of Brook Turnpike. Old Brook Road leaves Brook Turnpike near the entrance to present-day Walton Avenue. The road that angles off to the east at the Toll Gate is today’s Ladies Mile Road and enters Brook Turnpike approximately where Brookland Park Boulevard is today. 
The remainder of the Westwood tract was also assigned to Gordon heirs. Other parcels had been sold or distributed as well, including lot 8, a 68-acre tract that was assigned to the Brown heirs.  John Stewart Walker acquired a large portion of the Westwood property in the early 1850s. He purchased the 68-acre Lot 8 from the heirs of Isabella Brown in 1850.[9]

The house on the Westwood tract in the late 19th century, during the occupancy of the McGuire family. The original house is seen at the rear behind the Italianate addition is to the right.
In 1855, Walker sold his 68-acre Westwood tract to Charles J. Meriwether, a veteran of Mexican War.[10] The land book for 1856 shows Walker with 279 acres at Westwood on Brook Turnpike with buildings valued at $1,000, and Charles J. Meriwether appears with 63 acres, also at Westwood, now with $3,000 in buildings. Walker clearly made the improvements that more than doubled the value of the Westwood Cottage and its support buildings from the assessment of $1,300 when the Gordons occupied it in 1850. The early 1850s is likely the period at which Westwood Cottage assumed its present form.

1867 Map of Richmond by Mickler, copied from Gilmer map of 1864. Meriwether is pencilled next to the Westwood Cottage on the map.
Capt. Charles James Meriwether (b Albemarle, 1832-1887 and married his cousin Ellen Douglas Meriwether) shows up in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society. He owned a slave family which he wished to sell to an acquaintance from Lunenburg Co. He wrote the letter from his farm “Westwood” in 1860.[11]  The house and other buildings belonging to Meriwether at Westwood were still valued at $3,000 in 1862, the year in which he sold the parcel to Dr. William B. Pleasants, a Richmond dentist, in 1862. After Pleasants purchased that portion of the Westwood tract, the buildings remained valued at $3,000 from 1865-1872.

The modern Westwood 34-acre tract in pink with the associated lots outlined in blue from 1850 plat of the division of the Gordon lands overlaid on the 1867 Mickler Map and a 1964 planning map of the city.
In March 1887, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire purchased the Westwood tract from William S. Pleasants for $13,500. The tract was centered around the former Gordon home place with its Italianate addition. The nearby farm called “Sherwood” was owned from 1862-1873 by Wellington Goddin and contained 73 acres. Hunter McGuire died in 1900 and his widow sold the Westwood tract to an entity called the Westwood Land Company in the following year. The Sherwood farm was combined with the western half of McGuire’s land to create the suburban residential development called Sherwood Park. The remaining 34 acres was sold to the Union Theological Seminary 1907 as land for future growth.

[1] 1814 Henrico Land Book.
[2] A deed for the Westwood property cannot be found- it may have been recorded in either the District or General Court, neither of which set of records exist today. Land along the stage road or Brook Road about 2 miles north of Richmond show up as early as 1790 [DB 3, 272]. The Henrico land tax records for 1799 show that Currie owned a 511-acre tract.  Land books for 1802 and 1803 show that Currie owned tracts of 571 acres, 181 acres (land on Meriwether’s Branch bought from William Miller in the preceding year), and 28 acres in Henrico County. The 571 acres probably represents the land that would become the Westwood Tract. He added an additional 500-acre tract in 1802-03, purchased from William Randolph.
[3]Henrico Deed Book 10, p 455. A legal case that grew out of the inheritance revolved around a determination whether or not William and Janetta could inherit- and if they actually were naturalized citizens- went all the way to the Supreme Court. Robert and Janetta Gordon won the case, which remains an important part of immigration case law.
[4] 1814 Henrico Land Book.
[5] Henrico Co DB 28, p 408.
[6] Marriages Performed 1815-1828, 1836-1842 at St. John's Church.
[7] Henrico County Land Book 1837.
[8] Gordon vs Gordon in 1844.
[9] Henrico Land Book 1850.
[10] Henrico DB 66, p 185.
[11] Letter at Virginia Historical Society.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Richmond Almhouse and Hospital: Early Provisions for the Poor and Infirm

Virginia, like other jurisdictions operating under British-derived legal systems, had from an early date a locally-based system for caring for those who could not care for themselves. The church was allied with the state, not only for the inculcation of moral norms, but for the distribution of charity. The vestries of the church in Virginia inherited from English law the care of indigent or infirm adults or children within the local parish unit, which in Virginia corresponded generally to the county. Many of the poor were farmed out to private homes in return for a fee. By the second half of the eighteenth century, many parishes had established institutions known as almshouses, where those who had no resources were housed, fed, and given work to do as far as was practicable. These almshouses were descendants of the local workhouses established under the poor laws in Elizabethan England and under the charge of the church.

In 1785, Virginia's General Assembly, with the privatization of religion that followed separation from Britain, transferred responsibility for the poor to a new county-based secular body known as the overseers of the poor, but the system of care and its application remained intact. In most counties an almshouse, poorhouse, or poor farm was set up at some point during the following century, in the charge of an official known as the superintendent of the poor.

In many ways, the almshouse, where the state fulfilled its acknowledged responsibility to clothe and care for the ill, the infirm, the aged, and the orphan is the model for hospitals. Likewise the architecture of care embodied the political structure around which it was organized. Wards for the occupants and rooms for daily use occupied the main sections of the buildings while the administrative and therapeutic functions were housed in distinct pavilions that were given architectural distinction by the use of arched openings, pediments, and porticoes. As Travis McDonald has observed:

"In America, the hospital system developed in a dual    manner. Publicly controlled almshouse hospitals in larger cities served paupers, criminals, the insane, orphans, and foundlings. In other words, all those who could not afford a physician's house call. Voluntary hospitals of a better nature also developed and were modelled on the subscriber-run British examples, such as the 1752 London Hospital. These hospitals, for example the Pennsylvania and New York Hospitals, differed from the almshouse hospitals by having a better staff, selected patients, medical students, and a lay board of administrators. Physicians who served in these hospitals did so as a social and honorary obligation. The arrangement of space was therefore logically organized by authority, with the most public and administrative spaces being the most prominently placed." 

City Poor and Work House carefully placed just outside city limits on
Youngs Map of 1809 (top center). Detail of the Poorhouse from the same map below.

The City Poorhouse (before 1809)

The city of Richmond does not appear to have had an almshouse before the end of the eighteenth century. The city purchased 28 1/2 acres near the north end of Third Street in 1799. Five years later the council built an almshouse, or poorhouseappropriately located on the edge of town. Youngs Map of 1809 shows that it was carefully placed in alignment with the outside of the city limits. The Virginia Mutual fire insurance policy of 1814 shows a remarkable rectangular building with domed cupola surmounted by the figure of a man with a sword.

Richmond City Poorhouse, 1805 [Virginia Mutual Assurance Society policy 438, 1814].
 The building's four floors presumably included a raised basement not shown in the
The four-story brick building was entered in the gable end.  It appears from the second- and third-floor doors on the side wall and the vertical lines that probably represent projecting bricks, that the poorhouse was designed to be enlarged with side wings that would have given it a T-shaped form with a pedimented pavilion as a central part of a longer front façade. Then it would have more closely resembled the palazzo form so favored by collegiate, hospital and other civic buildings, including the Public Hospital of 1774 in Williamsburg.

Public Hospital, Williamsburg, originally completed to serve the mentally ill in 1774. An unavoidable model for Richmonders planning an  new public facility like an almshouse. The fences are based on those that enclosed the yard at the Richmond Almshouse in 1811.

In spite of the apparent reduction of the design, the Richmond Poorhouse was the largest building in the city, after the Capitol and the State Penitentiary (1800). An insurance policy from 1827 shows the building's plan unchanged. There is no evidence that it was ever enlarged.
Four acres of the land directly to the south of the almshouse was enclosed in 1820 to form the Shockoe Burial Ground, intended to replace St. Johns Churchyard as the citys official cemetery for whites. It had a section for indigent whites. This had been preceded by the free Negroes of the city, who had petitioned for a cemetery there in 1811, and the Jewish residents of the city two years later [Scott 1950, 285]. The new Negro Burying Ground, known as the Potters Field, was established in 1816 on sloping land above Bacons Quarter Branch. It was originally to be divided between free and slaves. Soon after, the gallows and powder magazine followed it from the old site and the burying ground became the gallows ground as well.

Cities like Norfolk and Richmond took a strict position about
poor relief, springing from perceived realities associated with urban poverty. Unlike the rural parts of the state, Richmond's leadership tended to favor Whig ideas of government-funded schools and vigorous charities. During a period of remarkable prosperity due to Richmond's position as an industrial and transportation hub, the city fathers chose to invest a substantial sum in the construction of this up-to-date civic amenity. They appear, however, to have hedged their bets by building only part of the intended structure, either out of frugality or caution.  

The Richmond Almshouse represents the practical outworking of a collective set of deeply embedded ideas of the importance of Christian charity and civic order with Enlightenment convictions about the importance of personal moral responsibility. The Richmond Almshouse might be best understood in its context in the traditional city rather than the motivations of contemporary secular public welfare.
As part of their pursuit of moral reform, the authorities at the Richmond Almshouse required adherence to rules and profitable use of time. The almshouse was referred to as a workhouse, or House of correction for the safe keeping, employment, and reformation for the idle and dissolute,” and frankly modeled its operation on the new State Penitentiary, designed to transform and not merely punish its inmates.

Two rooms on the fourth floor of the Almshouse were set aside as "solitary rooms of confinement" for those who did not abide by the rules of the institution, in keeping with the most progressive theories of moral improvement. These were to be provided with iron gratings of venetian blinds be placd on the outside of the building, so as to admit air, and partially to obstruct the light, preventing those within from amusing themselves with passing objects, and thereby induce them to exercise their minds on their former conduct, which may eventuate in their reformation. 
According to the regulations of the Richmond Almshouse, designed to improve the residentscharacters, the residents rose at dawn and reported to their assigned work. Residents were required to observethe order and quiet of the House during meals and visiting hours. Any sort of disorderly behaviourcould result in solitary confinement with reduced food, lashings, or expulsion [James D. Watkinson, Rogues, Vagabonds, and Fit Objects: The Treatment of the Poor in Antebellum Virginia,Virginia Calvacade, Winter 2000].

Robert Greenhow, a prominent merchant, civic leader, and president of the Richmond Overseers of the Poor, described the boards duties in 1820: The trust imposed on us is, indeed, an important one. We are the constituted almoners of the City; we are the nominated guardians, friends, and protectors of the destitute and forlorn, the Widow & the Orphan, & we are invested with the power of administering to their necessities as . . . applicants for relief, in our opinion, deserve. He cautioned members of the board about the need for discretion in dispersing the citys charity: Thickly colored deceptive tales of woe, painting in dolorous terms the wants and deprivations of the solicitor, [which] your ears will be frequently assailed with and every means to excite your sympathy will be practiced. Fallacious too often have these have been proved to be. You must turn a deaf Ear to them; and proceed to investigate them.  

Like jails and mental hospitals, the almshouse had escape-proof exercise yards in which the inmates could spend the daylight hours. The city authorized "a plank enclosure of about 310 feet in length" to enclose a yard adjoining the almshouse, "the posts to be 14 feet long, 10 feet of each post to be hewed square, at the bottom of the square, to be 9 inches, and at top, 6 inches square, of good white or post oak, the pannels to be 8 feet long, 4 rails of good white oak to each panel, the rails to be 4 by 2 ½ inches and 16 ½ feet long, to embrace 3 posts each, the whole of said plank enclosure to be surmounted with an oak railing of 4 inches by 1 ¼, with 20d nails projecting through said railing at one inch distance from each other…." [The Enquirer, Richmond, 4 June 1811, 3-3, quoted in Travis McDonald, Public Hospital Architectural Report, Block 4-3 Building 11, Colonial Williamsburg, 1986].

In 1834, the city passed an ordinance to reorganize the Overseers of the Poor, electing a Superintendent and appointing a physician manage and oversee treatments at the Poorhouse for the better government and employment of the poor committed to their care: Provided, that their annual expenditures shall in no case, exceed the annual appropriations made by the Council, for the support and maintenance of the Poor of the City of RIchmond. This law repealed the former Ordinance providing for the establishment of a Poorhouse, Workhouse, and House of Correction, for the City of Richmond,passed in 1842.

The Second Richmond Almshouse and Shockoe Hill Burying Ground, 1865 [LOC]. The windows have been blown out by an explosion at the Powder Magazine. The view is from the City Hospital. The overgrown landscape of the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground is typical of cemeteries before the days of mowing machines. Note the high brick wall enclosing the exercise yards at the rear of the almshouse.

Mid-twentieth century site plan from City Department of Public Works and National Register form. The main building is
seen at the lower right. The Colored Almshouse of 1909 (West Building) to the center left, appears as a reduced version of the main building.

The Second Richmond Almshouse

Social and health reform movements of the antebellum era bore fruit in a "prodigious" new building designed by City Engineer Washington Gill, Jr. [NR form]. The city's Common Council authorized its construction in 1859 to serve the growing poor population of the city, both black and white. The new Richmond Almshouse, when completed in 1861, was one of the largest and best equipped in the state. The start of the Civil War meant that it wasn't fully complete for five years.

The war also caused a delay in the intended use of the building, which was, instead, used as Hospital #1 for wounded soldiers and later as a temporary home for the Virginia Military Institute. The massive brick building has survived to the present, unlike other large masonry institutional buildings from the period, such as the Richmond Female Institute. 

The Italianate structure features a five-part plan, with a three-story central pavilion linked to similar end pavilions by two-story links, arch-headed windows, and plain pedimented fronts. The pedimented porches on each of the pavilions were probably intended from the first, but were not built until after the end of the war. While the building uses the reggia or palazzo form typical of civic and institutional buildings in Europe and America, the ornament is reduced to a minimum and the classical proportions alone carry the meaning of order and control appropriate to building's use.  

William Strickland, Blockley Almshouse of 1838, Philadelphia
The design of the building is not unlike that of the main building of the Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia, designed by William Strickland and built in 1832.  The York County Pennsylvania Almshouse, built in 1859 to the designs of Edward Haviland, had a similar plan, not unlike his designs for a related building type, the hospital for the insane, such as the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane of 1841. In each of these buildings, the wings were segregated by sex, as was probably the case at the Richmond Almshouse.

Isaac Holden, Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, Philadelphia, 1841

The building was divided into male and female departments- the men in the west end and the women in the east, as can be seen in the 1877 map below [Beers Map]. Wards were located in the narrow hyphens between the pavilions [NR form]. These were accessed by open galleries ranging across the back of the building on each floor. Stairs rose in each of the three pavilions. An original ell at the eastern (women's) end of the almshouse housed a charity hospital operated for the benefit of the poor and for the training of students at the Medical College of Virginia. A similar wing of early date is offset from the west corner of the building. A similar early wing offset at the west (men's) end may have served a similar purpose. High brick walls, no longer extant, enclosed exercise yards at the rear of the building.

The Almshouse today seen from Shockoe Burial Ground
The Almshouse was used as General Hospital #1 during most of the Civil War. Towards the end it was rented  to the students and faculty of Virginia Military Institute. After the the end of the war it reverted to use as a poorhouse operated by the union forces. It was damaged by a serious explosion in April of 1865:

THE CITY MAGAZINE. - To the curious, the site of the late city magazine will repay a visit. It will be recollected the magazine was blown up by the Confederates just before sunrise on the morning of the 3d instant - eleven inmates of the city almshouse and one old colored man living on 2d street being killed by the explosion, and thousands of panes of glass in the city smashed by the concussion. We have no means of ascertaining the quantity of powder in the magazine at the time it was blown up, but presume it must have been several tons. 
                               Richmond Whig, 27 April 1865.
An account in 1899 describes the almshouse as a handsome three-story building on a commanding site in rear of the Shockoe Cemetery. The property devoted to the purposes of the colored almshouse is situated at the northern terminus of Fourth Street, and was purchased by the city shortly after the restoration of the city government at the close of the war [Robert R. Nuchols, A History of the Gov. of the City of Richmond and a Sketch, 1899]. As late as 1980, the Almshouse was seen as the largest and most impressive such facility in the state [NR form]. 

City Hospital, 1865 [LOC]. The windows have been blown out by an explosion at the adjacent
Powder Magazine. The white paint on the lower floor was used to help see escaping prisoners
from the city's Confederate prisons. This building, built before 1848, became the city's Colored
Almshouse after the Civil War. It was demolished at some point after the patients were removed to
a new facility next to the main almshouse building in 1908.
City Hospital

The city did not have any sort of permanent facility for the care of persons suffering from serious or contagious illnesses until well into the nineteenth century. However, a smallpox outbreak in 1793 caused the city to set up a pesthousefor the care of persons with contagious diseases. A private house was obtained well away from other dwellings, where inoculations were also available [Records of the Common Hall, 14 Dec. 1793].

A report made to a worried Virginia Senate in January of 1828 indicated that, although there were no reported cases of smallpox with the actual city limits, the Almshouse had seen eleven cases. Each of these had been transferred under guard to a "City Hospital," then located away from settled areas "in a secluded location two miles from the Capitol." The location of this hospital has not been uncovered. 

Richmond City Poorhouse of 1805 and City Hospital on the Adams 1858 Map
By 1848, when it first shows up on a map of the city, a large brick building called the City Hospital occupied a spot on Fourth Street facing Shockoe Cemetery (McGuire in Richmond, Capitol of Virginia, 1938]. This hospital was likely built to care for those suffering from infectious diseases, in particular the often deadly disease of smallpox. Albert Snead, physician at the hospital, noted that there were four cases of smallpox there in 1854 [Wyndham B. Blanton, Medicine in Virginia in the Nineteenth Century. Richmond VA: Garrett and Massie, 1933].

Richmond. like much of the country suffered from regularly recurring outbreaks and epidemics of smallpox (in spite of the availability of inoculations by 1800 severe outbreaks occurred in 1835-6, 1855-56, 1863, and 1873), influenza (1807, 1815, 1844, 1899), and cholera (first appeared in 1832, later outbreaks in 1849, and 1854). The state enacted a strict law in 1819 imposing quarantines. In 1831 the state authorized localities to set up smallpox hospitals and remove patients to them.  A city ordinance of 1841 To provide for the removal of persons infected with the  Small Pox, and other dangerous, contagious diseases, and for other purposesdirected that persons with smallpox were to be removed to the City Hospital until he or she shall have gone through the distemperor pay ten dollars per day.

By 1866, the city had acquired a farm north of the City in Henrico County for the purposes of growing food for the citys jail and almshouse. At some point, this remote spot on Horse Swamp Creek behind present-day John Marshall High School) became the site of the hospital for infectious diseases, known as the "Pest House."

A frame house was built at the City Farm about 1905 to accommodate white smallpox patients and the keeper's family. An older house was used for the African-American patients. Those of either race who died were buried in an adjoining cemetery. A terrible smallpox epidemic in Raleigh NC affected African-American students who attended Shaw University in that city. The Times Dispatch of March 29, 1905 indicated that "the last student from Shaw University, colored, was released from the smallpox pest house yesterday evening and the quarantine that has been maintained against the Institution for the past two months has been raised. Altogether there were ten of the students affected by the disease. There are still thirteen smallpox patients at the pest-house, all negroes."

The older building had fallen down by 1916, and the black and white patients were housed together in the ca. 1905 building By 1939, the smallpox and infectious diseases were handled as unit of the Pine Camp Tuberculosis Hospital, established on the City Farm in 1910 [City of Richmond, Virginia, Annual Report (1916) p. 311 cited in Pine Camp Tuberculosis Hospital National Register Nomination].
Colored Almshouse or West Building today

The old City Hospital on Fourth Street was converted after the Civil War into the citys first Colored Almshouse, the white and black paupers now being fully segregated for the first time. In 1908, probably as a result of reforms advocated by the new State Board of Corrections and Charities, Richmond's city council authorized the construction of a new "Colored Almshouse" for the city's poor black residents. This two-story brick building, now known as the West Building, was built to the immediate west of the main building of the Richmond Almshouse. The old City Hospital building was demolished.

Beers Map of 1877 showing Shockoe Cemetery and the two Almshouses.
 The City Home

By the early twentieth century it was evident to reformers that the traditional almshouse was inadequate to house the numbers of needy in many communities and was too frequently subject to fiscal abuse and physical neglect. In 1908, members of a newly established Virginia Board of Charities and Corrections found 108 county and city almshouses in operation in Virginia. The progressive movement in the early twentieth century resulted from a reattribution of the causes of poverty and illness from immorality and uncleanliness to lack of opportunity and poor living conditions. Emphasis shifted from private charity to organized public relief and concern grew over the abuses, duplication of efforts, and inefficiency of the nation's organizations of assistance. State governments became aware of increased responsibilities to the poor, the "feebleminded," and the insane [Walter L. Trattner, From Poor Laws to Welfare State: A History of Welfare in America (New York: Free Press and London: Collier Macmillan, 1974) 179-190].

A State Conference of Charities and Corrections was organized in 1900. At its third meeting in 1903 several advocates of social service reform addressed the conference, which undertook to promote a new central state authority like those already established in other states [Arthur W. James, Virginias Social Awakening: The Contribution of Dr. Mastin and the Board of Charities and Correctons (Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, 1939) 2-3].

As a result of the conferences recommendations, the Board of Charities and Corrections was established in 1908 to provide limited guidance to the many public institutions that had multiplied since the Civil War. After the establishment of the Board of Charities and Corrections, a survey was prepared of the unsafe and unsanitary conditions in many of the state's almshouses. Thirty-three of the smaller institutions were closed during the following decade, but the larger almshouses continued to operate, often with what were seen by contemporary critics as unsatisfactory physical facilities, ineffective management, poor living conditions, and bad dietary standards. In 1918 the Board of Charities and Corrections convinced the legislature to enact a law providing for the consolidation of almshouses into district homes operated by groups of neighboring counties and cities [Arthur W. James, The Public Welfare Function of Government in Virginia (Richmond, Va: Division of Purchase and Printing, 1934) 7, 10-16, 63-64].

In the second quarter of the twentieth century, rural almshouse managers were encouraged by the State Board of Public Welfare (successor to the Board of Chanties and Corrections and now known as the Department of Social Services) to segregate the inmates by sex and race. While contemporary social welfare theory inherited from earlier thought a sense of poverty's being rooted in moral failure, there was a new, pseudo-scientific emphasis among professionals in the social welfare community on genetics. Eugenics, a self-proclaimed science of population control, sought to prevent "incurable, hereditary insane, feebleminded, and epileptic" individuals from reproducing, through institutionalization or sterilization. In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Sterilization Act, which codified this practice. By 1939, more than three thousand persons had been involuntarily sterilized at state hospitals [Robert H. Kirkwood,Fit Surroundings: District Homes Replace County Almshouses. (Richmond, VA: Department of Public Welfare of Virginia, 1948) 172].

In its first report of 1909, the new State Board of Charities and Corrections described the Richmond Almshouse in favorable terms. Religious services were held several times a week. Those residents who were fit assisted in domestic duties in the building. Some amusements, including visits to the city, were provided to the resident paupers. These privileges were withdrawn when resident failed to obey the rules. The committee recommended strongly that the sexes be separated and dining rooms be provided for both men and women. The plumbing and other amenities were impressive, with electricity, steam heart, and indoor plumbing. 

On January 1, 1910, there were 300 persons in the Richmond Almshouse (including the Colored Almshouse), of which 197 were male, 103 female. Of these, 131 were black. During the year, 1,288 persons were admitted, of which 342 were male, 446 were female. Of these 702 were black. 232 patients died during the year [Paupers in Almshouse, 1910, US Census Bureau].

In the early twentieth century, the City Almshouse was renamed the Richmond City Home, probably to mitigate its reputation as a place of last resort. A one-story infirmary was added at the end of the east wing in 1926 which housed tubercular patients. The open rear galleries were replaced with enclosed brick and concrete porches in 1956.

When the tuberculosis hospital at Pine Camp was no longer needed, after penicillin had proved to cure tuberculosis, the city considered closing either the City Home (Almshouse) or the camp. The decision was made in 1956 to close Pine Camp and transfer the remaining patients to the City Home. Richmond's Almshouse, later known as the Richmond City Home, continued to operate as an almshouse until 1980, when it was closed by the city. It was later repurposed as a privately operated home for low-income residents known today as the Shockoe Hill Apartments. An addition across the rear of the building enclosed the concrete gallery, which is now visible only against the rear wings.

The west wing of the Almshouse from the northeast showing the enclosed concrete gallery along the inner face of the courtyard at the rear.