“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, 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.


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