“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.

Monday, March 29, 2010


                   Urbanismo took the opportunity of spring-like weather last week to explore the urban fabric of the oldest part of Richmond.  A small company, including an obliging photographer, walked the boundaries of the original 1737 town. A pedestrian's view of the city brought home the geographic, historic, and architectural complexity of the neighborhood. Since we walked the boundary of the district (with a few divergations), we didn't, by any means, look at all the buildings and streetscapes. We began, as seen above, with a walk south along 17th, beginning at the location, since 1782, of the city's market.  17th Street (originally 1st Street) was the westernmost edge of the town until the 1760s. The market was built on the city's common, where washing was done in Shockoe Creek, which flows underground just beyond the former YMCA Hotel in the background.

               A quick review: The conventional "Tidewater" town of Richmond was laid out at the falls of the James River in 1737.  An uninflected 28-block rectangular grid was organized along an axis formed by a pre-existent road on the natural terrace above the river’s edge, extending southeast from the ford of Shockoe Creek that separated it from an earlier settlement called "Shockoes." The market was eventually located just left of the added range of lots identified by the letters A to O on this copy of the famous Mayo plan. Lots 97 and 98 at the upper right were donated to be the site of the town's church and churchyard by William Byrd II. Our trip takes us around the outside edge of the grid starting in the lower left-hand corner and proceeding counter-clockwise.

        Each two-acre block or “square” contained four nearly square lots and was separated from adjacent blocks by sixty-five-foot-wide streets.  The banks along Shockoe Creek and the waterfront outside the grid were designated as a common for the use of residents in pasturing, fishing, or other activities. The lots filled in over the next 130 years. The section is seen in the 1864 woodcut above looking west from the east end of town with Church Hill on the right.

                   We moved down to the southwest corner of the town, not too far from the edge of Shockoe Creek and the now-invisible site of the Rock Landing, where goods were loaded for the trip down river. This view shows the overhead railroad tracks that create, with the elevated Interstate 95, a shadow over the old landing place.  These are some of the late-nineteenth-century industrial buildings that replaced the houses, shops, and warehouses that made up the former streetscape near the edge of the port of Richmond.

               The ancient connection of this section of the city with the sale and processing of tobacco is apparent here on 18th Street near Cary and in later photographs that show the many warehouses and factories dedicated to its preparation for sale. The two buildings flanking the street, with their tall, deeply shadowed facades, are the among the most architecturally powerful of Richmond's industrial structures. 

               Urbanismo continued along the southern edge of the 1737 town. This parking lot at the corner of Cary and 19th streets is an example of the open land that serves the parking demands of the city but works against the potential urban heath of the district.

           The long, impressive row of twentieth-century tobacco factories, converted for institutional and residential purposes, line the terrace of land above the city's historic port. Before the change to heavy industry, the section facing Main Street had been home to several generations of stores with accommodation above for the shop-keeper's family. Several fires in the early nineteenth century prompted the replacement of the frame shops with brick commercial buildings, often built by developers in rows of two or more stores. 

          The squares on the south side of Cary Street (to the right in the snapshot) were part of the town's common land and were sold in the 1780s to finance the construction of the new public buildings associated with the move of the capital to Richmond.

            The lots became waterfront property in 1816 with the construction of the Richmond Dock on the north side of Chapel Island. In about 1850, John Enders built a row of fourteen warehouses on these lots between 18th and 21st streets to serve the shipping of goods by boat. Several of the warehouses burned, but those that remained (seen above) were utilized by the Confederate government to house Libby Prison.The warehouses along the water-front were replaced by lumber yards and small industry in the late nineteenth century.

           Here the tour proceeded east along Main Street. The factories fill much of the southern side of the street, while a later generation of twentieth-century stores occupy the north side and sections of the south.

            The location of the old Henrico County Courthouse always seemed strange, since Richmond was removed from Henrico in the late eighteenth century when it was made a city. It persisted at this location and served as the heart of the city's public life until the city received a government and a market hall in 1782. 

           The courthouse was built in 1750 and located in the middle of 23rd Street. Since the town lacked any public land on Main Street, the court took advantage of the cross street to provide a specialized building at an urban scale and in a position that rhetorically accentuated its public purpose. That building was replaced in 1850 with the building shown above. The current building, embedded in the factory row, was constructed in the late nineteenth century. 

                The extraordinary miniature bridge of sighs built of corrugated iron and leading from the jail to the courtroom had eluded the attention of Urbanismo for many years. 

          This poured concrete addition to the rear of the courthouse has architectural atractions not unrelated to Regency-era London. 

           The view from the original courthouse location shows the dominance of the site on the bluff of the eighteenth-century home of the prominent Adams family. Their neighbor, William Palmer, built the house still standing at the summit of the hill about 1810. Enlarged in 1859, it forms the centerpiece of the nineteenth-century Convent of the Visitation, now the ecumenical center called Richmond Hill. Franklin Street runs at the foot of the bluff.

         This image shows the buildings that crowned the bluff in the late nineteenth century. In the foreground is the 18th-century Richard Adams House. The enlarged Palmer House is seen in the distance.

                  This store/residence on the north side of Main Street between 21th and 22st streets is one of few along the street to date to antebellum times.

          The surviving row of brick shops across Main Street, although built in the late nineteenth century, provides a valuable sense of urban continuity.

               The strong brickwork and articulated facades of these factories provides an exhilarated perspective of the city dock, elevated railroad, and the river beyond.

              At Main and 25th streets, Urbanismo paused to better understand the topography, so easy to miss from a car.  Main Street slopes gently up from Seventeenth Street. Here we stand at the eastern end of the William Byrd II town looking up 25th Street toward St. John's Church. Although the slope has been amended during the nineteenth century, it is clear that this was always the place where the bluff could be ascended.  

            As we proceeded up 25th Street, the character of the revitalized neighborhood of Church Hill overrides the mixed building stock of Main Street.  Early nineteenth-century buildings, like the 1846 frame house in the center distance, survive amid bland infill, like the Charity Square Condominiums on the right and antebellum tobacco factories like the Turpin-Yarbrough Building on the left, now known as the Pohlig Brothers Paper Box Company.  

         Building on hilly land involves a lot of grading and has the potential to make ideal places for urban gardening. Here are some of the granite retaining walls found all around Richmond. This one is seen from the alley on the east side of 25th Street north of Franklin. The early spring garden belongs the frame house seen in the previous photograph.

            The first section of Richmond and the addition to the town on Shockoe Hill were laid out, as was the long custom in Virginia,  in two-acre blocks (always properly called "squares"). The owner of each half-acre lot was free to build facing any adjoining street and to subdivide the lot in any manner he chose. Thus standard lots and regular alleys are not to be met with in Richmond east of First Street. Such alleys as exist are the result of the provisions of generations of developers and of negotiations between adjoining owners.                

              The ways of alleys in the older parts of Richmond are unpredictable. A brief detour also provided a great reward. The alley between Grace and Broad streets turned and dwindled to a narrow cobbled path as we approached 25th Street not far from St. Patrick's Church. 

                   As we turned the corner at St. John's Churchyard and walked west on Broad Street, the northern edge of Richmond in 1737, we looked across at the Patrick Henry Park, a well-meant bit of 1950s urban redevelopment. The park and the adjacent firehouse were part of the deliberate effort to give a dignified setting to St. John's Church by the removal of a square full of "unsightly and unsuitable" buildings.  In fact the square remains empty most of the time and robs the churchyard of a strong northern edge.  As currently laid out, the park contributes less to the civic good than would a block of houses and shops. 

                The high brick walls all around the churchyard show the degree to which the streets have been cut down to improve street grades.

                  Carrington Row, one of Richmond's most important examples of Neo-classical domestic  architecture, is a row of three dwellings unified with a marching row of stucco antae (a kind of Greek pilaster) and an abstracted Greek Doric entablature. Carrington Row served in 1957 as a pilot project for the creation of a kind of "Old Town," which at that time Richmond wholly lacked.  The managers of the Historic Richmond Foundation were able to act with more abandon in 1957 than they would be today. All over Church Hill porches were removed or restored, and at Carrington Row the restorers whimsically left the added Greek Revival porch at the east end and the Italianate hood at the west end. Only the central opening retains its original appearance.    

              The gardens to the rear and the brick and cast iron urban mews park along the alley are wonderful evocations of the restraint, humanity, and civic largesse that could be brought by landscape designers and their patrons to urban projects in the post-War era.  These gardens, designed by the firm of Griswold, Winter, and Swain of Pittsburgh and carefully maintained for fifty years by volunteers, manage to express the scale, detail, and ease of a private landscape in a public setting.  

              Here is a good view also of the characteristic treatment of paving in Church Hill. The sidewalks are laid in red paving bricks in a herringbone pattern. The alleys are paved with cobbles, laid with less rigor, but always with a central gutter. A distinctive apron is provided wherever the alleys cross the sidewalks.  In some cases these aprons may be the remains of the adjoining street paving, but it provides an important and consistent color and material palette giving welcome depth to the city's design language.  

             Our trek brought us now to the long slope down from church hill to the bottom of Shockoe Valley. It is hard to realize that Broad Street did not connect across the Shockoe Valley or climb Church Hill until well into the nineteenth century.  As we walked the old herringbone sidewalks, we enjoyed looking a the variety of houses that still line Broad Street from the top of the hill to the bottom.  Whether built in 1850, 1880, or 1910, the houses have a remarkable family resemblance. The emphasis on decorative fashion that we learn from publishers of style handbooks conceals the essential typological continuity of the Richmond urban house.

               As we saw at the top of the hill Richmond  houses were often built by developers in block of two, three, or more row houses. Where the land is sharply graded and an alley is impossible to provide, some Richmond houses have narrow tunnels between the English basements to allow service access to the rear. In this brick double house midway along Broad Street the chimneys shared by the two dwellings are supported on overhead arches.

            This lot on the south side of Broad Street, is typical of the many empty spots in the Shockoe Valley. Infill housing had begun to re-edge Broad Street just before the recent economic collapse. While much of the new housing is shallow in its concept and detailing, it is in the right place.  

            Here we turned south along the western edge of 1737 Richmond. The Market is ahead of us and the cupola of the Masonic Hall visible to the left. There is a lot of empty space in this area, much of it parking for the nightspots in the market area. This is the area that would have be radically transformed by the proposed ball park.  It isn't clear what will happen in the next decade, but the past one has been great for the urban fabric of Richmond. Fueled by the Historic Preservation Tax Credit, the citizens of the city have renewed the vast majority of the city's historic buildings in much the same way that they were built, spontaneously. There has been little government intervention in the historic area, few large-scale development schemes with the influence to make changes at an urban scale, and there are few franchise restaurants or businesses in the historic area. 

            A variety of owner-operated businesses, dense occupied housing, and active foot traffic gave evidence of Richmond’s health and the depth of its revitalization.  Another, less obvious, demonstration of the city's strength was the extreme diversity of building types and ages.  Instead of a homogeneous fabric of historic buildings, the variety of buildings indicates the depth of history and the long-term vitality of the city in the American context. In fact, only three buildings survive from the eighteenth century and very few from even the antebellum period. Most date from successive rebuildings in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. 

               Urbanismo promises to keep walking and keep looking. Next week we plan to examine the street patterns of the old town of Shockoes and of Council Chamber Hill, followed by an expedition to examine the boundaries of the 1768 plat of the extension of the city onto Shockoe Hill. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rural Extensions: Dinwiddie County Architecture

All through the winter, Urbanismo has been at work far from our customary haunts. We have been occupied several days a week with the cataloging of old houses in one of the quietest and least urban of places: Southside Virginia. There we have visited some of the most powerfully evocative places from a seemingly ancient past in the venerable county of Dinwiddie. The landscape is made up almost entirely of small winding roads, modern agricultural businesses, crossroads churches, pulp-wood plantations in every stage of propagation from clear-cut to mature, and abandoned country stores (the stretch of Route 1 south of DeWitt is startlingly beautiful, quiet, and undeveloped). The county has been spared much of the devastation of suburban sprawl due to a large extent to the lack of economic growth in the adjoining city of Petersburg, yet it has suffered a terrible forgetting nonetheless.

The small houses of freed slaves and tenants, the farmhouses of the proud black and white landowners of the post war and early twentieth century can be seen in overgrown fields, most abandoned and unrecorded. Great plantations and middling mansions, set up to be showplaces of order in a now invisible landscape, are to be seen only in truncated remnants, sometimes perched uncomfortably in center of now-dated housing developments, many shorn of their accompanying villages of outbuildings and barns. When these outbuildings survive to be recorded by us, they are usually dilapidated and disused. Often the old houses serve as weekend or commuter homes. Our experience shows that almost no-one is at home during the week in Dinwiddie County.

While much farming takes place in the county on a variety of scales from small to large, a drive down one of the many newly forested roads is a constant reminder of the wreckage of a farm-based life across the state. Here there is none of the lush but shallow horse-oriented landscape that has replaced authentic small farms in areas colonized from the cities. Hunting camps and clubs abound. The most rewarding winter sights are the silhouetted groves of oaks that cluster around many farm houses and churches, set aside for the comfort of the muggy Southside summers.

The traditional farm life lives on among a number of older farmers, some of whom spoke to us of farming with horses and mules in the 1960s and later and whose farms are still replete with granaries, corn cribs, hay barns, and the tall log dark-fired tobacco barns so characteristic of the county’s fields. The old patterns of stability continues at a greater depth under the surface, harder to detect for those who don’t take part, but the empty trailers and proliferating roadside Cape Cods indicate the rise and triumph of another way of using the land. One is reminded of the closing, elegiac words of Henry Glassie’s now-classic study of conservative architectural and farming traditions in the Piedmont counties of Goochland and Louisa:

The old farmer of Middle Virginia is left standing alone at the end of a row. He watches, without motion, the dust spun from the auto’s tires settle through his garden. He lifts his chin from the back of his hand, his hand from the hoe. He shoulders the hoe and crosses the yard, glancing to the left at the sleek mule in his pen, and drops himself into a chair on the porch, where, efficient and swift, the hands of his wife click snap beans into a pot. Staring down into the middle distance, he says to himself alone, “Many changes, many changes, many changes, many changes.”

Henry Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, 1976.

The first forgetting of Dinwiddie was the destruction in the Civil War of all its public records before the 1830s. A survey sponsored in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration first inventoried the county’s oldest houses, already in attenuated condition. The loss of memory was scarcely made up by a thin record of owners and dates attached to blurred and enigmatic photographs. Antiquarianism had overtaken the recorders; in keeping with the times, 1830 was considered the terminus ante quem of significance in furniture and architecture. Everything later was discounted. The eighteenth century was most honorable. Invented dates have since been assumed for many houses far in advance of possibility. It is astoundingly difficult to say for sure when and for whom many of the oldest and most important houses were built (and there remain quite a few).

The second forgetting has been the destruction of the historic landscape. Since the mid-twentieth century the loss has been disheartening. Two-thirds of the houses recorded in a survey of pre-1830 houses done in 1969 are vanished. Where ten years ago, most old houses looked out at the world through the refractions of mortised wood sashes, today almost every occupied dwelling in Dinwiddie stares at the viewer with the irrevocable, sterile glare of lightweight vinyl windows. Similarly, vinyl siding renders mute and hulking the delicate solidity of a well-built country church. To the eye of an historian of the rural landscape, the visible wreckage is so great in a few areas of the county that it is almost as if a war has devastated the countryside and left only ruins. The invisible transformation of the people of Dinwiddie may only be less palpable to outsiders.

The industrialization of the activity of building and of maintaining existing building completes the process. It becomes increasingly impossible to make traditional decisions, due to the cost and unavailability of materials and workmanship and of the memory of their meaning. In the end, however, it turns out that it is not the houses that matter but what goes on in them. As traditional patterns are lost, the rural order deteriorates from community into mere arrangement. It is all too likely that cataloging of artifacts serves no civic purpose here, except perhaps to set apart some products of the former times, undeniably hallowed by their close connection with the powerful current of human life lived in liberty, what Aristotle called “the Good Life.”