“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, December 15, 2014



Site of the Richmond Sports Complex on the 1865
Mickeler Map of Richmond. The Hermitage is
 part of "Camp Lee." 
      Like most older cities, Richmond is rediscovering and redeveloping blocks of land that have been revalued by changing economic conditions. These tracts clearly defined by existing street locations, permanent physical barriers, and historic property boundaries.

One of these areas is the Sports Complex in North Richmond. Hemmed in by industrial areas on two sides and by transportation corridors on the north and south, the area has been targeted by the city's administration for redevelopment. Just like Shockoe Valley, the proposed site of a new ballpark (analyzed by us here), the Sports Complex has an interest history, if less fraught with injustice. The site is ideally located, not only for a regional sports venue, but for new commercial development , which the landlocked city needs to improve its tax base. 

The Mayos' Hermitage by B. Henry Latrobe 1797 [Maryland Historical Society].

The site begins with a large triangular tract located north of the Westham or Three-Chopped Road, the main thoroughfare west of Richmond. This is the remainder of a large tract that was made up of six of the 100-acre lots sold in William Byrd's Lottery of 1767. Col. John Mayo, industrialist, moved there before 1789, setting up a country house or villa just far enough outside the city to permit him to take care of business, while providing a resort for his family during the warm months, away from the smells and sounds of the town center. An early road, known as Hermitage Road ran along the boundary between sets of 100-acre lottery lots and gave the tract its triangular shape. 

The remaining section of the Hermitage tract from the 1942 Richmond Master Plan, showing the railroad
and the parkway planned to parallel it. The Sports Complex is shown in orange.

In 1804 a new turnpike was authorized to connect with the lands to the west and the coal mines in western Henrico and Goochland counties. The Richmond Turnpike (now Broad Street) cut across the Col. land and he laid out the southern portion in lots in 1816. Mayo's daughter Maria married the famous Gen. Winfield Scott in 1816 [Drew St. J. Carneal, Richmond's Fan District, 1996].  

Much of the tract remained in family hands for many years- Scott's Addition, west of the boulevard and north of Broad, was developed in 1890 from the portion inherited by Maria and Winfield Scott from John Mayo in 1818. As the Fan District was extended to the west, Boulevard was laid out in 1875 as a grand cross street to connect Reservoir (Byrd) Park to Broad Street. It was eventually extended to intersect with Hermitage. This cut off the undeveloped section of the Hermitage which would become the Richmond Sports Complex as a triangular remainder that was never integrated into the grid. 

In 1834, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad was extended across the Hermitage property. This began the use of the area north of Broad Street for a series of transportation corridors from the Seaboard Airline Railroad in 1900, which followed Bacon's Quarter Branch, to the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike in 1958. The availability of unused land and the accessibility of the railroad meant that the area was characterized by industrial development and by other uses that required larger tracts. 

1942 Master Plan of Richmond shows the industrial section following the railroad through the city.

The triangular tract, which included the site of the original Hermitage dwelling, survived as undeveloped land well after the Civil War. The part extending from Board Street to the north became the site of the State Fair of Virginia in 1859. The fair moved north of the tracks to the tip of the triangle in 1906. The section south of the railroad became the site of Union (Broad Street) Station in 1917. Meanwhile the adjoining areas north of the railroad were laid out for light industrial and warehouse uses. 

The arena in the 1970s. Its classical yet pragmatic detailing reveals its original use as the state fair's exhibition hall.

The fairgrounds included a one-mile racetrack and a large exhibition hall with a central section covered by a bowstring arch, later known as the Arena. After the fair moved away in 1946, the hall was used as the city garage (new city garages and shops that were built in the southwest conner of the former fairgrounds nay recently closed). After the 1950s, called the Arena, the hall became the city's main sports arena and exhibit hall, and it continued in reduced use until 1986. It was torn down in 1997. 

The racetrack became famous for motorcycle and automobile races from the 1920s to the 1940s. Joe Pratali brought his Class “A” Speedway Racer (seen here) and Bill France, Sr. raced his open wheel roadsters known as "Big Cars."   

Richmond One-mile Dirt Racetrack, 1920s-40s (Joe Pratali Class “A” Speedway Racer seen here).

The Richmond Arena, aerial view, 1954, when it was a municipal garage.

In the later 1950s, the Arena was known for roller skating when it wasn't in use for shows and sport events. In the 1970s, it became Richmond 's venue for professional wrestling booked by Crockett Promotions.

Parker Field was build as a stadium in 1934 as part of the state fair grounds. It was rebuilt as a minor league ball field in 1954 as the home of the Richmond Virginians and later the Richmond Braves. It was replaced by the present structure on the same site, known as the Diamond, in 1984. The Richmond Petersburg Turnpike and a new connector street, Robin Hood Road, were extended across the tip of the triangle, creating a green area later developed as "Travelland" and a public baseball field.

Parker Field, 1954

Parker Field

The gates off Boulevard into the Arena and Parker Field looking north in the late 1950s. The "Toll Road" can be seen in the distance. 
The Arthur Ashe Athletic Center, named for tennis champion and former Richmond resident, Arthur Ashe Jr. The 6,000 seat arena in part replaced the Arena of 1906 when it was built in 1982 and hosts local sporting events and concerts. It is located at the northwest corner of the property. Sports Backers Stadium, located behind the Diamond, is a soccer and college athletics field built in 1999. Parking for the Diamond and the other venues now covers the remainder of the site, except for the city warehouses and shops along the tracks at the southern edge. 

Travelland and Westham Station
A venture known as Travelland was opened on the section of the old fairgrounds between Robin Hood Road and the Toll Road in 1962. The idea was to collect equipment to be displayed as a transportation museum. They began with the old Westham Station, built in 1911 west of the city and C & O Locomotive 2732, given to the city in 1962 several years after after it was decommissioned. It was moved to the nearby Science Museum of Virginia in 2003. The station served as the city’s Visitor’s Information Center beginning in 1975. It closed in 1985.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Overlays showing the routes, growth, form and principal public buildings of
eighteenth-century RIchmond [Richard Worsham]. The area of the settlement of
Shockoes is shown at the center. 
The town of Richmond was preceded by the active, unincorporated merchant settlement known as Shockoes. This community grew with the start of the seemingly endless flow of tobacco streaming down the river from the newly settled farms of the Piedmont, beginning in the 1730s. By examining early maps, this unplanned, oldest section of the city can be distinguished from the regular grid of streets and lots that covered most of the city area. While the area west of Shockoe Creek was covered by a grid in 1768, the previously occupied land near the principal boat landing is characterized by irregular sections of lots of varying sizes and by larger tenements that correspond to topographic features. 
Byrd leased tracts or “tenements” to merchants who wanted a share of the lucrative trade at the falls.  Eventually, the informally organized community consisted of a double row of lots just behind the “Rock Landing” and a group of irregularly shaped tenements clustered around it to the north and west. All the lots and larger tracts were probably leased from Byrd, with the leases likely filed among the lost records of Williamsburg’s General Court. 

Early falls area resident William Byrd I (1652-1704) was an experienced trader and explorer in the lands to the west. He and Nathaniel Bacon were licensed to deal in the burgeoning Indian trade in 1675 from what would become Richmond, but restriction of trade and traffic beyond the frontiers to Fort Henry (later Petersburg), where the principal trading paths converged on the falls of the Appomattox River, cut off trade from the James. Most of Byrd’s attention extended to the broad acreage on the south side of the river that he had inherited from his uncle, Thomas Stegge. Stegge, son of an English merchant, is thought to have lived in the stone house at the falls shown in William Byrd’s Title Book. When he invited Byrd to join him and inherit his 1,800 acres at the falls in 1671, Byrd likely settled in this house in present-day Manchester.  In 1677, after Bacon’s Rebellion, Byrd commanded defense forces at the falls. In 1688, the elder Byrd moved his base of operations to his newly purchased plantation at Westover, halfway between the falls and the center of government at Jamestown.

William Byrd II (1674-1744) established a plantation called Shockoes on the north side of the river across from his principal establishment at the Falls Plantation. It was on the same site as an Indian settlement that is shown of a plat of 1663.

Detail of “Plan of 800 Acres of Land near Shaccoe Creek” (c.1663)
 Note identification of creek: “Shaccoe Creek formerly Called Chyinek.”
 From Byrd Title Book (Virginia Historical Society).

Its first mention is as a tobacco plantation is in 1709 in Byrd's earliest surviving diary from 1709. The location of the tobacco fields is unknown, but they may well have been placed on the terrace along the river south of Shockoe Creek where Byrd would lay out the town of Richmond in 1737. There was only one public building at Shockoes, the Falls Chapel, which was built by the established church on the north side of the river before 1735. 

In spite of modern historical opinion, there is no evidence of William Byrd II conducting trade with Indian tribes to the west from the falls of the James. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Byrd’s diary entries show that his principal store and the bulk of his trade in furs and tobacco were based to the south on the Appomattox River. By 1712, however, the pace of agricultural and commercial operations had stepped up at Shockoes. Byrd spent a night at Shockoes that year; it was the first time he had done so during the years covered by the diary. He observed that Allen Bailey “had almost finished the storehouse there. I had not seen this place since the house was built and hardly knew it again. It was very pretty” [Secret Diary of William Byrd. 14 February 1712]. 

The storehouse at the falls was probably a forerunner of a successful store mentioned by Byrd in a diary entry during 1741, indicating that it already served as a supply depot for the surrounding countryside.  Byrd opened a tobacco warehouse at Shockoes in 1730, immediately after a series of such warehouses was authorized across the colony by the Tobacco Inspection Act. Tobacco had begun to pour down the James River as settlement expanded into the Piedmont. When Byrd advertised his new town of Richmond in the Virginia Gazette he mentioned the “public warehouse at Shockoes." 

With the opening of the official tobacco warehouse near the “Rock Landing,” where sloops and small boats could take on and discharge cargo, the tiny settlement would have taken on additional significance. Shockoes was, however, no match for the trade downriver at Bermuda Hundred and Warwick, where larger seagoing vessels took on cargo. The population was undoubtedly very small even into the 1750s. 

Early settlers found the area along the upper James River good for farming, hunting, and grazing. They claimed land, had it surveyed, and started farming. They reproduced institutions with which they were familiar, including the established church, the county government system, and the use of enslaved workers to exploit the rich soil.  By the 1720s, prominent members of planter families like the Cockes, Randolphs and Bollings selected large tracts along the river west of Richmond. As lands were claimed and plantations established in the 1730s and 40s, the reach of slavery rapidly expanded westward from Tidewater Virginia into the Piedmont. Gangs of slaves labored from sunup to sundown planting, tending and harvesting tobacco under the charge of an overseer. They were sent into the upcountry regions to open land for tobacco farming on remote “quarters” which contributed to the plantation owner’s overall production. 

From its opening to settlement in the 1720s until well after the American Revolution, the Piedmont region of Virginia contributed enormously to the colony’s tobacco-based economy. Twenty to thirty million pounds of this labor-intensive crop, as much as one fourth of the entire production of North American tobacco, was produced on the waters of the Middle James. Much of this crop moved through the warehouses and port of Richmond.  

Trade along the upper section of the river was brisk from the 1730s, but, until the river was improved with sluices and wing dams in 1774,  the trip was risky and difficult and could only be undertaken during seasons of high water. Planters used double log canoes to bring hogsheads of tobacco to Richmond. The hogshead were unloaded west of the falls at Westham and rolled along the Westham Road- a narrow route roughly equivalent to Cary Street and Park Avenue- and down the curving final segment that parallels todays Governor Street to the wooden tobacco warehouses beside the Rock Landing, the uppermost place accessible by water on the river. 

View of the city in c 1805, with the house probably built by Philip Watson (the Council Chamber)  shown by
 itself at the top of Council Chamber Hill at center right, and the original location of Shockoes at the lower
 center and center right [Detail, James Madison, 
Map of Virginia, 1818 (original 1807]. Mayo’s Bridge is just
 visible at the far left.

Detail of the c 1768 plat of the town of Shockoes (part of Byrd’s lottery), after it had been

 incorporated in the larger town of Richmond, copy of c 1780 among Jefferson’s papers. 
The map lists James Buchanan, Thomas Younghusband, Patrick Coutts, James
 McDowell, and Philip Watson as holders of the large irregular tenements, which probably
 included pastures or gardens for their use. The merchants would have lived at their
 places of business, although Philip Watson lived, by 1757, in an expensive, well-furnished
four-room brick house on the top of the hill overlooking the settlement.

The form of the first, low-lying settlement can be excavated from the maps of c. 1768 and 1809. It consists the two rows of lots just north of the Rock Landing. The first row of lots, including the “Ferry Lot” faces the landing. The settlement is divided into four irregular quadrants by a pair of narrow crossed streets next to the landing. Byrd’s Warehouse was in the northwest quadrant, flanked on each side by one-acre lots, later subdivided. The warehouse faced the “county road” from the south. Shockoe Warehouse was located in the south quadrant blocking what was to become the path of the approach to Mayo’s Bridge in 1788. Deed references in later years indicate that the names and numbers attached to western lots on Young’s Map of 1809 and Jefferson’s tracing of c 1780 were used as identifiers on the now-missing 1768 map of the town lots on Shockoe Hill. These names do not necessarily represent recent or current owners or functions of those tracts in either 1780 or 1809, but rather the conditions in 1768.  

Detail of the 1804 James Map of Richmond. This set shows the cross-shaped lanes that give structure to the
lots at the Rock Landing. The lots were numbered in sequence with the larger Town of Shockoe in 1768
 [Library of Virginia].

It seems likely that the central lane that divided the two ranks of lots was the route of the ancient path (the Three-Chop’t Road”) that led from Tidewater. It crossed the creek by means of a ford and angled up the slope by a series of curves corresponding to modern-day Fourteenth and Governor streets. The cross-street later known as 15th Street may have been the original route to and from the landing. 

Later, when John Mayo put in his bridge (1788), its approach corresponded to part of the old road and then continued at an angle through the site of the original Shockoe Warehouse, accounting for the angle of Fourteenth Street leading to the bridge. This “common formerly used as a public road from Shockoe Warehouse to the wharf” now claimed by John Mayo was mentioned in a later deed. 

Scottish merchant James Buchanan acquired the tract “denominated Shockoe Warehouse” (identified as lot 330 on the Byrd Lottery Map) from William Byrd’s lottery in 1768 [Richmond DB 9:164, 1814]. Both the Shockoe Warehouse and Byrd’s Warehouse were relocated to sites outside the regular settlement as it continued to expand. Both the new (to the north and west) and old (lots 328 and 337/340) locations of both warehouses are shown on the map of 1809. Byrd’s Warehouse moved to an odd-shaped lot on the southwest side of Fourteenth and Franklin, part of Buchanan’s Tenement. The Shockoe Warehouse moved onto the low bluff just above its former location, where it was convenient to the traffic coming down the hill on Governor Street and to the Canal Basin, an area now known as Shockoe Slip. 

Young’s Map of 1809, showing the lot lines of the settlement of Shockoes at the Rock
 Landing next to the mouth of Shockoe Creek. The curving road shown dotted in at the
 upper left is the “county road” that climbed the hill. The bridge at the center left is where
 the main road crossed the creek.

A portion of Lot 335 on Young's 1817 map facing “the public road from Shockoe
 Warehouse to the wharf” was sold by Thomas Jefferson in 1811. Since the deed, no
 longer extant, was recorded in Williamsburg at the General Court, it is likely that he had
 acquired it before 1780 (mentioned in Richmond Deed Book 9:394).
While the early plantation buildings mentioned by Byrd at Shockoes- a storehouse and overseer’s dwelling, not to mention slave housing- may have been located near the cultivated land, the tobacco warehouses and store were positioned as close to the “Rock Landing” as possible, where tobacco could be rolled down the bluff from the upcountry. Those merchants, traders, and mechanics who populated the settlement organized themselves around the route and the landing on spontaneously arranged, irregular lots that responded directly to the traffic and geography. The tobacco warehouses, Shockoe Warehouse and Byrd’s Warehouse, formed the nucleus of the settlement (at Petersburg, the site of earliest warehouse became the city’s first public square).  Other warehouses undoubtedly existed at the time, including a public warehouse on Younghusband’s tenement in 1769.

Byrd appears to have preferred leasing tracts to merchants rather than selling outright. Such leaseholds, in the form of ground rent, were also used by a principal landowner at Petersburg. The numerous large, irregular “tenements” that are visible on the west side of Shockoe Creek on early maps are the remnants of these leaseholds.  Since the Byrds used the General Court in Williamsburg, whose deed books have been destroyed, to record leases and sales of land, the only record is from references contained in later Henrico County deeds. Enough of these exist to sketch out the pattern. A few leases from the mid-eighteenth century were recorded locally, such as the ten-year arrangement for a 128-acre tenement between Byrd and merchant Philip Watson, who appears to have renewed his long-standing lease in the 1750s.     

At first, Shockoes kept its character separate from the new development at Richmond, which was laid out in as much as defensive move by Byrd as an effort to generate income. Byrd had complained in 1727 that he would have to lose money by turning over 50 acres of his land at the tobacco inspection point to create a town, as a bill with that intention was threatened by the House of Burgesses. While he realized that he could profit from the sales, he was afraid that someone was pressing for the bill in order to set up a rival tobacco warehouse. 

Map of lots sold in the Lottery of 1767. The village of Shockoes is included within the "town land" shown on the map.
Most of the tenements were sold in 1767 as part of the lottery of the lands at the falls of William Byrd III (1728-1777). A new, official town of Shockoe was platted that encompassed much of today's downtown Richmond west of the creek. The Virginia Gazette of 9 Nov. 1769 announced that “On Friday the 22d day of December next, will be sold, on the premises, to the highest bidder, for ready money, The Lots in the town of Shockoe, at the falls of the James river, known by the name of Younghusband’s tenements, lately drawn by the subscriber in the Honourable Col. Byrd’s lottery. These lots consist of several acres of ground, very capable of being advantageously improved. There is at present on part of them a public warehouse, a large and commodious dwelling house, with other conveniences, well situated and adapted either for a merchant or public housekeeper” [Nat. Archives].

It isn’t possible to know how many merchants were at the falls at mid-century. A later tax list of 1782 gives some insight. The population at that time was made up of 27 principal families, headed by well-known merchants and state officials. John Harvey, state register; John McKeand, merchant; Charles Irvin, merchant; James Buchanan, James Hayes, printer; Foster Webb, treasurer; Alexander Nelson, merchant; Alex. Coulter, saddler; George Nicholson, merchant; William Pennock, merchant; James Curry, physician; William Hay, merchant; Benjamin Harrison, governor; Benjamin Harrison, merchant; Lerafino Formicola, tavern keeper; Stewart and Hopkins, merchants; Cox and Higgins, merchants; Richard Hogg, tavern keeper; William Younghusband, no occupation listed; James Anderson, smith; Henry Banks, merchant; Banks, Hunter, and Co., merchants; William Foushee, physician; James Ramsey, no occupation listed; James Hunter, merchant; and a number of persons for whom no occupation was listed. Only a few of the principal families had been there for more than three years. James Buchanan had been there for 25 years; James Currie, 12 years; John McKeand, 19 1/2 years; and William Flush, 5 years. Most had arrived with the state government.  Several merchants who had been there for years had died, including James McPherson, Thomas Younghusband, and Patrick Coutts [1782 Tax List, National Archives].   

At mid-century, the series of larger tenements, occupied by early merchants James McPherson, Patrick Coutts, David Ross, and James Buchanan, were ranged along the top of a steep bluff that prevented easy movement to the west, their shape dictated by the topography.  Additional tenements to the north lined the sloping western bank of Shockoe Creek, including Thomas Younghusband’s, McDowells, Williamson’s, and Watson’s. Younghusband’s was the site of  the tavern later known as the Bell Tavern (Jefferson enjoyed visiting “Mrs. Younghusband’s Tavern [John Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, ii]);. After 1737, most of these merchants also owned lots in the new town of RIchmond.   At the time of his death, James Buchanan (1737–1787) was called “the oldest merchant of this city” (Virginia Independent Chronicle [Richmond], 17 Oct. 1787). Scotsman John McKeand, merchant and cabinet maker, arrived in Virginia about 1750. He settled in Richmond in 1763 where he was a merchant and cabinet maker. As a merchant he became partners with another of the many Scottish factors that served the community as merchants, James Buchanan, who had arrived there in c 1757. They advertised in the Virginia Gazette in the late 1760s and 70s. In 1769, after Byrd had disposed of his plan, McKeand was able to purchase a half-acre lot between William Byrd’s Warehouse and his own property known as McKeand’s Tenement. 

A careful reading the complex, layout of lots in the area around Main Street Station reveals the organic form of the early eighteenth-century tobacco inspection port at the falls of the James River. While no buildings survive from the period, the streets and lot layout of the earliest European settlement at Richmond, now buried below yards of fill earth, can be deduced from current property lines and historic maps.

Friday, November 14, 2014


But now your own architecture is infected, has become equally smooth,  
all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden . . . 
                                                                            Rem Koolhaus, Junkspace

Urbanismo was recently introduced to this essay called "Junkspace" by international architect Rem Koolhaus, whose much earlier work Delirious New York we found exhilarating in our excitable youth.  The piece, which consists of one long, excoriating paragraph, is Koolhaus' unflinching, compassionate, satiric ode to the city. It brings to mind, not only the life-destroying blobs that are modern convention centers, but the sanctimonious art museum, which he mocks as "a donor-plate labyrinth with the finesse of the retailer."  Not just shopping malls and airports, easy targets for satire, but just about everything that is built today for public use is infected with Junkspace, which, he insists, "is the residue mankind leaves on the planet." 

Koolhaus employs a rich vocabulary, stream-of-consciousness delivery, and an offhand tone to craft this unrelenting harangue. He is able to isolate and accurately render the banal distortions that have degraded the smallest episodes of our experience of common life. By encyclopedically collating seemingly everything that he finds wanting among the denatured public buildings of recent decades, he forces our gaze towards the extent of our collective loss, if not towards a remedy. Although now more than ten years old, his critique remains well suited to the architectural scene here in Richmond. 


"Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown . . . Although its individual parts are the outcome of brilliant inventions, lucidly planned by human intelligence, boosted by infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory . . . Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than did all previous generations put together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids. According to a new gospel of ugliness, there is already more Junkspace under construction in the twenty-first century than has survived from the twentieth . . . It was a mistake to invent modern architecture for the twentieth century. Architecture disappeared in the twentieth century; we have been reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it would turn into a novel; our concern for the masses has blinded us to People’s Architecture."

Junkspace seems an aberration, but it is the essence, the main thing. . . the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning, conceived in an incubator of Sheetrock (all three missing from the history books). Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain . . . It is always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits; it promotes disorientation by any means (mirror, polish, echo) . . .

"(Note to architects: You thought that you could ignore Junkspace, visit it surreptitiously, treat it with condescending contempt or enjoy it vicariously . . . because you could not understand it, you’ve thrown away the keys . . . But now your own architecture is infected, has become equally smooth, all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden . . .  JunkSignatureTM is the new architecture: the former megalomania of a profession contracted to manageable size, Junkspace minus its saving vulgarity."

Excerpts from Junkspace

OCTOBER 100, Spring 2002, pp. 175-190. © 2002 Rem Koolhaas.


Friday, October 3, 2014


The Byrd Theatre in Richmond, Virginia represents, both architecturally and decoratively, a culmination point in a long tradition, one that stretches back beyond the eighteenth-century origins of American theater. Play-houses since the 16th century have been given special decorative treatments in keeping with their importance in the civic realm. Relief sculpture and painted decorations referring to mythological themes ornamented the prosceniums and the fronts of box seats in European theaters. In the same tradition, the earliest theaters in the colonies undoubtedly made use of the decorative skills of the same painters who produced stage sets. In fact, the decorative arts are closely allied with those of the scene painter.

Popular entertainment became increasingly profitable in the years leading up to the First World War, and owners spent increasing sums on decorative plastering, mural paintings, bronze fittings, and marble finishes. The use of permanent and expensive materials is associated with the comprehensive decorative programs associated with the burgeoning movement now identified as the American Renaissance. This movement grew out of the grand synthesis of art and architecture associated with the influential Parisian Ecole des Beaux-arts and popularized at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. This mode of decoration, usually extended to major public buildings, was carried out in accord with a general program that established a theme and corresponded to the architectural form of a building’s interior.

Byrd Theatre, Auditorium Interior, photograph c 1928.
The Byrd Theatre
In 1928, the Byrd Theatre opened just as talking pictures were introduced. It was an architecturally sophisticated film-only venue in the city’s West End neighborhood. Such an ambitious project represented a new scale of investment for the increasingly profitable partnership of Walter Coulter and Charles Somma. Fred Bishop, the architect, and Arthur Brounet, whose studio was in charge of the interior finishes, took their decorative program from French theaters and opera houses of the early to mid-nineteenth century, seen though the lens of big-city vaudeville and movie venues of more recent years. These were typified by the vast Chicago Theatre, built in 1921 to the designs of architects Rapp and Rapp in the “Neo-Baroque French Revival style” with elaborate mural paintings, or the 5,000-seat Roxy Theatre in New York conceived by film producer Herbert Lubin, Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager, and decorator Harold Rambusch and completed in 1927.  
The interior decoration of the Byrd was executed by the Brounet Studios in New York, a well-known firm that specialized in theater and lobby decoration. Arthur Brounet (1866-1941), a native of Le Havre, France, studied art in France, Germany and Italy at various times in his life. He arrived in New York at the age of twenty. He was listed in the census of 1890 as a “decorator of arts” and in a directory of 1892 as an artist. He advertised as early as 1896 in the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, notifying clients that he was a “designer in every style, Relief Work and Tapestry Painting,” located at 678 Lexington Avenue in New York.  He was married and had three children, including Arthur G. Brounet, who would assist his father in installing the work at the Byrd. 
Arthur Brounet, Mural in Lobby of the Ettinge Theatre (Empire 42nd St), New York, 1912.
Brounet worked with prolific theater architect Thomas W. Lamb in 1912 to provide the Egyptian-styled decoration, including murals, for the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre of 1912 in New York. The lobby of the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre contains one of the few surviving Brounet murals. It was part of a larger set of murals that decorated the auditorium in the “Egyptian” style. 
Brounet found it unnecessary to compromise his Beaux-arts training to come up with suitable Egyptian themes. Instead, he adapted the theatrical allegories he was accustomed to produce for use on the dome, the “sounding board” and the fronts of the boxes at the Eltinge. The critic for the New York Times  found the juxtaposition incongruous and remarked that “what the designer intended when he decorated the boxes with bacchanic figures wearing Egyptian headdresses and playing pipes can only be imagined.”  
Other important theaters designed by Lamb for which the decoration was credited to Brounet include the Selwyn, on 42nd Street, and the Cort Theatre, for which he provided an eighteenth-century French interior. Brounet did aquatic-themed murals at Warren and Wetmore’s 1927 Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ, and was responsible for the decoration at many others, including the Prospect Theatre in the Bronx, the Keeney Theatre in Brooklyn of 1915 (with a foyer mural), and the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown, MD, in the same year. The Hanover Theatre in Pennsylvania, which he decorated in 1928, is still standing. His technically assured and carefully composed paintings are consistently in the mainstream of the academic tradition, even after the tradition began to falter in the second decade of the twentieth century. His work was capable of holding its own with the most accomplished architectural settings.

The Keeney Theatre in Brooklyn, NY. Proscenium mural by Arthur Brounet, [Architecture and Building, April 1915]. The theme appears to be another version of “The Coronation of Theatrical Art,” similar to the Prospect Theatre. “The decorations are well carried out and in fine materials. The color scheme is in rose, cream and gold with a large proscenium decoration. The entrance lobby is also highly decorated, containing another fine mural by Arthur Brounet over the entrance to the inner foyer.”
Brounet undoubtedly painted the Byrd’s murals himself and planned the color scheme of the interior. For his work in “decorating and mural work & tapestry” he was paid $16,000. This did not include the drapery, which came to $2,742, and the carpeting, which cost about $8,915, which his firm also supplied. His firm hired and sent to Richmond a “gang” of skilled decorative painters to execute the design in the months leading up to the opening. 
Close examination of the design and execution of the overall painted decoration shows a commitment to detail and quality, as well as traditional methods of execution. The decorative paints and metals used were less costly, but gave a similar effect, to the most expensive materials, like gold leaf. Some of the architectural finishes have held up very well, while the inexpensive quality of others has meant that they have lost their intended effect (notably the use use of bronze powder paint as a substitute for metallic leaf in some areas). The murals were executed in oil on canvas in the New York City studio and shipped to the site. 
Comparison of Arthur Brounet’s work with that of prominent contemporary muralists and with other projects executed by his firm indicate that he remained loyal to his training as an academic realist. His murals consistently employed classical subjects and traditional mythological themes well into the 1920s. He undoubtedly closely planned the allegorical and historical content of the pictures within the larger context of the era in which he had been trained. 
The following illustrations show similar work embodying mythological and allegorical content from Arthur Brounet Studios:

Arthur Brounet, Mural in Lobby of the St. James Building, New York, built 1898 [empheralnewyork]

Proscenium decoration illustrating “The Coronation of Theatrical Art (above) and mural allegory of “Harmony” (below) by Arthur Brounet for the Prospect Theatre in the Bronx, 1911, from “Theatres and their decorations” [Architecture and Building: A Magazine Devoted to Contemporary Architectural Construction (43:8) May 1911].

The Byrd Theatre’s Mural Program

The mural paintings throughout the Byrd were intended to provide allegorical content to complement the building’s interior architecture. In keeping with Beaux-arts concepts, the architect selected an architectural order, a historical period, a setting that accommodated a hierarchy of allegorical paintings, and a complement of decorative details that upheld film presentation as a legitimate form of drama. 
It seems worthwhile to explore the theme of the murals to better understand the ways in which the theater responds to its purpose and setting. Examination of Brounet’s surviving decorative work has shown that his theater murals were often intended as allegories. and were, as well, given appropriate explanatory titles. At least one example made a positive reference to drama as an fine art. In this case, Brounet’s allegory seems to have appropriated some rather modern ideas appropriate to the prospective art of cinema.   
Byrd Theatre, Foyer Interior, photograph c 1928.
The mural program is centered on the large triptych high on the wall in the two-story foyer. The foyer paintings, executed in oil on canvas, are in a long line of theatrical murals presenting the muses as patrons of the arts and the history of drama as an Dionysian celebration inherited from the ancient Greeks. 

Melpomene, Arthur Brounet, Central Mural in Foyer, Byrd Theatre, 1928.
The mural was painted at the studio in oil on canvas, which was then adhered
to the plaster substrate.
The central mural in the upper wall of the Byrd’s foyer is the focal point of Arthur Brounet’s decorative program. It depicts the muse Melpomene ruling over the sacred mysteries that form the Greek origins of Western drama. The partially undressed figure is seated on a marble throne and wrapped in a red cloak. She holds in one hand a primitive and terrifying version of the tragic mask used by Greek actors, and in the other a palm branch probably representing fame. She has a poppy in her hair, perhaps representing the viewers’ forgetfulness of the outer world when under the influence of the imaginative power of the dramatic art. Framed by the setting sun, she appears ready to don the mask herself, as the revelers to either side perform the ritual that sets the stage for the evening’s celebrations. As we will see, she occupies the central position in a larger performance on a stage of her own.  

Melpomene, Edward Simmons, Library of Congress, 1896 (above),
Melpomene, Paul Baudry, Grand Foyer, Paris Opera, 1874 (below). 

A well-known mural in the Library of Congress by Edward Simmons shows a similar seated figure with a mask at her feet and flanked by putti, one of whom holds a wreath of  ivy, associated with Dionysus. This mural shows the academic context in which the Byrd’s murals were painted. Somewhat earlier, another red-clad Melponene sat among her sisters in cove panels on the ceiling of the Grand Foyer of Charles Garnier’s influential Paris Opera. The sumptuous ceiling, completed by Paul Baudry in 1874, as well as the sculpture and painting that ornaments the rest of the state-sponsored opera house, was a distant, but potent source of the form and decorative scheme of the Byrd. 

Gustave Boulanger, Bacchanal and Country Dance, Salle de Danse, Paris Opera (left) 
and Instrumental Music, Proscenium mural, Casino de Monte Carlo (right). Both buildings 
by Charles Garnier.
According to one scholar, “the nineteenth century appropriated the figure of the maenad transmitted from Antiquity and filtered by the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, to become, in fact, a 'muse' of the new time and articulated around it a modern poetic. . . . they appear in the cycles of official decorations just as in the advertising posters or the illustrations of novels. . .The same artists can make the subject both pretext to a scene of licentious nudity, or the recreation of the glorious tradition of the ancient bacchanal.” Examples include the academic paintings below, showing dancing and exhausted revelers not unlike those seen in the foyer murals.                                    

Bacchante and Satyr, Leon Palliere, 1862 
In addition to nineteenth-century academic paintings with which Brounet was familiar, there were also the tamer Neo-classical sources that were never out of print, such as John Flaxman’s reliefs for Wedgewood ceramics and his illustrations for Homer, and the relief designs of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Brounet’s dancers have more in common with these graceful forms than with the later academic paintings.  

John Flaxman, the Dancing Hours, a popular source for theater muralists.

Bertel Thorvaldsen, bacchante and satyr
The symmetrically placed panels flanking the central muse are not as immediately readable as was the center panel. The entire scene is set in a autumnal Arcadian landscape with a distant background of mountains seemingly lit up at sunset. Four partially clad bacchantes, two on each side, are dancing with satyr-like male figures, devotees associated with the abandonment of the worship of Dionysus, accompanied by the music of an double reed flute called an aulos, usually associated with worship of the god. The dancing trios are flanked by reclining female forms, wearing red cloaks matching the muse. Each is provided with an female attendant.
As we will see, the background is notionally part of the same landscape depicted in the murals in the auditorium. The overall composition contains five elements: the central muse, two groups of dancers, and the reclining figures and their attendants. It is noticeable that the outer figures to the left seem more wooden and less well painted than the lithe figures of the dancers and the lady on the right. Flanking columns or piers, partially visible, and tapestry hangings are shown at each side, suggesting that the scene is set on the stage of a Greek outdoor theater.
When Brounet sent the murals to Richmond, Charles Somma must have indicated that something about one of them was unsatisfactory. Arthur G. Brounet told Somma that “In reference to the mural now in your possession, upon my first trip to your job, will bring this back and make the necessary changes.” Might this account for the poor quality of the artwork on the bacchante in the left panel, if a part of it had to be hastily repainted? Was the original too risque for Richmond? Or was there some painted reference to Bacchus’ wine which Somma thought would raise questions during Prohibition?

Arthur Brounet, Byrd Theatre, flanking murals in the foyer, right (at top) and left (at bottom)
In the academic tradition, an idealized female figure is often employed to personify a concept or trait. The connection with Dionysus in the Byrd’s murals is emphasized by the partially clad bacchante reclining in an ecstatic pose on the left. She is wearing an ivy crown and holding a pine-cone-topped thyrsus, both symbols of the god’s presence. Here, the reclining bacchante represents the Dionysian contribution to drama.  Above her, on a pedestal, is an archaic Greek-style amphora showing a horse and a man. 
In contrast, the robed female figure on the right is holding an ornate lyre, such as accompanied the performance of epic poetry. Her alert pose and attitude are clearly antithetical to the figure on the opposite side. Her cool composure is assured by her attendant’s carefully wielded fan. A clue to her significance may be found in the lyre, her only attribute, which makes a conventional mythological connection with the god Apollo. Dionysos and Apollo were each associated with specific musical modes and instruments, as confirmed by standard surveys of classical art: 
If Apollo’s delight was the melodious and restrained lyre, Dionysos’ instrument, at least by the 4th century BC, was the rousing, versatile, and dramatic aulos (tibia in Latin). The aulos was was a cylindrical pipe, sounded with a reed (a cross between the modern oboe, clarinet, and flute), and played in pairs.- not to be confused with the syrinx, the ‘panpipes’ associated with Pan, the rustic god of shepherds and fertility. It was played in all manner of Dionysian rituals- at the theatre (accompanying the chorus of an Athenian drama), Bacchic mysteries, and the symposium. . . The rhythmic fervor of cymbals, the tambourine, and drums could also be connected to Dionysos and his primordial realm.
                     Nigel Spivey and Michael Squire, Panorama of the Classical World 
While the ancients understood that Apollo and Dionysos, both sons of Zeus, were related in a symmetrical way, it was the philosopher Nietzsche who, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), articulated the tension between the antithetical forces represented by the sensual Dionysos and the rational Apollo as the source of tragic drama. It is inappropriate to read too deeply into a frankly commercial production like the Byrd Theatre murals, but the paintings do seem equipped with symbols enough to bear the weight of a Dionysian/Apollonian interpretation.  Thus, the Byrd murals may be interpreted to present Melpomene as the allegorical figure of Drama in her especial manifestation as Cinema. She sits enthroned at the hinge between the wild abandon of the vaudeville tradition and the emotional control characteristic of the legitimate stage. The mural makes the controversial argument that film is the equal of live theater and that it is capable of making a similarly honorable contribution to the civic realm. 

The Byrd Theatre at the time of opening in 1928 with organist Carl Rond at the keyboard
The Auditorium
The theater was designed by the architect to allow either murals or fabric inserts in panels in both the foyer and the auditorium, but the owner made the choice to spend the substantial sums required to purchased a total of eleven paintings. These were placed where they would make the most effective contribution to the whole. In the auditorium, the murals included the six landscapes in the arches on the side walls and the two box seat or “organ arch” panels, as they were called in the mural specifications. In addition, smaller cartouches and panels around the room continued the theme of dance begun in the lobby. The pilaster capitals flanking the boxes were designed in a variant version of the Corinthian order, which incorporates a “cameo” of a heroic figure at the center of each. Since the cameos are not shown on the architect’s section drawings, these details may represent a collaboration between the muralist, the decorative plasterer, and/or the architect. They appear to have been painted on plaster at the theater.       
As noted above, the auditorium is also ornamented with a series of grisaille medallions and panels. These were executed in an appropriately Neoclassical style. These have lost most of their power due to their darkening over time and the loss of a set of medallions that was included as part of the “plaster stage setting” that was removed in 1989.  The group is dominated by a central panel on the beam supporting the dome and located over the front of the balcony. It consists of four female figures who are dancing around a central altar crowned by a flaming tripod.

Byrd Theatre, central panel on the beam above the balcony rail.
In keeping with the decorative program identified in the foyer murals, the ceiling panel appears to represent a stylized, Neo-classical version of the celebration of the dance around the altar of Dionysos in the center of the theater in Athens. This ritual was associated with the worship of Dionysus, out of which grew Greek dramatic performance.  Corresponding paintings of dancers are found on the center of each of the five rounded projections on the front of the balcony.  

These famous Neo-classical rondels of the muses Polyhymnia, Euterpe, and Terpsichore by Thorvaldsen are part of the visual ancestry of the four muses in the auditorium paintings. They closely resemble three of the four figures in the ceiling panel above, but the number of the figures and inclusion of the altar do not confirm the Byrd figures as muses.   

Landscape Murals
The landscapes painted in the two boxes flanking the stage and behind the plaster filigree in the three arches on each side of the auditorium are intended to give glimpses into the continuous evening landscape that can be seen in the evocative backgrounds of the foyer murals. The only intrusive notes that seems to deviate from the Greco-Roman ornamental program are in the central arches on each side, where Maxfield Parrish-inspired castles have crept into the Arcadian twilight. 

Three of the six archway murals

Murals in the backs of the box seats flanking the proscenium
Painting the backs of box seats to resemble a garden landscape may not have been part of the architect’s initial intention, since it seems to work against the architectural logic of the theater. The vistas in the backs of the box seats. as executed, however, serve to open the heavy sides of the proscenium and link the landscapes along the walls, and by extension even the terrain outside the theater, with the fantastic scenes projected on the screen. The murals in the boxes are the most unstructured and dream-like of any in the building, perhaps because only portions of them could be glimpsed from any one spot. Elements such as tombs, funereal urns, and memorial arches in both murals suggest the memories of heroic lives.
The painting on the right side of the stage contains a view down an allee of clipped shrubbery toward a circular structure like a heroic or imperial tomb, which is supported on a rusticated base and topped with an urn. In the foreground is a pool in which a statue or shadowed figure is bathing with her back to the audience beside a monumental funerary urn bearing the image of a hero or god. In the distance, in front of the tomb, stands an arch made entirely out of clipped vegetation. The mural on the left has a pool in the distance in which stands a tripartite triumphal arch topped with gilded sculptural figures and a heraldic crest, located on an artificial island. In front of the arch, a bronze fountain plays into a basin surrounded by a hedge. To the right in the foreground rises the corner of a tall Corinthian temple. 

Behind its restrained “Renaissance” or “Empire” facade, the Byrd Theatre’s interior was intended to astonish Richmonders accustomed to the cool neo-classicism of the city’s existing theaters. Most viewers responded positively to the lavish lobby and auditorium. An early reviewer declared that “from the moment of entering the lobby, wainscoted with Grecian marble in tones of brown and buff, with its bronze doors and stair railings, it unusually well-executed frescoes and its beautiful crystal fixtures, one is impressed with the feeling of luxury the promoters of this enterprise have tried to provide- not costliness merely, but beauty, comfort and refinement” [News Leader, 25 Dec. 1928]. 

The Byrd has shown films almost continuously since it opened. Due to its meticulous preservation through the decades, the theater retains not only its dramatic marble and ornamental plaster interiors and historic Wurlitzer organ, but its historic paint scheme and valuable mural cycle. A careful restoration of the decorative finishes and murals is planned to be completed over the next three years.