“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.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Location of Richmond’s first African-American Burial Ground.

Detail, Adams Map of Richmond, 1858, showing the area formerly
the site of the African Burial Ground

The question of the location and boundaries of the Richmond's historic first African-American Burial Ground has generated a series of conflicting reports, amplified by the undoubted sensitivity of the topic and the unpopular attempt to build a new ballpark in its immediate vicinity. Attempts at resolving the question have assisted in focusing attention on the small tract of land that condensed the realities of degradation and death for Richmond's enslaved and free black population in the first half of the nineteenth century. 

This study purports to show that the first Burial Ground for Negroes very likely shared a portion of its boundaries with a busy tract of publically owned land on the edge of the Shockoe Valley settlement. Careful consideration of the ownership of land in the area of the burial ground can help to solve the thorny question of exactly where it was located. The parcel of city-owned land appears on later maps and deeds but is poorly documented in the public record.

Watsons Tenement on the inset map of Byrds Lottery on Richard Youngs 1809 Map of Richmond. This map originated in 1768 and includes the platted town of Shockoe west of the creek labeled Town Land.

Background- Watsons Tenement

In 1780, when Richmond became a city, the majority of residents lived east of Shockoe Creek on the grid established by William Byrd in the 1730s. The plateau to the west on Shockoe Hill was laid out in streets in 1768 on the lands of William Byrd III and was incorporated into the city as the Town of Shockoe in the following year. The tract on Shockoe Hill was slow to develop, but one area, just at the top of the hill, attracted merchants and tavern operators along the old County Road that climbed the steep hillside and connected the town to points east and west. 

A large tract of undeveloped land on Shockoe Hill to the north and east of the County Road pre-dated the lots of 1768. It was known as Watsons Tenement because it had been leased by Philip Watson, a merchant, from William Byrd III. It is not clear when Watson acquired the lease, but it appears to have been renewed in 1757, at which time it comprised 128 acres. At some date after that, Thomas Turpin purchased Watsons Tenement from William Byrd III, as noted in a deed of 1783, when Turpin sold 93 1/2 acres, the remainder of the tenement after the sale of lots on the hill, to his son, Dr. Philip Turpin. This undeveloped remainder of Watsons Tenement ran east from the Shockoe Hill lots down to Shockoe Creek. The southern portion of this sloping land, containing Philip Watsons brick residence, had been considerably improved and was valued by a jury at 4,000 lbs specie. The sloping land of the portion to the north was considered less valuable and was assessed at only 1,000 lbs. 

Owing to the loss of records, including those pertaining to the General Court in Williamsburg, where the Byrds recorded most of their transactions, the history of the property is vague. Thomas Turpin acquired Watsons Tenement in its entirety after the lease was vacated, well before 1779. It was in that year that Thomas Jefferson, during his term as governor, occupied a house near the corner of Thirteenth and Broad belonging to Turpin.   

The Turpin tract was entirely in the hands of Philip Turpin by 1775. He laid out the flat part at the top of the hill in lots that extended the adjacent Shockoe Hill grid pattern by 1775, when he sold lots no. 781 and 782 to James Monroe [Richmond City DB 1:43].  The land on Council Chamber Hill and sloping down to the Shockoe Creek he sold in larger unnumbered tracts.  These less likely tracts became acceptable sites for public and civic uses. In 1786 he sold a lot to the trustees of the Quesney Academy [Richmond City DB 1:119]. This became the site of the Richmond Theatre, which after its destruction in a horrific fire, was replaced by Monumental Church. At that time, Turpin guaranteed that Broad Street (the Main Street on Shockoe Hill) should be extended along the entire frontage of the Academy lot. The citys Baptists acquired a lot east of the Academy.

At the bottom of the hill, in a bend of Shockoe Creek, the city invested in an irregularly shaped tract. While the date of purchase is not known, this property was to serve numerous secondary purposes over the following century and plays a key role in the search for the Burial Ground. The corporations tract of land is first seen on the Bates Map of 1835 containing the Citys jail and principal public school. Angled property lines separating the citys parcel and the other tracts along the west side of the creek from the lots on higher ground to the west probably correspond to the shapes of the bluff dividing them. On this map, the formerly inaccessible tract has been divided and joined to the rest of the city by extension of the streets to the north, east, and south, while the formerly winding Shockoe Creek has been channeled into a new bed to the east.

Detail, Mijacah Bates 1835 Map of Richmond showing the area of the city property on the west side of Shockoe Creek. The Rutherfoord lots extending west from 15th Street were the site of the residence of James Goodwin before 1807. The irregular lot on which the Lancastrian School (1816) and the City Jail (1830) are shown is the pubic land. It seems likely that this is the very same tract on which the burial ground, gallows, and magazine were placed.

Youngs 1809 Map of Richmond showing the site of the Burial Ground on the northeast side of what would become Broad Street, with the gallows in the center (marked with the letter N) and the Magazine to the immediate east [the top of the map as shown here points northeast]. 

The Land Belonging to the Corporation

The public functions on the west side of Shockoe Creek are first shown on Youngs 1809 map of the citys lots. These civil uses are identified as a magazine for the storage of gunpowder, the site of the gallows, and a Burial Ground for Negroes.  The location and extent of the Burial Ground as shown on this map has proven difficult to pin down with any certainty. Commentators have suggested that the graveyard was on common land and that it may have expanded into the area where Broad Street is located today, although the citys original commons were located along the east side of Shockoe Creek as it ran in 1737 and along the river. Some commentaries have given the Burial Grounds boundaries an elastic quality that seems unrealistic in the litigious climate of eighteenth-century Virginia land speculation and boundary disputes. 

It is most likely that civil uses, including the Burial Ground, were officially restricted to public land already belonging to the city. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to assume that the boundaries of the Burial Ground were poorly marked at the time and that burials might, as was suggested at the time, have strayed onto private land. It would, however, be unusual for the litigious members of the Turpin family, owners of Watsons Tenement after c. 1780, to have approved of a public graveyard, gallows, and powder magazine on their land without a formal transfer of property to the city. The Turpins pursued lawsuits for decades over issues related to land acquired by the state. The size of the city tract was, in fact, probably large enough for its purpose, even adjusting for the steepness of the site, when compared with the two-acre site of the citys official graveyard on Church Hill that served the citys white population until 1822.

Public Ground

Jeffrey Ruggles has drawn attention to the 1810 account by the free African-American author Christopher McPherson of a visit to the Burial Ground ["The Burial Ground: An Early African American Site in Richmond, Virginia, 2009 (http://www.scribd.com/doc/42051809/Burial-Ground-Ruggles-12-09)]. McPherson described it as located to the east of the Baptist Meeting House. The citys tract was, in fact, due east of the site of the meeting house, not southeast as shown on the 1809 map. He seems to confirm public ownership of the tract when he commented that many graves are on private land adjoining owing to want of knowledge of what was public ground. He adds, as well, the humiliating fact that this is the very express gallows ground where malefactors are interred.” In fact, Richmond was the site of the executions of white felons from all over the state from 1780 to 1785, and the site on Shockoe Creek appears to have been used for that purpose. Prior to 1780, Henrico County had been required to send all white felons to Williamsburg for execution and probably placed the temporary gallows used for the execution of slaves wherever it was most convenient on the common land. From 1785 until its removal in 1816, most Richmond and Henrico County felons were executed there.

The public nature of this tract helps to explain the close association of the gallows, the magazine, and the Burial Ground. The powder magazine, always liable to explode, was shared by both the city and the state governments, and by both public institutions and private persons. A magazine was established by ordinance in 1788 [Records of Common Hall]. This appears to be the same structure shown as the magazine in 1809, placed where it was remote from most habitations. Temporary repairs were made to it in 1808 [Common Hall, 16 May 1808]. This was probably designed to extend its life until completion of a new state magazine near the penitentiary two years later would allow the city to abandon the structure [Common Hall, 10 June 1810].

Neighbors and Developers

Some have suggested that the Burial Ground extended into the right-of-way of Broad Street. The city was, however, vitally interested in keeping clear the future locations of public ways like Broad Street. The act of 1769 that extended the city boundaries to embrace Shockoe Hill stipulated that existing tracts like Watsons Tenement could be divided into half-acre lots, provided they continued the street grid through their lands. Until they subdivided their property they were not allowed to erect any house on any of the said tenements, so as to obstruct the prospect of any street which terminates at the said tenements, that may hereafter, when the same shall be laid off in lots, stop the said streets [1769 Act, quoted in John W. Reps, Tidewater Towns, 1972, 269]. On the other hand, the citys irregular tract of public land officially blocked the path of Marshall Street, which ended to the west at the top of a slope that was too steep to ever accommodate traffic.

The 1809 map contradicts conventional assumptions about the use of public land for public purposes. It places the Burial Ground directly north of Broad Street. The deed record, however, indicates that the question needs to be carefully approached. The land between the corporation’s parcel and Broad Street was purchased at some point in the late eighteenth century from Phillip Turpin by James Goodwin, who was living there at the time of his death in 1807.  This parcel had never served as public or common land and was likely utilized by Goodwin as part of his domestic establishment. Some burials may have extended south onto Goodwins lot by error, but is unlikely that there were enough to disrupt the residential use of the property during the same period.

Another portion of the tract between the future jail lot and what would become Broad Street was sold in 1811 to Charles Beck and Company. They sold it, in the form of two narrow lots extending between an alley (Church or College Street) and Shockoe Creek as it meanders, to Thomas Rutherfoord in 1814 [Richmond DB 8:255]. Rutherford built a long line of houses facing Broad Street after it was extended east in 1845, but at the time it was probably already the site of houses fronting on Church or College Street, the same or predecessors of those shown in the 1865 photo by Andrew J. Russell analyzed in the article by Jeffrey Ruggles.

Map of the City, c 1817, by Richard Young. This shows the City Jail lot (assigned to that purpose in 1817 on land belonging to the corporation, but not built until 1830) and the Lancastrian School (1816) across the street, comprising all of the city-owned property on the west side of Shockoe Creek.

Map by Morgan of 1848, showing the City Jail (F2) and the Lancastrian School (E3). It indicates the steep bluff into the slope of which the jail was built and the canalization of the creek along the route of 16th Street. The angled edge of the city property roughly corresponded to the bluff.

The principal problem in resolving the question of the relationship of the burying ground to the property belonging to the corporation on which the magazine lately stood has been in identifying when the city acquired the land. This not only included the City Jail (1830), but also a yard behind the jail itself, and the Lancastrian School (built on the same lot belonging to the city in 1816). The lack of any lot lines in this part of the 1809 Richard Young Map has given the impression that this was just open land, but a larger property transferred from Turpin to the city in 1799, including the future site of Shockoe Hill Burying Ground, are not shown either. The explanation becomes clear after looking the larger map. Young only drew lots and streets on city land. The land on which the jail and school were built was not annexed to the city until 1810 and was officially laid out in streets in 1812. This is why lots are not shown in 1809 but are on the map of 1817.

These illustrations show the 1830 jail at the time of the execution of a notorious murderer in 1885 [Courtesy of Shockoe Examiner blog]. The jail is a the left, concealed behind high walls that mask its flanks. The jailer's residence to the right.

A New City Jail

In the years before 1830, the county and city shared operating and repair expenses at the jail beside the Henrico County Courthouse. Henrico carried out all local executions until 1830, when Richmond built its own jail. At first, executions took place on a temporary gallows erected on the north side of Broad Street in or near the Negro Burying Ground, and either the Negro Burying Ground or a possible adjacent potters field served as the place where executed criminals of whatever race were interred. As we have seen, one contemporary witness, Christopher MacPherson, implied that they were the same.

The city shifted its priorities in 1812. The sharing of the Henrico County Courthouse and Jail was drawing to an end.  At first the city council or common hall was of a mind to spend $1,000 to rehabilitate the upper floor of the Market House to accommodate a relocation of the city's Hustings Court.  An entirely new and grander conception intervened: on 18 May 1812, the common hall rescinded that vote and began the search for a new courthouse, the one eventually completed to the designs of Robert Mills in 1819.

As we have seen, the city owned a largely inaccessible tract at the base of Shockoe Hill that contained the Powder Magazine, but also likely held the gallows ground and the Burying Ground for Negroes. Here they decided to place a new jail, on the same day that they voted to demolish the cage or lockup beside the market house.  In 1816-17, the Common Hall, prompted by complaints from the jailor, considered building its own jail and jailors house and selected the tract belonging to the corporation, opposite to the Lancastrian School [Records of the Common Hall, 20 Oct 1817]. 

The southern half of the citys land is labelled City Jail on the c1817 map by Richard Young, although the jail would not be built for fourteen years. The city even had plans for the jail drawn up by Robert Mills (serving at that time the architect of the Richmond City Hall) and Otis Manson (architect of the Union Hotel) [Records of the Common Hall, 17 March 1817]. The new jail was to be built at about the same time as the opening of the new Court House or City Hall on Shockoe Hill, but in the end the city decided to join with the county to build a new jail at the county court house [Records of the Common Hall, 17 March and 6 May 1818].

Prison Bounds of 1830, showing where trusted prisoners were allowed to go, including Monumental and First Baptist churches (Ruggles report)

 After the city had annexed the land west of the creek in 1810, the common hall authorized an extension of Marshall and Clay streets through the existing, irregular lots, including the land belonging to the corporation on which the magazine lately stood and the land of John Adams, commonly called Fleishers Garden [Common Hall, 18 May 1812 and 20 July 1812.  At the same time, a newly created 15th Street was created to run north and south though the section. It seems that Shockoe Creek had already been straightened and pushed to the east to permit this new land to be opened for development.  As a result, the eastern edge of the land belonging to the corporation, which would have corresponded to the curving bed of the creek, was straightened and the size of the tract reduced.

Roughly aligned composite map illustrating the discussion. Shows current
conditions overlaid on the Mijacah Bates map of 1835. The burial ground, wherever it was placed on the public land, could have projected to the east as far out as the curves of the old bed of Shockoe Creek permitted. North is to the top.

Overlay of the 1835 Bates Map with the boundaries of city's tract shown in red. The southeast edge that was formed by the creek is approximate.
Similar overlay on the 1889 Baist Atlas Map produced by the online Baist Atlas Project at VCU libraries. This shows
the jail and school, but also shows another City of Richmond tract nearby. This would have been mostly on the east
side of Shockoe Creek before it was straightened.  

Richmonds new City Jail occupied a terrace that comprised the entire southern section of the citys property, about an acre in size. The commission advertised for bids and awarded the contract for the jail to Curtis Carter, who completed it in the early months of 1830 [Common Hall Minutes, 14 July 1828]. The only alterations to the contract were the need to remove earth from the uphill side of the Jailors Lodge and the paving of the yard within the walls of the jail and the jailors lodge. Jeffrey Ruggles introduced the testimony of Ernest Walthall, who wrote an unusual memoir in 1908 called Hidden Things Brought to Light. 

In talking about cemeteries Walthall states, In digging foundation for old city jail there were signs of a burial place, and the bones were so large they were classed giants.The jail was built in 1830, and Walthall was not born until 1848, so this is a story he heard from others.

Walthalls account probably understates how many bones were found. Old City Jail was located on Marshall Street, just west of 15th. There was much digging when the jail was built. During the 1820s and 30s, as Richmond became more urban, a number of terracing projects were undertaken on the slopes of Council Chamber Hill and Shockoe Hill to create lots for development. One was for the jail. The site preparation required that part of the hillside be dug away for the structure, and then more excavation carved out a jail yard. On the west line of the jail lot a tall stone wall held back the hillside, then the wall turned and went a ways east on the south line of the lot [Jeffrey Ruggles, “The Burial Ground: an early African-American site in Richmond: Notes on its history and location,2009].

New Uses for the Public Land

Modern Google Map overlay for 1835 Bates Map of Richnond, It shows the "Grave Yard for Free People of Colour" to the east of the Hebrew cemetery, joined on the east be a second burial are for "For Slaves."

On 18 June, 1810 sundry persons of colour petitioned the Common Hall for new ground for a graveyard. The request was delegated to a committee to prepare a report. The Common Hall received the report and granted the request several months later [19 Oct. 1812]. It doesnt appear that any action was taken until 1816, when the city established a new Negro Burying Ground (later shown as Potters Field) in a location near the Almshouse and what became Shockoe Cemetery.  An inadequate and delayed response to the petition of 1810, the new burying ground included separate areas set aside for free blacks and slaves [Minutes of the Common Hall, Richmond, Vol. 5, p. 23 ; Richmond Enquirer, 22 Feb. 1816, cited in Jeffrey Ruggles, Burial Ground, 2009]. The venue for public executions moved along with the new Burial Ground in 1816.  Later, a new powder magazine was built nearby, completing what seems to have been a full recreation of the earlier site. The new burial ground for free persons of color is located on the flat area to the northeast of the intersection of Fifth and Hospital streets. Slaves were buried in an area set aside along the bluff above the creek, as can be seen in the 1835 map above. At the end of the Civil War, free and enslaved was no longer a category and the two cemeteries were combined and expanded around the north side of the bluff. It was now labeled Potters Field.  

The Potters Field shown on the Beers Map of 1877. Fifth Street has since cut through the Potter's Field to run
over Bacon's Quarter Branch on a viaduct and he hillside has bee reshaped in relation to the railroad tracks
that run at the bottom.  

Map showing size in 1876, when free and non-free sections of the 1816 Negro Burial Ground was shown as the "Potters Field."

All across the nation, African Americans of all conditions were forced indiscriminately into potters fields, the traditional name for a graveyard for outsiders and paupers, together with indigents and criminals. Pressing for improved burial conditions was one of the first ways in which African Americans attempted to give an independent voice to their political aspirations [Archaeological Investigations of the Mother Bethel Burying Ground http://www.phila.gov/ParksandRecreation/PDF/Bethel%20Burying%20Ground%20Appendices.pdf]. In Richmond, free blacks followed a pattern familiar to other cities, when they used their only avenue for redress and asked the Common Hall to provide a dignified place for burial.

City Jail and repurposed Lancastrian School seen at center bottom of Sanborn Map of 1924. Note the curve of Shockoe Creek to the northeast.  

The building of the Lancastrian School in 1816 and the selection of the tract as the site for a new jail coincides precisely with the establishment of the new Negro Burying Ground. There is no record of what happened to the remains of those buried in the burying ground. If their remains were mostly confined to the area of the jail and school, then they were either deposited with the fill that was removed or perhaps moved to the new potters field. This seems to expand on Christopher McPhersons prediction in 1810 that, since many graves are on private property adjoining, [they are] liable to be taken up and thrown away, whenever the ground is wanted by its owners, (this is owing, either to confined space, or want of knowledge of what was public ground).

A group of six free blacks had made a similar request of the Philadelphia government to consider establishing a burying ground separate from the common potters field as early as 1782. As many as a dozen of these burying grounds have been identified in Philadelphia, most of which were ignored by later development. The abandonment of potters fields without relocation of the graves was widespread in densely settled cities. With no advocate able to defend their memories, only a few were exhumed and reburied.

The new land was no more suitable for burial than the former: a contemporary account by Frederick Law Olmstead describes its location along a crumbling bank and its graves ascending in irregular terraces up the hill-side [Olmstead, Cotton Kingdom, 1861, quoted in Veronica A. Davis, Here I lay my Burden Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2012)].

Sunday, October 18, 2015


"Urban Scale Richmond takes as its focus the rediscovery of the rules, both explicit and implicit, that have guided the building of the city and give to its art and architecture a unique character. One way to achieve this result (and to reduce the diminution of local conventions and the disempowerment of citizens) is for planners to actively reconstruct the city’s operative patterns. The way in which monuments proceed from a nexus of community expectations is an important part of those patterns. By engaging critically with local issues,  it will be possible to confirm and stimulate healthy growth and change in the city. 

The way in which monuments are procured has an effect on the quality of their 'fit,' although there is no consensus on the best way to control the process. The most complicated part of making a monument is in connecting it in some tangible way, not only with local tradition, but with the expectations of the various constituencies for which it is intended. This is only achieved through careful consideration of location, materials, scale, form, and viewer expectations. Urbanismo hopes for the best!"

This is how we ended our previous post on Public Art and Community Memory: Richmond's Maggie Lena Walker, expressing our concerns the commemorative public art proposed to honor Richmond's Maggie L. Walker . We were apprehensive that the Public Art Commission would guide the designer selection process away from the kind of engagement with the past seemingly favored by the community. A year and a half later, the process described in the post has been completed and we have very good news to report. The city's Public Art Commission announced last week that the commission would be for a statue and that the artist would be prominent American representational sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez.  Mendez, with a BFA from the Chicago Art Institute, does sports, commemorative, private commissions, and veteran's memorials.

Mayor Dwight Jones announced the decision: “Not only will Richmond gain an important new monument that can reflect the diverse heritage and history of a significant local hero, but this effort will also underscore her role as a champion for civil rights on the national landscape,” said Mayor Jones in a press release. “Maggie Walker was a revolutionary leader in business, a champion for breaking down barriers between communities and showed incredible strength as a person that came out of extraordinarily challenging circumstances to create great things.”

The location of the monument will be in the triangular plot at the intersection of Adams Street and Broad Street, an important node on the urban scale, where the 18th-century road called Brook  Turnpike engages at an angle with the city grid.  This was formerly the site where a fountain was provided to water the horses and oxen drawing wagons and drays as they entered the city (that fountain is now located behind the Bill "Bojangles" Robinson Statue a few blocks to the north. The historic intersection was a key location in Maggie Walker's world and remains a very memorable node in the city's transportation network.  The new statue begins to reinforce an established civic armature. This begins at Franklin and Adams and moves from Maggie Walker's statue at Adams and Broad to the Bojangles statue and beyond.

This commission bodes well for the Maggie L. Walker Monument to join with many others, including the George Washington Monument and the Civil Rights Monument at Capital Square. As we previously observed, that "sculptural ensemble by Stanley Bleifeld avoids the sentimentality that characterizes some of the sculptor's work in other cities and takes a place among the very best monuments of recent decades." Let's hope the Maggie L. Walker Monument will achieve the same levels of formal and emotional strength, and by doing so, help re-establish the legitimacy of figurative public art.   
This seriousness should extend to the setting as well as the bronze centerpiece. Mendez's website indicates that "Toby primarily focuses on the figure, combining a classical figurative approach with a contemporary eye for site design." In monument-rich Richmond, the plinth says a great deal about the position of the subject in the city's historical narrative. Offering a sense of "approachability" by placing the statue on the same plane as the viewer has become a hackneyed trope. Maggie Walker, who pointed the way for her community, often from a position on her elevated front porch, would best occupy a raised podium equipped with moldings and set off by appropriate ornament. The setting should support and embrace the statue without seating, planting, or paving elements that draw attention to themselves or work against the city's conventional landscape patterns.

Congratulations to the entire community and the arts commission for making decisions that will contribute to a deeper understanding of Maggie Walker as leader, embodying the civic values she espoused throughout her life.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Civic Markers II: Monuments as Ordering Elements in the City

"The status of monuments on the cusp of the twenty-first century is double-edged and fraught with an essential tension: outside of those nations with totalitarian pasts, the public and governmental hunger for traditional, self-aggrandizing monuments is matched only by the contemporary artists’ skepticism of the monument" 
James E. Young, “Memory/Monument,” 2010
Lord Botetourt
Civic Markers II: Monuments as Ordering Elements in the City

Political leaders across the nation followed classical precedent in the employment of  rhetorical narratives, sponsoring civic art works to expound on important civic concepts, most often associated with a former military or political leader. Virginia, indeed, began a tradition of public statuary with the marble figure of a much loved royal governor. One of the earliest examples of public statuary in the colonies, the statue of Lord Botetourt, was placed in the central arcade of the Williamsburg Capitol in 1773. 

At first, Richmond, in its role as the new capitol of the commonwealth, built its narrative around political and military figures who were not necessarily local heroes. The state’s leaders memorialized the founding fathers and the larger-than life role Virginians played in the founding of the nation. In 1796, Houdon’s virtuoso life-size sculpture of George Washington took a central place in the new Capitol, a position that was equivalent to that previously occupied by Lord Botetourt’s statue in Williamsburg. Both Botetourt and Washington were here treated as modern citizens in modern dress, although Washington was accompanied by the symbols of the Roman hero Cincinnatus, who, like Washington, turned from war-craft to farming. 

As Charles Brownell and his student Ramin Saadat asked, why, at the Virginia Capitol, had Jefferson "devised a templelike exterior and a templelike core surrounding a white marble statue in a fashion suggesting divine honors?” The answer, they suggest, may lie in the popular theory, known as Euhemerism, that saw the origin of ancient gods in mortal “leaders or benefactors” whose veneration had “naively evolved into worship.” 

It became necessary to call upon at least a modicum of myth in order to craft  an aestheticized history that met the new nation’s ideological needs. . . .  “American” versions of the methods by which Italy’s Renaissance packed the past with rich meanings eventually found their way into the national imagination, especially after the rising commitment to manifest destiny began to overlay republican modesty with grandiose images of heroic glory. But in the beginning the Capitol dealt with America’s first president in its own way. By a reversal of the euhemeristic tradition, as we will see in the making of the myth of George Washington, the mortal man became a demigod. 

George Washington as America’s savior general and first president would endow the nation’s capital with what Renaissance Italy named civile- “the affective identification of the [citizen] with a particular, geographically defined place,” as well as “a belief in the sacred nature of institutions and leaders, an attitude that invests things and persons political with a mystical aura, distinguishing them from mundane structures and from ordinary mortals.”

Public ceremonies required the right person to represent the nature of the republican virtues Americans were making up as they went along. . . . In both the Old World and the new, ceremonies of adventus sealed the relation of leaders to the people (private individuals, the military, the administrative staffs). They confirmed the needed sense of stability and order, backed by a coherent bureaucratic system. Over time, however, it became unnecessary to highlight the “action” by which a leader “arrives.” He is “just there” through a process that has been “completed and consummated.” . . . John Quincy Adams was deeply depressed by the implications of the inability to reach a compromise over the final resting place of the nation’s foremost symbol of unity. In his diary of February 22, 1832, Adams wrote that the wish for the capitol to be the site of Washington’s tomb had been “connected with an imagination that this federal Union was to last for ages. I now disbelieve its duration for twenty years, and doubt its continuance for five. It is falling into the sear and yellow leaf” [Martha Banta, One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic (Yale U Press, 2007, 77ff].

The indoor statue of Washington, “its form the result of a transatlantic dialog between Houdon, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as minister plenipotentiary to the court of Louis XVI, political figures in Virginia, and Washington himself,” depicted him as a modern Cincinnatus, the Roman general who voluntarily returned to farming after his success at war.  Maurie D. McInnis sees this as entirely appropriate republican imagery for the post-revolutionary period. Changes in the nation’s self-understanding gave impetus to an entirely different project for memorializing Washington in the 1850s, one that “captures the changing meaning of Washington and the Revolution for different generations of Virginians.  “By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Washington as Marcus Aurelius, the great military leader, seemed more appropriate to Virginia’s leading men. . . . The second, by Crawford, was a response to the first, commissioned by a later generation of Virginians, who, in the 1850s, were attracted not to the symbols of pastoral virtue, but instead to the military might of Washington, as sectional tensions dictated a celebration of Washington’s military prowess as a defender of Southern liberties [Maurie McInnis, “George Washington, Cincinnatus or Marcus Aurelius?” from Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole eds, Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America. University of Virginia P, 2011].   

Thomas Crawford's equestrian Washington, 1858
Thus the Richmond tradition of outdoor public military monuments began with a sculptural composition to immortalizing in bronze and granite Virginia’s role in the nation’s founding and Virginia’s most famous citizen, George Washington. Maximilian Godefroy, who prepared landscape plans for Capitol Square, had proposed a triumphal arch in front of the capitol’s portico as well as a viewing platform/water tower to its west. The General Assembly authorized a public subscription for a monument and burial place on the Capitol Square for Washington in 1817. After years of inaction, a committee of citizens proposed a competition for the monument, which was held in 1849. The selected sculptor was Thomas Crawford, an American working in Rome. The popular and successful monument was not only a tribute to Washington as military and political leader, but an elaborate allegory linking Virginia with the national polity.

The monumental composition stands on a granite base appropriately shaped like a hexagonal star fortress. The design includes two tiers of supporting sculptures around a massive bronze equestrian figure of Washington, cast in Germany. The upper row of pedestals support statues of six Virginia patriots- Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, John Marshall, Andrew Lewis, Thomas Nelson, and Patrick Henry. The lowest tier consisted of six allegorical female figures and trophies representing revolutionary virtues (and places) allied with the six patriots. Andrew Lewis is allied with “colonial times,” Patrick Henry with revolution, George Mason with the Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson with independence, Thomas Nelson with finance, and John Marshall with justice. Crawford died having completed only the sculptures of Washington, Jefferson, and Henry.  His student, Randolph Rogers, completed the remaining pedestal sculptures after the Civil War.  The monument strongly reinforces the urban order by serving as a objective at the end of Grace Street at the entrance to Capitol Square. It stands on axis with the Governor’s Mansion and in an effective non-axial introductory relationship with the Capitol itself. The nearby Washington Tavern was renamed the Monumental Tavern in its honor [Hopson Goddin, Richmond Virginia 1861- 1865, Civil War Centennial Committee, 1961].

Henry Clay Statue under the octagonal canopy, 1860

The Washington monument did not stand alone in Capitol Square for long. It was followed by the life-sized Henry Clay statue in 1860, located north of the Capitol. Henry Clay, born in Hanover County, Virginia, was a renowned statesman, orator, and long-serving speaker of the the U.S. House of Representatives who had studied law in Richmond with George Wythe. Clay was a hero to the Whig population of the city, who favored federalist policies promoting economic, social, and moral modernization in opposition to the populism of Andrew Jackson. The artist was the Kentucky-born sculptor Joel T. Hart (1810-1875). The statue was commissioned in 1845 by the Ladies Clay Association, in order to rescue his cause “from the foulest slanders ever invented for party purposes” during the presidential election of 1844 and to “teach our Sons to honor [his] name- and imitate [his] noble deeds” [The Papers of Henry ClayJanuary 1, 1844-June 29,1852, 1991: U P of Kentucky:203]. 

It took Hart until 1859 to arrange production of the marble sculpture in Italy.  The statue was placed under an octagonal, domed covering soon after its dedication in 1860. The cast-iron canopy, supported on eight Corinthian columns, was itself a major public amenity in Capitol Square and emphasized the heroic status of Clay in the eyes of the city. Unfortunately, the fifteen-year delay in the production of the monument meant that its intended influence in favor or compromise and federalism was of no use at the start of the Civil War. Unlike George Washington, the significance of Henry Clay was largely forgotten by the early twentieth century. The domed temple was demolished in the 1930s and the statue placed inside the Capitol.  

A life-sized statue of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was placed nearby in 1875, beginning a line of monuments that would be erected in the twentieth century along the northern edge of the square. The bronze sculpture was made in 1875 by Irish sculptor John Henry Foley and was the gift of “English gentlemen as a tribute of admiration.” 

It was a result of its former role of “national capitol” that Richmond acquired an extensive and more urbane collection of public art surpassing that of other state capitals of comparable size. The armature of monuments extending from the old city into the projected suburbs to the west was the serendipitous result, not of public planning, but of a family who wished to extend the city through their property.

Monument Avenue

Richmond's great urban processional route, Monument Avenue, represents the transformation of loss and suffering into a symbolic reconstruction of the partially burned city as a monument to its aspirations. As Lucien Steil has said: "The city is indeed the highest form of commemoration, the highest expression of resilience, the most beautiful synthesis of human culture." Lucien Steil, "Reconstruction and Commemoration." American Arts Quarterly, 4:3 (Winter 2015). 

Monument Avenue was laid out in 1887, not only to serve as an appropriate setting for the heroic statue of Robert E. Lee planned to stand at the center of a great circle at its eastern end, but as a grand extension of the city to the west.

As was documented by Jay Killian Bowman Williams, Monument Avenue was largely the creation of its property owners, beginning with the Allen family, who owned the site of Lee Circle. The city and most of the promoters of the statue wanted it to be placed in a familiar and existing location such as Capitol Square, Libby Hill, or Monroe Park. The Board of the Lee Memorial Association, having been convinced by, among others, Augustus St. Gaudens, that an accomplished European sculptor would produce the best work, hired Frenchman Jean Antoine Mercier and mandated a calm, serene Lee who would project a sense of the moral and aesthetic seriousness of the southern cause missing in the booming New South city that doubled in size between 1860 and 1890 [Jay Killian Bowman Williams, Changed Views and Unforeseen Prosperity: Richmond of 1890 Gets a 
Monument to Lee (Richmond: privately printed, 1969)]

Col. Otway Allen promoted his vision for his tract of undeveloped land at the western end of Franklin Street as the best place for the monument. Franklin Street was the pre-eminent residential axis, extending from Capitol Square’s Bell Tower to the city’s western limits. Allen insisted that “no better situation (as far as a site for the Lee Monument) could be obtained than at the head of Franklin Street. There is a prospect of the street being opened, and a place similar to Monument Place in Baltimore being laid out. Should this be done, where is a situation to compare with it?” 

A famous image of the Lee Monument, with a crop of tobacco growing in front of it. This has always looked to us like a  a publicity stunt.
Writers, including Henry James, who have mocked the messy selection process and the lonely situation of the Lee Monument in an undeveloped landscape, have failed to grasp the developers’ foresight and the similarity of this project other grand urban expansions.  Early Monument Avenue compares favorably with the dreary expanses of nineteenth-century District of Columbia. In previous decades, Baltimore’s Washington Monument (1815-1829) preceded development of its projected setting in Mount Vernon Square by many years. 

By the late nineteenth century, Richmond’s civic leaders lacked the political capacity to imagine or provide such a generously scaled setting for the monument on their own. This kind of effort required an unprecedented manipulation of the city’s grid, as ambitious, in its own way, as the creation of the great boulevards that were driven through the heart of Paris by Hausmann. Collison Pierpont Edwards Burgwyn, a civil engineer, novelist, and playwright employed by the Allens, laid out the 200-foot diameter Lee Circle and the two 140-foot wide boulevards converging on it. Monument Avenue closely resembles Frederick Law Olmstead’s contemporary project at Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. In a similar way, Commonweath Avenue was laid out on private land as the idea of developer and street railway operator, Henry M. Whitney.  

Monument Avenue looking west from Stuart Circle
Monument Avenue gradually extended to the west and its intersections became the settings for a sequence of public sculpture on a scale rarely achieved in an American city. Monumentally scaled statues of Confederate figures, some more effective than others, and none as fine as Lee’s, were eventually placed at the center of every other intersection for more than a mile. 

Older parts of the city had made no distinction among streets or sections by building type or land use, and streets were able to incorporate changes in form and use over time. This new boulevard was intended serve a distinctly residential suburban sector and was not intended to be a principal thoroughfare. Eventually, however, with the coming of the automobile it became a convenient commuters’ route into the city.  Oddly, and due to its emphatically axial form, Monument Avenue doesn’t accommodate public buildings quite as well as the older, reticulated parts of the city. Except at Stuart Circle, where two churches, a hospital, and an apartment building manage to enclose the more intimate circle there, churches and the few other larger buildings fail to fully engage with the street’s massive scale. One success in this regard is the temple-form church at the south end of Allen Street, which effectively terminates that street.     

Other Post-Civil War Civic Markers

While the Allens were developing Monument Avenue, another individual was responsible for creatively managing urban-scale improvements across a post-war city with little interest in spending money on public works. Col. Wilfred Emory Cutshaw, a VMI-trained engineer, began a long career as city engineer in 1873.  According to Tyler Potterfield, Cutshaw, who was responsible for the planning and supervision of municipal projects, “fully recognized the importance of neighborhood squares, tirelessly advocated for their improvement and oversaw a team of assistant city engineers who proved to be talented landscape designers.” Preparation for his position included travel to study up-to-date parks in the North and in Europe in 1879. 

Soldiers and Sailors Monument by William Ludwell Sheppard, 1894
 Cutshaw landscaped Monroe Park and the large “promontory parks” overlooking the James. He also acquired the small triangular parks that enliven Park Avenue in the Fan District and organized a sophisticated tree-planting program that provided shade throughout the city’s streets and parks in accord with the City Beautiful movement, an urban design branch of the American Renaissance.  His plan to create a dramatic monument to Robert E. Lee on the top of Libby Hill Park was rejected, but in its place he projected the Soldiers and Sailors Monument of 1894, which took the form of a Roman monumental column, placed on a highly visible axis carefully aligned with Main Street to the west [T. Tyler Potterfield, Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape (History Press, 2009)].

A triumphal arch constructed as a temporary 
entry gateway to the popular Street
Carnival held on Broad Street
in 1900. 
Arches have long been a theme in monumental Richmond. Street-spanning arches were proposed, but not built, for both George Washington and Jefferson Davis. Their lack of success is particularly instructive in the inherent contentiousness of myth- and monument-making in a democratic regime. A temporary triumphal arch "beautifully festooned with flowers and evergreens," was built over Main Street at 19th Street beside the Union Hotel for Lafayette's parade in 1824. Thirteen girls "stood upon the arch to represent the thirteen original states" [Dan Murphy's Reminiscences, Part II]. The success of temporary arches built over Broad Street in 1900 and 1901 for street carnivals that were designed to “boost” the city seems to have prompted the United Daughters of the Confederacy to propose a monumental arch in 1902 over Broad Street at the intersection of Twelfth Street as a memorial to Jefferson Davis (the dramatic location where Broad Street drops off into the Shockoe Valley attracted propsals for structures at the urban scale over the years, starting with the Shockoe Market and Latrobe’s unexecuted project for a new Episcopal church, both proposed for the center of the street).

"Triumphal" arch in stone proposed for Monroe Park soon after Jefferson Davis' death in 1889.
An arch was again suggested to span Broad Street in 1901 [City on the James, 1893].

The grandious project broke down due to the sensible objections of Davis' widow, who indicated that she was opposed the location and the form of the proposed monument, not to mention its being harnessed to the promotion of the city. She declared that "arches, as monuments, have been built to perpetuate deeds of men and to express the idea of a ‘victory achieved.’ A triumphal arch to the memory of a man whose cause failed. . . is surely an inappropriate way to express respect for his memory, and certainly might excite ridicule in many quarters. Bound by a thousand most tender ties and a warm sympathy to Richmond, yet even to beautify the city I cannot approve the site at Broad and Twelfth Streets. . . . [at] the intersection of two of the noisiest and busiest streets, lined with shops and frequented by crowds of people of a prosperous and growing city" [Richmond Dispatch 1 June 1902]. 

First Regiment of Virginia Monument at Park Stuart and Meadow streets by Ferruccio Legnaioli
Additional Statues

A tradition began of placing statues at key points around the city, begun by Cutshaw, continued to punctuate the axes of transportation routes and along paths in public parks. These include the statue of A.P. Hill at Laburnum and Hermitage and the figure of Williams Carter Wickham (1820 –1888), a lawyer, judge, politician, and Confederate Cavalry commander, who image was placed in Monroe Park by his war-time comrades and employees at the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1891. It was sculpted by Richmond’s Edward V. Valentine. The Richmond Howizers Monument (1892) and the Monument to the First Regiment of Virginia Infantry (1930) punctuate the irregular route of Park Avenue as it wends its way through the Fan District. 

Columbus statue and fountain

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. The terminus at the foot of the great reservoir was given an suitably architectural effect by the placement of a small cascade fountain symbolizing the civic provision of water fronted by a statue of Columbus. This was placed in front of the fountain in 1925 by a group of citizens of Italian origin and sculpted by immigrant sculptor Ferruccio Legnaioli.

The discourse on Richmond's Civic Markers will continue with Part III- Fountains.

For a discussion of contemporary monumental art, see Public Art and Community Memory: Richmond's Maggie Lena Walker.