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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

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


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

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

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

"In America, the hospital system developed in a dual manner. Publicly controlled almshouse hospitals in larger cities served paupers, criminals, the insane, orphans, and foundlings. In other words, all those who could not afford a physician's house call. Voluntary hospitals of a better nature also developed and were modeled on the subscriber-run British examples, such as the 1752 London Hospital. These hospitals, for example the Pennsylvania and New York Hospitals, differed from the almshouse hospitals by having a better staff, selected patients, medical students, and a lay board of administrators. Physicians who served in these hospitals did so as a social and honorary obligation. The arrangement of space was therefore logically organized by authority, with the most public and administrative spaces being the most prominently placed" [Travis McDonald, Public Hospital Architectural Report, Block 4-3 Building 11, Colonial Williamsburg, 1986].

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

The City Poorhouse (before 1809)

The city of Richmond does not appear to have had an almshouse before the end of the eighteenth century. The city purchased 28 1/2 acres near the north end of Third Street in 1799. In 1803, the city advertised its willingness to accept proposals from an undertaker to build a poor house, with the adopted plan "lodged with Mr. Robert B. James" for examination [Richmond Recorder, 4 March 1803]. The building was completed in less than three years:

At a meeting of the magistrates of the city of Richmond, at the Poor and Work House, on Saturday the 15th of November 1806; It was determined, that the said Poor and Work House, be put into operation on the first day of December following, under the management of Nathaniel Shepherd, who hath been appointed the keeper thereof.  E. Carrington, Mayor, Richmond, Nov.16, 1806 [Virginia Argus28 Nov. 1806].

Youngs Map of 1809 shows that the new institution was carefully placed in alignment with the outside of the city limits. The Virginia Mutual fire insurance policy of 1814 shows a remarkable rectangular building with domed cupola surmounted by the figure of a man with a sword.

Richmond City Poorhouse, 1805 [Virginia Mutual Assurance Society policy 438, 1814].
 The building's four floors presumably included a raised basement not shown in the
The four-story brick building was entered at the center of a  gabled front.  It appears from the second- and third-floor doors on the side wall and the vertical lines that probably represent projecting bricks, that the poorhouse was designed to be enlarged with side wings that would have given it a T-shaped form with a pedimented pavilion as a central part of a longer front façade. Then it would have closely resembled the three-part palazzo form so favored by collegiate, hospital and other civic buildings, including the Public Hospital of 1774 in Williamsburg. The plan showed on the 1816 plat seen below seem to indicate that a three-part design was intended and that by 1816 a wing extended to one side of a gabled pedimented pavilion.  

Public Hospital, Williamsburg, originally completed to serve the mentally ill in 1774. The hospital would have been available as a model for Richmonders planning a new public facility like an almshouse. The current fences are based on those that enclosed the yard at the Richmond Almshouse in 1811.

In spite of the apparent reduction of the design, the Richmond Poorhouse was the largest building in the city after the Capitol (1788) and the State Penitentiary (1800). An insurance policy from 1827 shows the building's plan unchanged. There is no evidence that it was ever enlarged.
Four acres of the land directly to the south of the almshouse was enclosed in 1820 to form the Shockoe Burial Ground, intended to replace St. Johns Churchyard as the citys official cemetery for whites. It had a section for indigent whites. This had been preceded by the free Negroes of the city, who had petitioned for a cemetery there in 1810, and the Jewish residents of the city three years later [Scott 1950, 285]. Two new African-American Burying Grounds, one acre each, known as the Burying Ground for Free Persons of Color and the Burying Ground for Negoes (for the use of enslaved persons), were established in 1816 on the top of the bluff and sloping down to Bacons Quarter Branch. Soon after, the gallows and powder magazine followed it from the old site and the burying ground became the gallows ground as well.

Plat 1816, Richard Young, showing new Burial Grounds for Free and enslaved African Americans at the right and the existing almshouse to the left, with front and back gardens and an enclosed yard to the immediate rear. It appears that the building was designed to be expanded from a two-part to a three-part building, with a central projecting pavilion  (A) and a wing to the east (B). Presumably a matching wing would have been added to the west [Research by Lenora McQueen for Second African Burial Ground].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Richmond Almshouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Almshouse today seen from Shockoe Burial Ground
The Almshouse was used as General Hospital #1 during most of the Civil War. Towards the end it was rented  to the students and faculty of Virginia Military Institute. The city's paupers were poorly housed in a nearby set of buildings, including a main house, rented from John W. Smith. After the end of the war, the 1859 almshouse reverted to use as a poorhouse operated by the union forces. The temporary almshouse, as well as the City Hospital and the 1859 almshouse, had been damaged in the explosion of the nearby powder magazine in April of 1865, which also caused a series of unfortunate deaths:

THE CITY MAGAZINE. - To the curious, the site of the late city magazine will repay a visit. It will be recollected the magazine was blown up by the Confederates just before sunrise on the morning of the 3d instant - eleven inmates of the city almshouse and one old colored man living on 2d street being killed by the explosion, and thousands of panes of glass in the city smashed by the concussion. We have no means of ascertaining the quantity of powder in the magazine at the time it was blown up, but presume it must have been several tons. 
                               Richmond Whig, 27 April 1865.
An account in 1899 describes the almshouse as a handsome three-story building on a commanding site in rear of the Shockoe Cemetery” [Robert R. Nuchols, A History of the Gov. of the City of Richmond and a Sketch, 1899]. As late as 1880, the Almshouse was seen as the largest and most impressive such facility in the state [NR form]. 

City Hospital, 1865 [LOC]. The windows have been blown out by an explosion at the nearby
Powder Magazine. The white paint on the lower floor was used to improve visibility around the bases 
of the city's Confederate prisons, preventing escape and exterior communication. This building, built before 1848, became the city's Colored  Almshouse after the Civil War. It was demolished at some point after the patients were removed to a new facility next to the main almshouse building in 1908.

City Hospital

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

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

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

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

The city ordinances as published in 1859 included a section requiring the appointment of a committee and a hospital physician, who was also to serve as superintendent of quarantine during times of . They were to supervise the city hospital, which involved providing a place where those suffering from "any infectious disease dangerous to the public health"  could be quarantined and treated. They were to employ a housekeeper, nurses and attendants.  Black and white and male and female patients were to be housed in separate apartments. Vehicles were to be provided to transport patients to the hospital. 

The City Hospital for infectious diseases was re-established in a somewhat more remote location at Clark's Spring, near Hollywood Cemetery. In 1870, the condition of the building in use as a hospital, was reported by the city's Committee on Health to be in poor repair. They advised the common council, which agreed, to buy or condemn the land at Clark's Spring and build a suitable building [Daily Dispatch, 6 Dec. 1870]. 

By 1873, the goal of a new hospital was accomplished and the City Hospital was "open for reception" [Daily Dispatch, 11 March 1873].  Three years later the newspaper reported that the hospital, "which was only used for infectious diseases, and practically only for small-pox, was not opened during the year until December, when four patients were received, three white and one black. In January, four more, all black, were admitted. Of these eight two died." The building "is so rarely wanted that it is in no fit order for the uses to which it is devoted; but hereafter it will be carded for systematically, and at t little expense."[Daily Dispatch, 7 March 1876].

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

The city established the smallpox hospital on what it referred to as the Morris Farm in Henrico County, purchased for that purpose in 1886 [Southeastern Reporter Vol. 2, 1887]. This may have been located adjacent to the City Farm, where in about 1905 a frame house was built at the City Farm to accommodate white smallpox patients and the keeper's family. An older house was used for the African-American patients.  Those of either race who died were buried in an adjoining cemetery. A terrible smallpox epidemic in Raleigh NC affected African-American students who attended Shaw University in that city. The Times Dispatch of March 29, 1905 indicated that "the last student from Shaw University, colored, was released from the smallpox pest house yesterday evening and the quarantine that has been maintained against the Institution for the past two months has been raised. Altogether there were ten of the students affected by the disease. There are still thirteen smallpox patients at the pest-house, all negroes."

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

Colored Almshouse or West Building today

The old City Hospital on Fourth Street was converted after the Civil War into the citys first Colored Almshouse, the white and black paupers now being fully segregated for the first time. 

In 1908, probably as a result of reforms advocated by the new State Board of Corrections and Charities, Richmond's city council authorized the construction of a new "Colored Almshouse" for the city's poor black residents. This two-story brick building, now known as the West Building, was built to the immediate west of the main building of the Richmond Almshouse. The old City Hospital building, previously used for that purpose, was demolished. 

Beers Map of 1877 showing Shockoe Cemetery, the second African Burying Ground (called "Potter's Field") and the two Almshouses.

The City Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 21, 2016

Richmond Theater- Part III- Vaudeville to Cinema- 1920-1940

This is the final part of a three-part overview of theater and theater architecture in Richmond. Part One can be found here and Part Two can be found here.

The “motion picture palace” has its roots in the vaudeville palaces that preceded it by as much as  two decades. Both the Colonial (1919) and National (1920) were more architecturally significant and luxuriously furnished than any earlier theaters in the city.

Colonial Theatre, Library of Virginia. The unusual curved ceiling of the lobby is
caused by the tiered seating extending overhead.

The interiors of each were treated with spare, restrained, Neo-classical forms. The Colonial was designed for Wells, Wilmer, and Vincent by Richmond architects Carneal and Johnson. An astylar facade covered with diapered stonework was topped by an Ionic cornice. A central bay held a tall blind loggia. The Colonial had no balcony but tiered seating that rose to the rear. Box seat on the sides were surmounted by Adamesque panels and the ceiling was given an elegant geometrical form and a shallow saucer dome to correspond. The Colonial and the National incorporated sophisticated use concealed lighting and other “effects.” The National had colored lights that could be combined to create dramatic interior shading [NR form]. 
Both the Colonial and the National differ from the design of earlier theaters in the city. Designed for use with film, they no longer exhibit the horseshoe shape typical of earlier buildings. Provision of a single, deep balcony without columns supports and extending over the lobby gave a less restricted view of the stage and better visibility and acoustics from each seat. Marble stairs gave dignity to the balcony seating. The provision of nearby theaters for the use of the African-American population and increased regulation meant that many of the new theaters were not designed with segregated entrances and seating areas.

The Bluebird, 1917 (the Grand
Theatre after 1933).
The pioneering “motion picture queen” Amanda Thorpe, together with W. P. Kline and Walter Coulter built a modest movie theater at 620 E. Broad Street in 1917. Coulter eventually purchased this theater, called the Bluebird, from his partners along with its sister Bluebird Theatre in Petersburg. The Bluebird specialized in first-run western films for many years [Richmond News Leader, Dec 22, 1928]. Like the Bluebird Theatre in Petersburg, this modest film theater, as seen in an historic photograph, looks like a reworked storefront. It originally had a large electric sign depicting a bluebird opening and shutting its wings.  Since there are no building permit documents preserved for this theater, details are sketchy. Coulter sold a half interest in both Bluebirds to Charles Somma and the two formed the Bluebird Theatre Company. Coulter and Somma were planning more costly investments to come, such as the Brookland and the Byrd. 

At the same time that vaudeville and film were developing side by side, theatre design, construction, and decoration became codified and even industrialized in step with the architectural era known as “the American Renaissance.” New approaches to engineering, fabrication, and assembly made possible the huge spans, complex details, advanced mechanical, electrical, and projection equipment, and “gangs” of decorative craftsmen who could bring a palace to a life in very short order. Theaters in large cities like New York and Chicago set the tone for smaller towns. The provision of “dry” modern cooling (instead of passing air over blocks of ice used at Richmond’s National Theatre in 1922 ), developed by the Carrier Engineering Corporation, was pioneered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York in 1925. Like the Rivoli (1917) and other earlier palatial theaters designed by New York architectural impresario Thomas W. Lamb, the National has restrained, elegant Neo-classical interiors, rather than the ornate Baroque interiors that he popularized in the mid- to late 1920s.

The National Theatre, built on the site of the Rex in 1923.
The National was designed by Richmond-based architect Claude K. Howell, who had previously designed a number of theaters across the South in connection with the chain of vaudeville and film theaters supplied by the Keith-Albee circuit, including Jake Well’s Lyric. It was developed by owners John Pryor and Frank Ferrandini in connection with the highly respected First National vaudeville and film circuit. The 1,300-seat National was generously planned and lavishly decorated. The deep-bracketed eaves of the “Italian Renaissance” facade sheltered terra cotta figural bas reliefs. The lobby, decorated with Adamesque reliefs, had a circular opening giving views of a second-floor dome. The building included a billiard parlor in the basement and a nursery theatrical office on the second floor. The auditorium has a flat, Adamesque form with a pilaster order surmounted by a frieze of bas relief panels. Three arcaded box seats symmetrically flank the elliptically arched proscenium. The flat ceiling carried on beams and supports a small oval dome. 

A key figure in the creation of Richmond’s many theaters, Ferrucio Legnaioli executed the decorative plasterwork for most of them. Legnaioli came to Virginia to execute ceiling designs of McKim Mead and White in Garret Hall at the University of Virginia. His work brought to life the designs of the Empire (1911), the Lyric (1913), the Colonial (1920), the National (1922), the Capitol (1926), and the Byrd (1928).
As the film industry developed, Southern theater magnate Jake Wells was squeezed by new distribution networks and the studio system. Although he sold thirty of his theaters to a national chain in 1919, he managed to keep chain theaters out of Richmond entirely. With the help of his partners, Wilmer and Vincent, he purchased the National. By 1925, Wells controlled the programming at all of the major movie theaters in Richmond, including the National. Unable to keep up the quality of the films and accompaniment at the National and other theaters, Wells reputation as a promoter soured. Under pressure from the city’s merchants, and faced by the announcement in 1925 that Loews intended to build a major theater in Richmond, Wells sold all of his shares in the Richmond theaters to Wilmer and Vincent [Dewberry]. His theaters ended up as part of the Paramount chain.

Neighborhood Theaters

The Brookland Theatre, exterior and interior, 1924
In the mid-1920s, the focus of the major movie theater chains on the downtown movie patron meant that local theater developers saw opportunities in potential movie-going in the residential suburbs.  By this time, the increasing popularity of movies meant that many grand theaters, particularly those in suburban locations, were designed exclusively for film. Even as the Loews and Paramount chains made their appearance in downtown Richmond, the provision of theaters for Richmond’s suburbs remained a local concern. According to a contemporary article, Jake Well, who controlled the downtown theaters, “hesitated and yielded to protests not to establish a motion picture house in the residential section in which the Brookland was built. Four suburban theaters were built in the 1920s.

In 1924, Walter J. Coulter and a new partner, Charles A. Somma, left behind Broad Street and vaudeville entirely. Their firm, the Bluebird Theatre Company, built the 574-seat Brookland Theatre, the city’s first neighborhood “movie palace,” in the streetcar suburb of Brookland Park. The small, but elegantly appointed theater was equipped with a Wurlitzer theater organ played by virtuoso Carl Rond, who would move to the greatest of the neighborhood venues, the Byrd Theatre, four years later. As the possibility of talking pictures became a reality, movie theaters were quick to adapt by adding sound systems. The theatre organ, needed to accompany silent films, would recede in importance, but a few, notably at the Loew’s and Byrd theaters, remained in use for concerts between the shows.

The Capitol Theatre, built in the city’s West End in 1926. I
nterior (above) and exterior (below)

A smaller, but no less elegant theater with a resident organist was built in 1926 across from Broad Street Station where it could serve the nearby residential sections along Monument Avenue and adjacent streets. It took the form of the city’s first atmospheric theater, which simulated the appearance of an outdoor courtyard. The exterior, designed by Richmond architects Carneal and Johnson for Neighborhood Theaters Inc., headed by Morton G. Thalhimer, was one of the most elegant sole-purpose movie houses in the city.  It showed the city’s first talkie movie [http://richmondtheatres.tripod.com].


The Venus Theatre, Hull Street, Manchester, 1926
The Venus Theatre (834 seats) was commissioned by Amanda Thorpe from Fred Bishop, who had designed the Brookland earlier for her previous associate, Walter Coulter and his partner, Charles Somma.  The Venus made motion pictures easily accessible to southsiders who lived nearby or along the streetcar line that passed through Manchester. The Venus had a expensive stone facade befitting a civic institution as much as a commercial establishment, lending moral seriousness to the daily matinee shows.

Loew’s Theatre, 1928, exterior above, and interior below

Richmond’s Loew’s Theatre, part of the Loew’s chain associated with MGM, was also built in 1928. It represented the first inroad of that theatre chain in the city. It was designed for theatre magnate by John Eberson as a representative of a new type of motion picture palace in which he specialized, the atmospheric theater, which simulated an exotic outdoor setting. The atmospheric theater, designed to represent an exotic courtyard in Italy or Spain, represents the perfection of the movie theatre as a new theater type breaking with the past. Air conditioned and lit by artificial stars, the artfully aged stucco walls and irregular skyline transported the viewer directly into an illusory stage set, supporting and extending the intimate physicality of the film image.  A massive theatre organ provided accompaniment to films until the advent of sound and continued in use for concerts between shows until c 1970.   

Mosque Theatre, 1926, Exterior at top and interior below

A few years earlier, in 1926, the massive 4,600-seat Mosque Theatre was introduced in the West End. It was built as a performing arts venue containing in a hotel/convention center by the Acca Temple Shrine and was designed by Marcellus Wright,Sr. in association with Charles M. Robinson and Charles C. Robinson. The theater was built in a Moorish or Middle Eastern style with elaborate murals, a large dome, and Moorish grille work. Also equipped with a Wurlitzer organ, the building began by showing movies on a regular schedule, but this did not continue for very many years.  Acquired by the city in 1940, the Mosque (now the Altria Theatre) served as Richmond’s principal municipal auditorium for many years, housing the city’s ballet, symphony, and opera performances.

Byrd Theatre 1928, exterior (above) and interior (below)
Just as talking pictures were introduced, the Byrd Theatre was opened as an architecturally elaborate film-only venue in the city’s West End in 1928 by the partnership of Coulter and Somma. It took its decorative program from European opera houses of the previous century, but as translated by big-city vaudeville and movie houses of previous years, like 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. 

Behind its restrained “Empire” facade, the Byrd’s interior was intended to astonish Richmonders accustomed to the cool Neo-classicism of the city’s principal theaters. Most viewers responded positively to the lavish lobby and auditorium: “from the moment of entering the lobby, wainscotted 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” [Helen De Motte, “At the Theatres: New Byrd is Place of Beauty,” Dec. 25, 1928].

Byrd Theatre Lobby
Like the Brookland, Coulter and Soma’s earlier effort in Brookland Park, the Byrd was designed by Richmond architect Fred Bishop. When it was built the Byrd Theatre was intended to impress. The architect emulated the best of French Empire theaters, seen through the reality of American commercial theatrical entrepreneurship. Because of the fully developed construction industries and decorative techniques that had evolved over the previous decades, Coulter and Somma were able to achieve an architecturally unified building that embodied the complexity, if not the delicacy, of its European models.

In a move seen at the time as similar in significance to the $1.8m sale of Jake Wells Richmond theaters sale in 1926, Coulter announced just before the opening of the Byrd that he had purchased Somma’s interest in the Byrd, the Bluebird, the Brookland, and another theater in Petersburg for more than $1m [“Local Theatre Sale Involves over $1,000,000: Coulter buys Sommas Interest in Richmond and Petersburg houses,” Richmond News-Leader, Dec. 22, 1928].

Large new theaters were built for many years after the financial crash of 1929. The first four neighborhood theaters were followed by at least eight more around the city in the 1930s. These include the Bellevue and Ginter theatres across from each other in Northside, the Robinson in the East End named for movie star Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the East End Theatre on 25th Street, the Westhampton on Grove, the Westover in Forest Hills, the Carillon on Cary Street, the Lennox in Fulton (built in 1909 as the Star and rebuilt as the Lennox in 1948), and the Henrico in Highland Springs.  Many of these incorporated the new architectural detailing associated with modernism, particularly the modern or Art Deco forms.

Bellevue Theatre, 1937
Bellevue Theatre today

Ginter Theatre, 1937, closed 1939

The Robinson Theatre was built in 1937. The Moderne-
style building designed by Richmond architect,
Edward F. Sinnott served an African-American
community in Richmond's East End.


Henrico Theatre, Highland Springs, 1938

East End Theatre, 1938

Lee Theatre, West Grace Street, 1935

Westhampton Theatre, Grove Avenue, 1938

After the construction of the Byrd, Loew’s and the Mosque theaters on the eve of the Great Depression, there were no more grand, architecturally expressive theaters to take their place on the streets of Richmond. After the demolition of the Lyric in 1963, Richmond never built another stand-alone, purpose-built theater for stage plays and concerts. Instead, the city has relied on the rehabilitation of a small stock of existing, architecturally significant theaters that were built between 1910 and 1950 for stage plays, vaudeville and film. These fully functioning theaters include the Empire (Sara November Theatre), the National, the Mosque (Altria Theatre), Loewe’s (Carpenter Center), the Robinson Theatre (1937), the Henrico (1938), and the Hippodrome (1914/1945).
Post-War II theater and movie viewing became a much more personal experience. Architecture that prevented imaginative immersion in the program was avoided. The Virginia Museum Theatre (1955-2003) was an important venue, but it had no visible exterior and a purposely plain interior designed to draw maximum attention to the stage. The Richmond area has seen the creation of places for performance in other building types, such as rehabilitated taverns, department stores, and firehouses, or in shopping-mall movie houses. However, the grandest film theater of them all, the Byrd, has, from its suburban location, resisted alteration. It has adapted to changing practices in the film industry for 85 years without losing its focus on film, popular entertainment, and architectural and musical spectacle.