“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, April 25, 2017

Richmond's Westwood Tract and the McGuire Cottage- background information for a neighborhood under assault

The 34-acre Westwood Tract has been a valuable civic amenity in the Sherwood Park, Laburnum Park, and Ginter Park neighborhoods. The Union Theological Seminary acquired it from 1901 to 1906 for purposes of future expansion. As the character of residential seminary's changed over time, Union Seminary developed the edges of the tract by building several apartment buildings for the use of married local and international students. They also added faculty residences, a group of residences for missionaries on furlough, a maintenance facility, tennis courts, and athletic fields.
A current plan for the development of 301 residential units on 15 acres on the eastern side of the tract has proved to be very controversial. It packs in too many dwelling units and takes too little account of the existing patterns of the surrounding blocks. Instead, the new development employs a conventional program with central parking surrounded by massive blocks of apartments built of wood, clad with both brick veneer and synthetic siding, and featuring awkwardly designed porches, out-of-scale windows, and offset gables. The way that the development is organized purely to maximize numbers and obscures the front of the historic farmhouse at the heart of the Westwood Tract. Part of the remaining areas will be leased to Shalom Farms which will use it as an urban vegetable garden.   
Plan of the proposed development by the Timmons Group.

The bloated designs of Humphey and partners of Dallas, Texas, make no attempt to rise to the high architectural level of its surroundings- the City of Richmond and the National Register listed streetcar suburbs of Laburnum Park and Ginter Park. Instead, it resembles anonymous roadside developments found along commercial strips all around the county.
Not least among the features of the tract is the old farmhouse at its heart. The historic house known as the McGuire Cottage has a complex and interesting history, which can be better understood by undertaking research in local archives. Important facts that have a bearing on its value to the city and region have to do with its greater age compared with nearby buildings and its excellent state of preservation. Although it has sat empty for many years, the house remains in relatively good condition with no sign of damp or rot. The most interesting take-away from our research is that the house took its current form well before its acquisition by Dr. Hunter Homes McGuire in 1887. Instead, the Italianate section facing east appears to have been added in the 1850s.

East front of Westwood (McGuire Cottage) [Style Weekly]
The property known as Westwood began as a 539-acre tract of land “in sight of Richmond” on the Brook Road north of the city.[1] It was acquired previous to 1790 by Dr. James Currie (1756-1805), a Scottish-born physician, who began his long career in Richmond in 1769 or 70. Mordecai in Richmond in Bygone Days says that “at the corner of Broad and Tenth streets opposite the First Presbyterian Church, resided Dr. Currie, a strong contrast to the gentle, kind and graceful physician last mentioned, but he had an extensive practice and accumulated a large fortune, which the other did not, because like many other physicians, he was more attentive to his practice than to his fees, and earned many which were not worth attention.”[2]

Overlay of the modern lot showing possible location of part of the Westwood property in relation to the 1768 Byrd lottery map of Richmond. Each of the lots is about 100 acres in size, so these lots represent about 350 acres, not the nearly 600 acres owned by Currie on the Brook Turnpike. Current Westwood tract shown in light red. The lots are derived from the 1850 lawsuit and are numbered from the top, 3, 2, 1 and 8. Additional research could confirm what one deed indicates- that the Westwood tract may have extended to the east side of Brook Road as well.
The tract was similar to others that were owned by wealthy Richmonders who kept farms or villas on the edge of the city, where cool summers could be spent away from the bustle of the city, in addition to town houses on city lots.  Similar “villas” included 400-acre Mount Comfort, the eighteenth-century second home of Samuel DuVal in the area of the present-day Highland Park neighborhood, Col. John Mayo’s retreat at the Hermitage, near today’s Broad Street Station, and the second-quarter nineteenth-century Robinson family summer place of 159 acres in the area of today’s Virginia Museum.
Dr. Currie may well have built the one-story three-room house on a raised basement that survives as part of the Westwood Cottage. That structure, although much altered, shares features, including the floor plan, with other buildings in the Richmond and Petersburg areas that date from the later eighteenth century.  It is interesting that the house does not face towards the Brook Road, but to the south, probably because it predates the current location of the Brook Turnpike. According to the map shown above of William Byrd II’s lottery tracts, the original route of Brook Road (the old road which crossed Upham Brook north of the city) followed a winding path closer to modern-day Chamberlayne Avenue (in fact a section of the “Old Brook Road” still survives east of Chamberlayne Avenue and south of Azalea Avenue). Due to its value as a north-south transportation route, the Brook Road was incorporated as the state’s first turnpike in 1812. It was rerouted at that time to the west of its original location. The new turnpike followed the straight line that separated two tiers of the Byrd lottery parcels. 
James Currie’s brother, William Currie came to Richmond from Scotland in 1795. William’s daughter Janetta came to the city two years later. At the death of James Currie without issue in 1805 and of William in 1807, Janetta and her husband Robert Gordon claimed his lands, which included, not only the Westwood tract, but shares in the James River Company, a share of the Dover Mines, and the “Eagle Tavern tenement” on Main Street between 11th and 12th streets.[3] Westwood first appeared on the tax rolls in the ownership of Robert Gordon in 1814.[4]
In 1826, Robert and Janetta Currie Gordon assigned a tract located on the west side of the Brook Turnpike (“now called the Richmond and Charlottesville Plank Road”) to their son Robert McCall Gordon. The elder Robert Gordon had transferred away part of the Currie estate which his wife had inherited. He honored her wish that the property should go to their son, Robert McCall Gordon by deeding him the Westwood property “on both sides of Brook Turnpike where they both reside.”[5]  The arrangement was intended to benefit Robert and Janetta’s other children as well.  The heirs included Janetta M. Gordon, Isabella Gordon (who married James Hastie Brown in 1824), Catherine Flood McCall Gordon (married Nicholas Brown Seabrook in 1842), and Leila T. Gordon.[6]
In 1820, when the value of buildings and other improvements was first included in the tax records of Virginia counties, the 539-acre Westwood tract included a building or buildings worth $750. This value very likely represents the three-room, one-story house that survives today as the western portion of the Westwood Cottage. In the following year the value of buildings increased to $1,000. In 1825, an additional $200 was added to make a total of $1,200. This value could well represent a substantial frame house like the original part of the house at Westwood combined with other outbuildings and barns. In 1837, Robert M. Gordon deeded what was described as the Westwood property to his siblings Janetta, Mary, and Catherine Gordon.[7] The value for buildings held steady until the mid-1840s, when it increased to $1,300. At the same time the property decreased in size by 4 acres.

Plat of [Some of] the Lots of the Westwood Tract, divided in 1850 by commissioners of the Henrico County Court. Drawn by Thomas M. Ladd. The Brown tract that contains todays Westwood tract is at the bottom of the plat.
Tax records show that the Westwood property was subject to an ownership dispute among members of the Gordon family.[8] The court ordered that is be surveyed and divided into lots. The lots were divided between Janetta, Mary, and Leila Gordon and several of their heirs. Some members of the Gordon family continued to live on a residue of the Westwood property for years. The 1860 census shows Lilias T. Gordon age 33 (b 1827) living in household with Janetta M Gordon, age 55 (b 1805) in the western subdivision of Henrico Co.

The Smith Map of Henrico County in 1853 shows J. Walker in residence at the location of Westwood Cottage, C. Allen near the location of Laburnum, and J [Janetta] Gordon on a small tract south of the farm of John Goddin, in the same location as her Lot 3 on the 1843 Plat. Westwood apparently extended south from the Goddin place along both sides of Brook Turnpike. Old Brook Road leaves Brook Turnpike near the entrance to present-day Walton Avenue. The road that angles off to the east at the Toll Gate is today’s Ladies Mile Road and enters Brook Turnpike approximately where Brookland Park Boulevard is today. 
The remainder of the Westwood tract was also assigned to Gordon heirs. Other parcels had been sold or distributed as well, including lot 8, a 68-acre tract that was assigned to the Brown heirs.  John Stewart Walker acquired a large portion of the Westwood property in the early 1850s. He purchased the 68-acre Lot 8 from the heirs of Isabella Brown in 1850.[9]

The house on the Westwood tract in the late 19th century, during the occupancy of the McGuire family. The original house is seen at the rear behind the Italianate addition to the right.
In 1855, Walker sold his 68-acre Westwood tract to Charles J. Meriwether, a veteran of Mexican War.[10] The land book for 1856 shows Walker with 279 acres at Westwood on Brook Turnpike with buildings valued at $1,000, and Charles J. Meriwether appears with 63 acres, also at Westwood, now with $3,000 in buildings. Walker clearly made the improvements that more than doubled the value of the Westwood Cottage and its support buildings from the assessment of $1,300 when the Gordons occupied it in 1850. The early 1850s is likely the period at which Westwood Cottage assumed its present form.

1867 Map of Richmond by Michie, reproduced from Gilmer map of 1864. Meriwether is pencilled next to the Westwood Cottage on the map.
A letter from Capt. Charles James Meriwether (b Albemarle, 1832-1887 and married to his cousin Ellen Douglas Meriwether) is found in the collections of the Virginia Historical Society. He owned a slave family which he wished to sell to an acquaintance from Lunenburg Co. He wrote the letter from his farm “Westwood” in 1860.[11]  According to tax records, the house and other buildings belonging to Meriwether at Westwood were still valued at $3,000 in 1862. This was the year in which he sold the parcel to Dr. William B. Pleasants, a Richmond dentist. After Pleasants purchased that portion of the Westwood tract, the buildings remained valued at $3,000 until 1872.

The modern Westwood 34-acre tract in pink with the associated lots outlined in blue from 1850 plat of the division of the Gordon lands overlaid on the 1867 Michie Map and a 1964 planning map of the city.
In March 1887, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire purchased the Westwood tract from William S. Pleasants for $13,500. The tract was centered around the former Gordon home place with its Italianate addition. The nearby farm called “Sherwood” was owned from 1862-1873 by Wellington Goddin and contained 73 acres. Hunter McGuire died in 1900 and his widow sold the Westwood tract to an entity called the Westwood Land Company in the following year. The Sherwood farm was combined with the western half of McGuire’s land to create the suburban residential development called Sherwood Park. The remaining 34 acres was sold to the Union Theological Seminary 1907 as land for future growth.

UPDATE: In January 2021, Union Presbyterian Seminary summarily demolished the historic Westwood House, according to news reports "as recognition of and in repentance for the resourcing provided to the seminary through the labor of enslaved persons" [Jonathan Spiers, Richmond Bizsense, 

[1] 1814 Henrico Land Book.
[2] A deed for the Westwood property cannot be found- it may have been recorded in either the District or General Court, neither of which set of records exist today. Land along the stage road or Brook Road about 2 miles north of Richmond show up as early as 1790 [DB 3, 272]. The Henrico land tax records for 1799 show that Currie owned a 511-acre tract.  Land books for 1802 and 1803 show that Currie owned tracts of 571 acres, 181 acres (land on Meriwether’s Branch bought from William Miller in the preceding year), and 28 acres in Henrico County. The 571 acres probably represents the land that would become the Westwood Tract. He added an additional 500-acre tract in 1802-03, purchased from William Randolph.
[3]Henrico Deed Book 10, p 455. A legal case that grew out of the inheritance revolved around a determination whether or not William and Janetta could inherit- and if they actually were naturalized citizens- went all the way to the Supreme Court. Robert and Janetta Gordon won the case, which remains an important part of immigration case law.
[4] 1814 Henrico Land Book.
[5] Henrico Co DB 28, p 408.
[6] Marriages Performed 1815-1828, 1836-1842 at St. John's Church.
[7] Henrico County Land Book 1837.
[8] Gordon vs Gordon in 1844.
[9] Henrico Land Book 1850.
[10] Henrico DB 66, p 185.
[11] Letter at Virginia Historical Society.