The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond
And What I Found There

Part V and a portion of Part VI

The story thus far: Philip Gotz, an obstreperous travel writer known for his "What I Found There" pieces detailing his five-day visits to destinations, is in Richmond, Va. The visitors bureau has assigned to him as a guide Tia Chulangong -- who pretty much has his number from the moment she meets him at the Richard Evelyn Byrd International Airport. She provides running color commentary on Richmond sights and history while riding the train to bustling Main Street Station, and from there to Gotz's accommodations. Tia, however, has informed Gotz that Jennifer Royce, his novelist ex-wife, is in town on a book tour and through a scheduling error he's booked into the Jefferson Hotel where she is also staying.

5. At The Jefferson

A cheery doorman wearing a long red coat and white gloves touched the slick visor of his cap as he pushed the entry wide.

“G’ afternoon, Mz. T."

She introduced Phil, and when they stepped into the main lobby the transition from the real world to someplace else was complete.

Gotz stood in the palazzo of a European palace, but rather than open to the air, crowned by an enormous stained glass skylight.

Tia followed his upward gaze and at his shoulder said, “Tiffany.”

He took several long moments to appreciate the curved bays of the mezzanine gallery; huge round ottomans; the marble, stone and gilt on the cornices; palm trees; wrought iron columns; the grand stair vanishing underneath an arch surmounted by a bronze clock set in a niche of Italianate flourishes. Around him people moving, going and doing in the rhythm of the quiet urgency of a busy and important place.

“The Louvre called,” Gotz at last said. “They want their courtyard back.”

Tia put a hand on her hip. “You’re not hatin’ on the Jefferson. I mean, not even you.”

“Just the opposite.”

Gotz pulled the plastic press badge from underneath his jacket as they crossed over the carpet to check-in. A high-cheeked blonde who somehow didn’t seem to know Tia greeted them. Gotz made reservation confirmation and declined help with his bags. He chose to use the upper gallery elevator just to use the grand, red-carpeted stairs.

They went under a barrel-vaulted, coffered ceiling passageway, the panels blue with gold trim. The stair provided three wide landings where doors led to lounges and offices. Then ascending to the upper lobby, more fountains and palms and a white marble statue of Thomas Jefferson, standing amid piles of books that presumably he’d finished reading while there.

“This was done by Edward V. Valentine,” Tia said. “And the entire hotel was the idea of our friend Mr. Ginter, who hired the New York architects Carrére & Hastings. He packed all his ideas from a life of world travels into this building.”

“I just may not ever leave.”

“Ah. One of those travel writers.”

“Yup. Stay in the plushest digs and concoct it all from the press releases.”

Then an alligator galumphed across the floor followed by a pith-helmeted young woman dressed in a khaki short sleeves and pants and hiking boots. The alligator’s claws tick-ticked on the marble floor. Round the keeper’s waist was a utility belt for, Gotz presumed, reptile emergencies and she carried a plastic pole, a prod on one end and a kind of cheese grater on the other.

The gator, bony-ridged, prehistoric and frightening, slipped into the nearby fountain rill and sunk to its eyes. The keeper put hands on hips. “You’re full now, so you should have a good nap.”

Gotz couldn’t close his mouth.

Tia offered, “He just fed.”

The writer nodded.

“How – how does this manage not to scare the living crap out of people?”

Tia shrugged. “It’s the Jefferson. We have gators.”

“Guess you beat out the Peabody and their ducks.”

“Our mascot can eat their mascot.”

“So somebody watches him her it?”

“A rotating team -- the Jefferson Gator Gang.”

"She with the Gator Gang?"

"Quarles. Yes. She is."

“I want to interview her.”


“If she’s got a few minutes.” Gotz brought up his recorder.

Quarles Fontaine introduced herself using a firm handshake that signified to Gotz the strength needed should she need to wrestle a stubborn alligator. Her violet eyes fixed on him with a discomforting attention that she used to observe wild creatures prone to sudden attacks. Quarles explained her taking the Jefferson gator gig.

“When I was growing up, in the early '80s, the Jefferson was between owners and renovations. Weren’t any gators, then. But my parents brought me here a few times, for some parties, and my Dad showed me these fountains and little brass statues and told me how there used to be live ones. Little did either of us know, but I’d develop a fascination for slimy creepy crawlies and I’d end up doing what I do.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, is this full-time?”

“No, wouldn’t that be great though? I’m also with the state office that administers wildlife in parks and zoos, and my expertise are guys like these. But I started here as a seasonal part-time person, interning with Dr. Bryan Woods, and he’s the lizard king.”

“What’s the story on the Jefferson's gators?”

“They were introduced probably by a guest, near as we can figure, around 1910. There was a thriving summer railroad vacation trade, going from the North through Richmond to Florida and back. Best guess is, somebody got a gator, realized they couldn't take it home, so they dumped it into the fountain. And they were so alluring and strange that the hotel just decided to keep them around."

"So it became a kind of trademark by default."


"Now, that's marketing, Tia."

"You got that right."

Quarles continued, "The gators stayed here at least until the late 1940s, when Old Pompey, the last one, died. Dr. Woods reintroduced them in 1988. “

“What about liability?”

“What do you mean?” then Quarles and Tia laughed together. “You think my gators are liable to do something?”

“Well, they are alligators, not house cats.”

“Awww, did you hear that, Bossanova? No, but, we’ve had a remarkably incident-free record. People like to get their pictures taken with them, but they don’t go swimming in the fountains. I think some bridal parties have gotten close. Our gators tend to hatch and get raised here, so, they are accustomed to the surroundings. This," she spread her arms, " is their habitat. But, you’re right, they’re not cats or dogs.”

“That’s more like what they eat.”

“Well, we don’t feed them other people’s pets – well – unless rats that we get, or rabbits.”

“Oh, no, not bunnies.”

“You eat them in the restaurant.”

“I don’t, but I see your point.”

Gotz thanked Quarles, they exchanged cards, and he made sure to get her contact information.

“That, Tia, was an example of the hard-hitting journalism I’m committed to.”

“You got her number.”

“Well, they’ll send a photographer. Really, they will. So, you mentioned this rooftop café and maybe some drinks.”

“I don’t remember the drinks part.”

“You did, believe me and by the big grandaddy clock over there,” he pointed to a 19th century heirloom, “and if I’m reading my Roman numerals right, it’s past five and you don’t have to be so straight. And please call me Phil.”

“Mr. Gotz—“

“You’re just doing that to annoy me.”

Tia turned away to laugh.

He said, “Listen, why don’t we do this. I’ll go up to the room, drop off this stuff, turn around three times and meet you up there. Can you do that? I bet the view is great – “

“The best in town.”

“So I’d like some fraternization, I mean, familiarization.”

“I think you probably had it right the first time.”

“So, you’ll accompany me?”

“Ah. Sure.”

They shared the cherry wood, shining brass and mirrored elevator, with its tufted and upholstered bench, to the seventh floor. Gotz noted that the Jefferson was probably the biggest building in midtown Richmond, and Tia, reflecting, though that if not, then it was in the top three.

“Lewis Ginter got past the height restrictions.”

“Well, he was Lewis Ginter.”

“Ah,” Gotz nodded as the bell for his floor sounded. “This is me. See you in a few minutes. Order me a gin and tonic." He held the door back form closing. "If I'm not up there in about 10 minutes, I bumped into Jennifer and there's been an altercation."

She put up a shame-faced hand as the doors closed.

The hushed hallways and the sussurrant air conditioning comforted Gotz. No matter where you go in the established places, these remain the same.

Note on image: The top picture of the Valentine statue of Jefferson in the hotel's palm court lobby is from UVA Magazine archives page. The lobby and rooms of the Jefferson correspond to appearances prior to the 1901 fire which all but destroyed the building. In the Richmond of Tia Chulangong and the one Phil Gotz is visiting, that fire -- and several others -- never occurred.

The View from the Terrace (Part I)

Tia snagged a table mid-distance between the opulent teak and mahogany bar and the stage where the pianist at the grand provided a soundtrack of jazz standards for the guests imbibing in the fading early evening sun.

Gotz entered left of the stage, raising his chin in a near-sighted way to look around. Tia half-stood to wave him over. He was changed out of professorial tweeds into black, from his collarless shirt and slender-cut jacket to his shoes. His massed Andrew Jackson on the $20 grey hair gave him the appearance of a retired rock star.

Gotz negotiated the café tables and various couples and groups enjoying their Jefferson Hotel happy hour. He gazed upon the trailing vines, palms and trellises woven with roses and wisteria. Metal arches fitted with big yellow bulbs spanned the garden. The glass partitions around the terrace were open to allow for breeze and prevent over-warming from the sun. The city and countryside spread out before the Jefferson like the view from a doge’s palace.

“Well, well,” she said. “You're so hip and urban now."

He rubbed hands together. “I'm ready for where the evening takes me." He bobbed his chin in appreciation of the G & T and gave a thumbs up. “Um! The exact thing. Here’s to massive quantities of information." They clinked glasses.

“This is quite fine,” he gazed around him. “So let’s get a look at this view, and start with the south, because, I want you to tell me about that bouquet of towers floating on the horizon.”

“Sure,” she said, then asked what he thought of his room. He was given a suite and while he hadn’t explored it yet, the spa shower was just fine with him.

They stepped past the trellises to the bulging balustrade. Wind caught Tia’s hair. Beyond the river and Manchester, along the edge of the city the sun was flashing across hundreds of windows in the varied high rises.

“Those are mostly apartments, condos, residences; most have retail on the lower floors, the coffee shops, the delis, there’s galleries and offices.”

“So there’s where the almost four million people live.”

“Some, not all; and these concentrations are pretty much here in the south and they’re further out west, and not so much north.”

“Why not so much north.”

“Ah – you know, I don’t have a good answer for that.”

“I’m shocked.”

“Well, you can talk to the planning people –“

He raised a hand.

“Hah. Well, I can say this: These concentrations,” and she raised her arms as though to embrace the agglomerations of towers, “are noticeable for several reasons. You remember, The Woods, that goes all the way around us, and you can’t build the high rises-- here in midtown.”

“So they’re all out there,” and he leaned forward and rested his elbows on the stone rail. “This sort of reminds me of overlooking from atop Notre Dame all the squares and rooftops of Paris, and there’s the Eiffel, and there’s the Sacré Coeur and past all that marvelous architecture, is La Defénse and the Tower of Montparnasse, and those congested residential towers where the rest of Paris is. And there it’s turned into a haves-and-have-nots problem, there.”

“Um, and so, it’s a consideration here, too. Maybe not as drastic as that.”


Tia inclined her head and drank.

Notes on images:
The Jefferson rooftop garden is not an invention. Prior to the devastating 1901 fire, the hotel staged vaudeville and minstrel acts there. The growth of movie theaters and cheaper entertainments led the management not to rebuild the terrace. The drawing was a newspaper illustration.
The two building models are by architect Haigh Jamgochian, as displayed in a Library of Virginia exhibit, "Never Built Virginia."
This Richmond's population is edging in on 4 million. This is possible because Metro Richmond embraces Chesterfield and Henrico counties. To the south, Petersburg and Hopewell are Richmond bedroom communities and viable, livable cities, too, with a combined population of almost a million. The Colonial Heights of our world -- a white flight suburb -- does not exist in the form we know it.
Richmond sustains this population load due to superior prescient planning and having started with various cultural and technological innovations rather than following behind others. The burgeoning, sprawlng Atlanta and North Carolina's "Research Triangle" aren't like we know them; Richmond got ahead on biomedical research, information technology and the music and film/video scene. There are games designed in Richmond, movies made here, and recording studios for world class musicians.
In this alternate world, Virginia banks were allowed to set up shop outside the state borders. Thus, finance, insurance, retail, entertainment and real estate remain stalwart components of Richmond's economic landscape, in addition to state and regional government offices, and institutions of higher learning. Names gone from our city in the past 20 years remain, in addition to many others conducting varieties of enterprise we cannot imagine here now.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond And What I Found There

Parts IV-V.

The story thus far: Philip Gotz, an obstreperous travel writer known for his "What I Found There" pieces detailing his five-day visits to destinations, is in Richmond, Va. The visitors bureau has given him as guide Tia Chulangong -- who pretty much has his number. They've taken a train from Richard Evelyn Byrd International Airport to bustling Main Street Station, and from there they'll go to Gotz's accommodations at the Jefferson Hotel.


Gotz crossed his legs, settling in, and raised his empty glass toward the waitress. “So this Ginter. He’s like Michelangelo. Made half the city.”

“Not quite half, but some pretty big chunks.”

“A New York Dutchman who fought for the Confederacy. Kinda curious combination, huh?”

“Well, then, like a number of people with his kind of background, he caught the New Dominionist wave – “

“Which nobody, but nobody, really understands really how happened. Except, our good Dr. Venable here,” he brought out the bent-covered book. “She gives it her best shot.”

Tia nodded. “It’s true. That’s why the call it The Miracle of 1888.”

“I’m a little,” he squinted for emphasis, “suspicious of these miracle things. You understand.”

“Part of your charm.”

“Such as it is,” he peered over his glasses.

“I’m sure you can be quite charming when you want to be.”

“Oh, Tia, you wound me.”

“Also charming was Lewis Ginter,” and she smiled, making the dimples.

Gotz was certain he could crawl into those indentations and live, like an efficiency apartment.

She began, “He embraced integration and the Knights of Labor."

He raised a finger to find the passages in the Venable tome. " -- Which, caused him to be burned in effigy on Broad Street. And his house guarded by private security."

"You've really studied."

"Proving that no good deed goes unpunished."

"There's some truth to that, in his case. Because with his many many millions, he changed the city like nobody since. He created the Ginter Park community, bankrolled Union Theological Seminary, built the Jefferson Hotel where you’re staying, and chartered Ginter University.”

“That’s an odd story, too; right?”

She inclined her head. “How so?”

“He, Ginter, was kind of a – how to say? – Clairvoyant? Helluva business card you think about it: Lewis Ginter Tycoon-Psychic.”

Tia said, “Well, some people – um, it is interesting that he bought blocks that were already built up with businesses then he put them in a trust.”

“That’s the part. That one right there.”

“You have been studying up – and, you’re right. Mostly along Broad Street, where he set aside sections near where he wanted the university to grow, and contracted to relocate businesses and families or their descendants when the time came.”

Gotz said, part marveling at a new cold glass of the black Legend, “But the story gets even better, as I understand it. He opened enrollment to anybody who wanted to come: black, white, Cherokee.”

“More like Chickahominy, but yes – See?” she put her hands on her hips, in quite a fetching way, so thought Gotz, then she said, waving a dismissive hand, “You don’t even need me. You already know it all.”

He shrugged. “Oh, no, no, no. I wouldn’t say that. I try to know a little so I can learn a lot.”

“Hum,” she raised her chardonnay and looked off the balcony. “The very interesting part of the whole thing is that because some professors refused to teach integrated classes —meaning women, or people of color -- Ginter sent his recruiters throughout the country to find people with the right fit. Then he built housing for them, too, and that really boosted the development of what we here call the Fan District.”

“Hum. That’s wild. I mean, truly. That Ginter was so ahead of the curve.” He smiled at his Legend. “You getting another?”

“I’m working, Mr. Gotz.”

“Phil. So am I.”

“Heritage Trolley to the Jefferson is about to come.”

“Am I at that exciting at a distance?”

Tia made an elaborate frown and shook her head.

“It’s a real Richmond experience.”

His glass drained, Tia rose and thanked Audrey the hostess. Another embrace and cheek kissing and Tia promising to call her, and they took the stairs down to the street level to emerge into the gold light of late afternoon on the spacious stepped veranda. Clusters of urbanites gathered to get street trams and some hailing taxis. Charter buses and other vehicles moved with pedestrians in a cosmopolitan choreography.

Notes on images: 1) Lewis Ginter (1824-1897), tycoon, developer and philanthropist, via Richmond Then and Now. Proof that money does change things, Ginter endowed his adopted hometown with buildings and institutions that continue today, these include Ginter Park, Union Theological Seminary and the Jefferson Hotel. In Tia's Richmond, however, Ginter became "infected" by the New Dominion political bug and also lived longer.

In the current reality, a contest Ginter called for caused the invention of the cigarette rolling machine. The shock of the new proved too much for Ginter, who didn’t see a market deep enough to accept all those mechanically made cigarettes -— mostly, only fey folk like Irish playwright Oscar Wilde smoked them. Real men chomped on cigars or chewed tobacco. The cuspidors in the corners of the lobbies of Richmond hotels proved it. Besides, the new machines frequently malfunctioned. Ginter had already made and lost two fortunes, and the third time wasn’t the charm for him. He sold the rights in 1885 to James Buchanan Duke of Durham, N.C., and that’s why there’s a Duke and not a Ginter University. Duke had no problem ginning up advertising campaigns for his Bull Durham tobacco. Still, Ginter did well for himself and gave a significant portion of his fortune -- some $20 million -- to his favorite niece, Grace Arents, who pursued her own course in social philanthropy.

2 - 3) Images of Union Theological campus, first from Richomnd Then and Now, and the Virginia Department of Historical Resources. The Ginter University buildings possess a similar character, due to architects in common, including Charles Henry Read Jr. (1861-1904) among whose institutional buildings in Richmond include the 1894 Planters National Bank at 1200 E. Main St., a brick-and-brownstone Richardson Romanesque landmark that’s now state offices. Charles K. Bryant (1869-1933) built Richmond Hall (1908) for a new refectory, and the firm of Baskervill and Lambert built Schauffler Hall (1921) and added the impressive semicircular chapel for Watts Hall.

5. The Jefferson’s Heritage Trolley

The royal blue Heritage Trolley arrived with its bell clanging, easing to a stop in front of them, ‘The Hotel Jefferson’ written in gold, flowing script on its side identified its main sponsor and major destination. Even the conductor here was thrilled to see Tia, crying, “T! My girl!” And Gotz was introduced, the conductor waggled his eyebrows, “She keepin’ you in line?”

“Trying her best.”

“Look, life can’t be so bad if T’s showing you around and you’re staying at the Jefferson.”

The group of travelers going to the Jefferson included tired businesspeople, some families and what Gotz concluded was a gooey-in-love honeymoon couple, young fresh faced kids who sat holding hands and talking in whispers as they stared into each other’s eyes. Canned ragtime music played low.

The guide and the writer sat near the front of the antique car that she noted as a 1900 model. The mahogany, brass fittings and tufted seat cushions, reminded Gotz of a Gilded Age elevator on wheels.

A gesture to technology were monitors recessed into panels in the backs of seats, like on airliners, with attached headphones. Tia explained that Gotz had a choice of listening to the tourism video synched to the progress of the trolley’s passage, or to her, who’d not get to everything as with the video. Gotz opted for the live version.

“So this is Main Street,” Tia began, and several sets of eyes turned toward her.

They rolled past the St. Charles Hotel of 1846, a New Orleanian place, four stories and quite long, festooned by a wrought iron second story balcony. A hostelry had been there since before the Civil War. Slave auctions took place there, Poe took meals in its dining room, and the Poe Museum faced it from across the street. “It’s now part of the Museum of Bondage and Liberation,” she hurriedly said.

Moving over 15th Street the trolley began an uphill climb. Looking around, Gotz could not see anything higher than six or eight stories and past 14th he noticed that most automobiles vanished. Bold red white signs with the silhouette of a car and truck with a red slash through them proclaimed UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES PROHIBITED. The fine print exempted emergency or official traffic, and restricted residential vehicles to certain hours.

Tia pointed out rows of iron front office buildings, and two miraculous survivors of the 1865 evacuation conflagration, both built in 1817: the Italian villa arches of the Bank of Virginia’s main branch and another columned temple of finance. “This was the Exchange Bank and after the fire, the only things left standing of it were those columns. It was rebuilt, and First National went in there, but now it’s an art gallery.”

Propelled at easy trolley speed Gotz appreciated entire blocks of renovated 19th century commercial buildings, on occasion with more contemporary levels or modernizations. At 11th, Tia ducked her head and pointed southward down the street, “You see, there’s the Great Basin and Gallego Plaza.”

Gotz peered toward what appeared to him as a long, square lake as Tia told of how the Great Basin stretched to Eighth Street and during the busy canal days of the mid-19th century, this was where canal boats picked up and deposited passengers and freight.

The railroads put the canal out of business and buried the basin, Tia explained, but investors in the 1950s cleared the tracks and unearthed the “big hole” where some 20 canal boats of all shapes and sizes were brought up from the muck. The revival of the canal, and the establishment of a museum at the Byrd Park Pump House, allowed the evolution of the basin and connectors into a major tourist draw.

Tia mentioned names and architectural styles with the familiarity of friendship. When rolling past Ninth and Main, she pointed right to the Richardson Romanesque Chamber of Commerce building, the high curved windows, granite and brick, all this, she said, topped by a skylight illuminated courtyard and seventh floor auditorium offering wonderful views. Gotz would visit during a luncheon next week.

The Pace Block of exuberant, high mansard Second Empire commercial buildings loomed over Eighth and Main like a piece of Paris had landed there.

As Tia continued her narrative Gotz watched Richmonders bustle along the business district sidewalks. He’d traveled in enough cities that he thought he could read the character of the place in people’s faces. Gotz called this the “Shitstorm Quotient” –did those on the crowded walks act like they were leaning into a fecal headwind?

He observed a stylishness of fashion, both self-conscious and nonchalant, and how smart everybody seemed as they stood in lines at the food carts and noshing at the outdoor café tables. The varied hues of people gave this quadrant of Richmond a cosmopolitanism he’d not expected. No SQ quotient.

“Tia, I’m not seeing any high tension wire or cables overhead…this just downtown of all over?”

“Since around the '70s we've buried utilities and, now, fiber optics—first in midtown, then expanding out into the neighborhoods, and requiring it for any newer building throughout the Richmond Metro.”

The street numbers tumbled into the single digits and the commercial buildings became bolder, more flamboyant, their display windows bigger. Gotz asked about a sign on one old storefront, “What’s Mongoose Civique?”

Tia tossed her head back, laughing. “It’s a club, a nightclub.”


“No, not hardly. It’s a popular place people go, after work, late nights.”

“Really? You go there?’

“Ahh,” she ran her tongue across her upper teeth. “I may have been seen there on a few occasions.”

“You little devil. I knew you had it in you.”

She shook her head.

Alongside the trolley helmeted, puffing men in suits rushed their bikes up an incline that would wind Gotz just walking. One guy was even using his cell phone.

Tia in a quick but coherent manner at Sixth and Main, indicated along the left the pediments and columns of the Second Baptist Church building, now offices and a restaurant; next af Fifth, the hulking 1800 mansion of Moldavia, where young Poe gazed upon the James River from its high, temple-like porches and now the Virginia Center for Architecture; the curved graciousness of the Virginia Building Apartments and behind them, the square, fortress temple of Second Presbyterian, and across from that, the octagonal wings and arched balcony of the 1808 Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House; on the left facing Main, the imposing Greek Revival Hobson-Nolting House of 1847, with its triple windows on all four floors and massed rear porticos. These days, Nolting House is a bed and breakfast.

“The restaurant there’s been used in movies,” Tia added. “’You ever see My Dinner With Andre, it was done in the Nolting House’s dining room. All that’s in your info package.”

She pointed to the right at the Freeman-de Saussure house of 1838 and after various latter day incarnations, once again a private residence, with its long iron balcony overlooking Fourth Street.

The trolley’s shadow rubbed like an affectionate cat against the three-and-four story facades of Federal and Greek Revival townhouses adorned by decorative porches and balconies that reminded Gotz of Charleston and New Orleans. On the right, the handsome brick 1814 Carter-Crozet House, with its curved railing two-sided porch, a home and antique shop, and the big, dignified stucco-sided Greek Revival house where Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Glasgow lived and died.

This blocks-long array of antique buildings was mere prelude to the emphatic splendor and Edwardian fantasy of the Jefferson Hotel. The car glided up to a swell in the road before the hotel and Gotz reveled in this prospect; the elaborate white Jefferson like a docked Spanish galleon, and along the hillside, repeating bays and finials as notes in a musical score, resembling to Gotz the Richmond neighborhood in San Francisco; a park beyond and the high dome of the cathedral in the distance, and odd minarets piercing the sky above the leafy canopy.

“This is quite,” he searched, “remarkable.”

“We like it,” Tia replied.

The trolley’s bell announced their arrival to the Jefferson’s front entrance as other cars, their passengers deposited, with bells ringing whined down hill. Gotz didn’t need the assistance of the red-vested and bow-tied carriers who handled luggage.

Image notes: Top image is lower Main Street in the mid-1940s, next to Main Street Station, and conveys the busy-ness of downtown and the character of the Jefferson Heritage Trolley. In Tia's Richmond, the St. Charles Hotel still stands where the stone wall is at right, as do most of the buildings in the background. The highrises in the misty distance were instead built on Broad.

2) Is Second Baptist Church, via rustycans, which also has a comprehensive history of brewing and prohibition, and the 1902 Virginia Constitution. The building was demolished in 1906.

The bottom photo is the Jefferson Hotel's Franklin Street side mezzanine terrace. I don't know the source.

The enormous sacrifice Richmond made for conceding to the needs of the automobile is little understood today because generations have grown up with the city as it looks now. But what began as a slow attrition in the 1890s accelerated to outright cultural devastation by the 1970s. So many fine residential and commercial buildings were lost through outright neglect and bone headed planning. Residential neighborhoods were saved, while what could've been a preserved and unique downtown was instead given over to steel and glass and plastic buildings. These structures weren't designed as much just built, and most of them now seem dated, as if they were bought off a shelf for "Moderate-Priced Medium-Sized High Rises." Downtown Richmond today, with few notable exceptions, resembles bad quick-and-dirty renovations made to bathrooms and kitchens of Fan houses in the 1980s.

When we think of Charleston, Savannah or New Orleans, the skylines of those places do not come to mind; but their human-sized, individual buildings, their street life. Richmond lost its way through most of the 20th century in her hell for leather rush to be like somebody else, whether Atlanta or Charlotte, and not herself. This is her tragedy.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond

-- And What I Found There III

Part III

“I have thought it wise to live for the future and not the dead past. While cherishing honorable memory of its glories, I have thought that we should look to the future for life, power and prosperity…”

William Mahone, Readjuster and ornery cuss, 1882

Just a different set of problems…

Come now, and walk alongside an obstreperous travel writer who is researching an extensive feature about Richmond – a different version than the one with which you are familiar.

He—like you—has never been to the Richmond described here-- but he’s applied himself to studying the story, and he receives able guidance by indulgent, patient and hospitable residents.

In this Richmond, people are no less venal and slothful, nor more gracious and industrious, as they are in the city around you now.

They just have a different set of problems.

The subjects of conversations in its boisterous bars and busy cafés are textured by a history quite altered from the one recorded in Virginius Dabney’s book.

Nobody could blame you, though, if you’d like to move there.

The story thus far:
Philip Gotz. a well-known travel writer for print and online media, is taking one of his five-day "What I Found There" excursions to Richmond, Va. He was met upon his arrival at the Admiral Richard E. Byrd International Airport by Tia Chulangong. a representative of the city's tourism office. While riding the airport train to Main Street Station, Tia explains to Gotz about Richmond's development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including a zoning provision forbidding high rises in the center city, and the green belts girding the town, which one developer derided as a "noose of weeds and vines." At Gotz's behest, they've stopped to have a drink on the station's Main Street balcony.

(Image credits at end)

3. The Balcony Scene

“So Cap’n Trice mentioned something about restaurants and lounges,” said Gotz as they alighted from the train and stepped onto the platform. But his next thought floated away as he observed the important bustle under the steel supported canopy. Gotz pulled up his recorder, “Main Street station train shed big enough to park a zeppelin.”

The baggage handlers puttering on their whirring lorries, families with maps and questions and making sure everybody was together, a gaggle of seniors and their jaunty capped guide holding up a sign, “Mature & In Motion,” and the European college kids hauling massive backpacks. He stood for a moment and breathed in the sensations.

Electronic klaxons, the slow building whine and chuff of one train backing out and the corresponding announcement, “Now departing from Track Thrrree, the Tidewater Express, bound for Petersburg, Williamsburg a-a-and the Citeee of Ham-pton Roads.”

Other announcements of arrivals and departures echoed overhead and a hanging screen noted in red and green to expect the Washington D.C. high speed express in two minutes.

Tia at some paces ahead turned to see Gotz standing, his big chin raised and eyes closed as if in communion. She let him do his thing, since he was enjoying himself, until he realized how long he’d remained there. He realized this, smiled, and joined her.

The noise of the platforms didn’t allow for speaking but as they passed through the doors into the station house he said, “You ever see It’s A Wonderful Life?”

“Too many times.”

“There’s that great line – and places like this remind me of it, and my whole profession. George Bailey asks Uncle Billy what he thinks the three most exciting sounds in the world are, and Uncle Billy says, ‘Breakfast is served – “

Tia joined, “-- lunch is served, dinner – “

Gotz nodded. “Then George says ,’No, no! Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.’”
Tia asked, “Which do you like the best?”

“’Breakfast is served,’ I think. I’m worthless without my coffee. But speaking of drinking —“

“Which we weren’t.”

“But I’m getting to it,” his eyes swept around the coffered ceilings and gilded columns, the newsstand bristling with colorful enticements, the various fast food come-ons in bright lights. While not as grand as Union Station in Washington, or as self-important as Grand Central, Main Street conveyed the sense of comings, goings and busy schedules to keep.

“Howzabout those restaurants and lounges?”

“We can get something on the terrace; the balcony. Beautiful day for it.”

“I’ll follow you, to the balcony, or even off it.”

Tia indulgently pursed her lips. She said, “That wouldn’t be good for either of us.”

“Depends, depends,” Gotz airily replied.

They strode across the wide marble floor to the arches of the loggia where a young brunette woman in crisp whites at the host stand knew Tia well enough to say, “T! How are you,” and embrace her.

“Audrey Thomas, this is Philip Gotz, the travel writer, and he’s spending five days in Richmond for a piece he’s writing about us.”

Audrey beamed, shook his hand, “Welcome to Richmond! You have the best possible guide.”

“I’m thinking you’re right.”

“So we’re just having a drink,” Tia said and reached into her little purse for round lensed, tortoise-shell sunglasses

They followed Audrey onto the ornate Main Street balcony furnished by café tables and chairs. Buses, taxis, and trams provided a hopping energy accentuated by a lattice of railroad bridges and viaducts that criss-crossing over the street.

The busy rhythm was punctuated by a procession of dormered, step-gabled, third-floor arch windowed, lush-corniced 19th century commercial buildings marching west up the hill toward the business district.

Tia sat Gotz facing west and that allowed her to point out sites while she did not drink from her chardonnay. He sampled a Richmond brew, Legend porter.

They tapped glass together, “To you, and welcome,” she said, and he replied, “And here’s to the startling qualities of Richmond guides.”

“I’d feel better if I didn’t think you said that to everyone.”

“But you’re wrong,” he said, and tried the beer, nodded, and drank more. “If this is any indication, Tia, it’s going to be a great visit.”

He peered over her shoulder toward 15th Street. Red signs and arrows indicated the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. “Ah, so here it is,” he said. “Been reading about Eddie’s foray into journalism.”

Tia, one hand under her chin, turned, “Yes, that’s the Southern Literary Messenger building,” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “His first real writing job.”

“We’re going there –“

“Um, tomorrow, later in the day. So, what you’re seeing here,” she swept her lithe arm across the storefronts and peaked and corniced rooftops, “are some of the most historic places in Richmond. And they’re still here, which considering all that’s happened, and all that could’ve happened, kind of a small miracle. For example, a lot of what you’re seeing here was supposed to be demolished for the interstate.”

Gotz nodded. “But you Richmonders got all up in arms.”

Biiig time,” Tia said, widening her eyes. “Marches on the Capitol here, convoys of protestors to D.C., the Governor making his declaration,” and she squinted to recall the words, as though some pledge taken in an elementary classroom. “‘The roads will not run through Richmond, nor any of our cities where the people are opposed.’ And the Congressional delegation protesting how the Interstate Highways Commission was just handed money without going through an allocation process. It was big, nasty, loud and long.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Knew you’d say that. But, anyway, it wasn’t but so much fun because Virginia lost millions and millions of dollars in government money – punishment -- not just for the highways; but the actions here inspired cities nationwide to follow Richmond, and places fought to keep the highways from knocking down their central city neighborhoods.”

“Bunch of troublemakers, is what you are.”

“Thank you! We make our best effort. Anyway, behind you can just see the Riverwalk which really starts here," she turned and pointed toward a high arched stone bridge festooned by iron lamps. A promenade walkway connected to the bridge. A streetcar rolling over it reminded Gotz of that ancient Toonerville Trolley comic strip.

"That's Shockoe Creek, which until the 1920s flooded every spring, but we started our water control project in 1923, and it became the River Walk. That runs directly to the river, and between it and the Flood Wall, they really saved this neighborhood. A regional arts project created that mural of the historic riverside.”

“Ah, yes. Sort of fools your eye for a minute. It’s like a stage backdrop.”

“Beyond that, is the real James River Kanawha Canal – “

“Where I’ll be taking a slow boat.”

“That’s right. Tuesday I’m putting you on the slow boat to Tuckahoe.”

“Looking forward to it.”

“You’ll be getting aboard at the Gallego Plaza – the canal boat offices are at Eighth Street. I’ll show you where it’s at on your way up to the Jefferson. Two blocks over, behind us, is the 17th Street Market, the oldest farmers market in the country, and behind that is the National Museum of Bondage and Liberation—we’re going there day after tomorrow—and it’s built over Lumpkin’s Jail -- holding pens for the slave markets-- and what’s interesting is that around the corners the floor is clear, so you can see the foundations and other things they found below the surface, the black cemetery across the street is part of the museum, and there’s some exhibits, too, in the St. Charles Hotel building which is next door.”

“Tia, be honest with me. Do people actually go to a slavery museum?”

“Yes, they honestly do, and more and more of them.”

“Not something you do on a light-hearted whim.”

“Yeah. I mean, of course, it’s a serious place.”

“One would hope.”

“We’ll see it; the scope of it is not just the 400 years —but the abolitionists and attempts to gain freedom, as individuals, or through group action – “

“We’re talking Nat Turner, right?”

“And Touissant L’Overture in Haiti. And Gabriel Prosser, too,” Tia added. “And John Brown.”

“Serious place, for sure, ” Gotz said and drank.

“But it’s about slavery here, elsewhere, past and current worldwide, and how people have fought for their freedom. Before the Civil War, here, the slave markets were all around where we’re sitting. Then the big fire destroyed almost this entire district.”

“How Wagnerian.”

“Most of what you see was built just after the war.”

“But now Shockoe is where all the fleshpots and iniquity are at?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You really need the opium dens.”

“Richmond’s progressive about many things, but I don’t think that’s one of them.”


“Not legal in Virginia.”

“Amazing. You have casino gambling and horse racing, but no opium dens or brothels,” and Gotz performed a profound disappointment. “This is turning into a very boring story.”

“Would you want to live next to an opium den or a brothel?”

“You live around here?”

“Yup; actually just past Shockoe," she squinted her left eye and pointed over Gotz's shoulder.

" remind me. This is one of those revitalized neighborhoods."

"H'mmm. Yes. Well, it'd gone through a few, I guess, cycles," she twirled a hand in the air. "So, it was a working and middle-class neighborhood, whites, immigrants, and by the mid-20th century more African-Americans. But the community pulled together, got historic status and urban redevelopment money, a levee along the river, and now it's a really great, I think, I mean I live there," and she allowed a smile punctuated by dimples. "A mixture of all kinds of people."

"Pricey, though?"

“Depends. But the city is right out your front door. Some people say it's too far away from downtown, and the fun, but we got our own cafes and restaurants, galleries and movie theater. Plus, I tell people this because it’s true, I haven’t owned a car since high school. I just don’t need one here. My money goes to other things than oil changes and insurance.”

“A very public relations response –“

“Well, that's my job. And, speaking of which: Mr Gotz –“


“Well, the office informed me,” she breathed in and pushed a strand of errant hair behind one ear. “Your former wife is here this weekend.”

Gotz pushed out his lower lip and raised his shoulders.

“We’re adults. It’s a big town. Which former wife, by the way?”

“Ah, Jennifer Royce.”

“Book tour I bet.”

“She’s reading at Cokesbury tomorrow.”

“Good for her!”

“She’s staying at the Jefferson, too.”

Gotz blinked, then chuckled.

“Well, long as we’re not in an elevator and the power goes out, we should be fine. Tia, don’t look so anxious.”

“It was a booking confusion and I’m really really sorry.”

For a moment, Tia’s sharp professionalism popped like a bad cable television connection. Gotz shrugged.

“Really, it’s fine. I mean, you didn’t do it. Did you?”

“Ah. Like I say, it was a scheduling error.”

“That wasn’t an answer.”

“Somebody at the office fouled up.”

“You mean fucked up.”

Tia sipped her chardonnay.

His brow furrowed and he raised his nose. “H’m,” he said. “Somebody’s smoking the world’s largest cigar.”

“ That’s the tobacco across the river. There’s several factories here. Not as many as years ago.”

“This is the city tobacco built, huh?”

“At first, flour and textiles, then tobacco, yes,” Tia began, happy to speak of history less emotionally freighted than ex-wives. “We can thank Lewis Ginter for that, whose company invented the cigarette rolling machine and he formed American Tobacco here, then the U.S. government split it up and several of the smaller firms kept headquarters in Richmond. By the 1940s, we produced about 85 percent of the tobacco products consumed in the United States.”

“Tobacco put the ‘rich’ in Rich-mond, is what they say, right? ‘Cigarette City.’”

“And other not-so-nice names.”

“Like, for example, what I’ve heard, Carcinogenville, Big C-Town…”

“Because of health considerations, and changes in the national economy, many of those plants closed or moved,” Tia explained. “They’ve been turned into apartments and lofts. But, when the wind blows the right way, you can still smell tobacco.” She turned toward Main Street and added, “I don’t smoke, but I like the smell.”

About the images and notes: Exterior of Main Street Station, with balcony arches, from Interior version of balcony arches from the Archer Pelican blog.
Interior of unfortunately empty Main Street Station, and from Kim Schmidt.
And Shockoe from the balcony,
perpetual I've tried finding interior images online of the wondrously restored building showing people and movement -- to no avail.

Some of the most depressing images I've ever seen of Richmond history is that of the concrete support stanchions for the so-called "Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike" marching into Shockoe like Imperial Walkers, and almost crushing Main Street Station. The before and after images of this cultural atrocity, shown stark and large at the Valentine Richmond History Center's
exhibit Battle for the City: the Politics of Race 1950s-1970s, were enough to provoke in me a physical, nauseated sensation.

The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike was an extension of I-95. Despite two public referendums denouncing the plan for the highway's course, the then-powerful Main Street business and private club coalition nudged their collaborators in the General Assembly to form a special "authority" to create the turnpike. Thus, blunt-minded engineers drew an unforgiving line through the mid-section of the city, direct through Shockoe, Union Hill and Jackson Ward, for the most part occupied by poor blacks, or consisting of residential housing considered substandard and not worth saving. More structures were destroyed by this hamfisted solution than by the Evacuation Fire of 1865.

A similar methodology caused the creation of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority to oversee the Downtown Expressway that forever lanced the city and was not just stupid engineering and policy -- designed to bring suburbanites into the city -- but bad feng shui. Richmond was cut off from its riverfront by lanes of asphalt and an important section of the James River Kanawha Canal obliterated.

Scott M. Kozel provides a valuable, detailed and, to my view, pro-road builder history of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike and Downtown Expressway at his
Roads To The Future site. The image below is from that site; note Main Street Station at lower left. In the Richmond that Phil Gotz is visting, the "spaghetti works" doesn't exist. That Richmond has a different perspective on automobiles and their proper place.

Due to the series of unfortunate rail and transit policy botches and bollixes
Richmond's great stations, Main and Broad Street, were stranded in the mid-1970s after Amtrak chose to move from its urban stations into suburban "Amshacks" to theoretically accommodate suburban commuters (a mistake realized too late). Both Richmond stations suffered the indignities of abandonment and neglect. Main Street resisted floods, fire and the vagaries of municipal governance. Both came within an ace of demolition. The domed, John Russell Pope-designed Broad Street received rehabilitation as the Science Museum of Virginia, but spur tracks remained, allowing the now defunct American Oriental Express to pull in there twice a year.

Main Street is caught in a perpetual "multi-phase" rail redevelopment plan, due to the nation's false economy and historic wretched priorities of transit planning that champions wasteful highways over passenger rail. This is why for several decades the long-needed straightening out of the
mess at the Acca Yards remains unaccomplished, and the upgrading of rail leading between the Staples Mill suburban station and downtown goes uncompleted.The country, not to put to fine point on it, is screwed up big time regarding efficient, safe and aesthetic transit.

The Southern Literary Messenger building is from The building was torn down just prior to World War I when 15th street was supposed to undergo widening; the war intervened and the street expansion never occurred. Richmond lost yet another one of the actual physical spaces known by Poe. The preservationists who rescued the Old Stone House, today the Poe museum, acquired the bricks and used some of them to construct the wall surrounding the rear garden and construct the pergola. The Messenger site, and that of the next door Allan tobacco offices, is now in part occupied by Club Velvet.

Tia's residence in Fulton may throw some readers; in our Richmond, there's Fulton Hill, but "Fulton Bottom" (never called that by those living there -- the "bottom" designation was a class-based pejorative), was allowed to be ripped up and torn down by the city (and a few neighborhood Quislings) during the early 1970s for "urban renewal." Supported and allowed to exist, Fulton would've perhaps provided a funky alternative to other pricier neighborhoods, as a mixture of Church Hill and Oregon Hill, an architectural mixture of brick single family residences and townhouses, churches and stores, and old frame buildings, too.
The image row houses along Denny Street come from
Richmond Then And

Further description of Fulton in the current Richmond's timeline, from a back-issue article of mine

" In the late 1960s, Fulton had 3,000 residents in some 836 buildings spread across 330 acres. The neighborhood counted seven churches, one of which, Rising Mount Zion Baptist, was more than a century old. Fulton was restaurants, stores and schools, and at least one small movie theater, The Lennox, at 514 Louisiana St.

In 1930, Fulton boasted a 30 percent home-ownership rate that was, according to urban-studies writer Chris Silver, substantially higher than those of other working-class communities.

During the 1940s, home ownership actually increased because families of limited means could afford to own. A number of those houses didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.

The character of Fulton shifted due to layoffs at the C & O railroad when it switched from coal to diesel and unemployment from the closure of the nearby Richmond Cedar Works in 1957. White families left. Rental properties proliferated, but they weren’t properly maintained. City inspectors seldom visited Fulton, and housing codes weren’t enforced. Poor blacks displaced from neighborhood obliterations in Navy Hill and along North 17th Street arrived in Fulton because they had few places to go. Break-ins and robbery, nearly unknown in Fulton, proliferated after 1961, and heroin arrived in the community’s streets in about 1964.

St. Augustine’s Catholic Church was in such dire shape in the mid-1960s that [artist Don] Crow remembers his foot smashing through a floorboard during Mass one Sunday. Fulton itself slipped through the cracks of planning and oversight. Still, neighborhood leaders, as Silver writes, “rejected the slum stereotype and sought through political mobilization to resist” massive demolitions.

Scott O. Davis, in his book The World of Patience Gromes: The Making and Unmaking of a Black Community, a memoir of his time as a social worker there, records nip joints and bootleggers with alcoholism and the domestic squabbles they produced, the gamblers, pool sharks, hoodlums and a rising tide of despair. Richmond’s officials couldn’t figure how to solve Fulton’s problems except, ultimately, to get rid of Fulton altogether."

Given the dramatic shifts in urban planning and policy in the Richmond where Tia lives and Phil Gotz is visiting, it's unlikely Fulton would've turned into empty green fields lately filling in with vinyl-sided tract housing, The flight of both white and black middle class into the cul-de-sac archipelago hinged on first, integration and second, the collapse of the public schools deprived of tax dollars to operate and maintain them.

. But this alternate Richmond's situation is different -- as we shall see.

Finally, Methodist-based Cokesbury books, still a presence in the Richmond region,
occupied an entire downtown building and I often visited the racks and aisles there when I wore a younger man's clothes on a thinner frame. The main floor on Grace and 4th was a regular, secular store with an excellent selection, and in this Richmond, it's still there.

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