The Blue Raccoon

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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