The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond
And What I Found There

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. The writer and his guide have now gone up to the rooftop terrace of the Jefferson, where Tia is giving Gotz a travelogue explanation of the city's sights.

Conclusion: Part VI

View From The Terrace Part II

“Let’s sort of start east and work our way west.”


At the far east, the Great Turning Basin of the James River and Kanawha Canal and the Gallego Plaza with its extensive marble, stone, and iron loggias, grand stairways, arcades and colonnades. From their perspective, the turning basin shone like a mirror tilted toward the sun. The Northbank Esplanade begins there.

Tia said, “People love Gallego Plaza, You should go like on a Sunday—work off your gi-normous Jefferson brunch—there’s concerts, or the street musicians and performers all the time, to eat lunch, get pictures taken. It’s lovely all the time.”

“Silver people?”


“Do you have mimes there, in Gallego Plaza.”

“I think we may have mimes. You can’t keep them away from a public plaza. It attracts the mime action.”

“Sort of like pigeons.”

“Sort of, but not as messy. Any-way, so the boat you’ll take comes up through here, and along Gambles Hill. The neighborhood is named for the family and their house,” she pointed to a stuccoed neoclassical pile, “and it’s great to walk through because of the wrought iron porches and fences everywhere, and the views of the river from the park are pretty incredible.”

“Can’t be much better than here.”

“But you can see the river and the rapids. Below the hill, also on the canal, is the restored Tredegar Iron Works and the National Civil War Center and Museum. You want to understand what it was all about, you can’t go wrong.”

“On my list.”

He straight away noticed the battlements of an apparent small fort.

“That’s Pratt’s Castle,” she began.

Landscape designer, architect, and photographer William Abbott Pratt constructed his curious house around 1853. Pratt took the last known picture of Edgar Allan Poe when he was in Richmond before he went to Baltimore and never came back. That single association with Poe laid the groundwork for lore telling how the place was inspiration for the House of Usher or other stories, though Poe was long dead when he built the residence. Pratt’s Castle became one of Richmond’s most legendary buildings and during the late 19th century visitors photographed it more than Jefferson’s State Capitol.

“Sometimes you’ll hear it called “Pratt’s Folly,” because of how it’s behind the big Harvie-Gamble House. Like in Europe, a wealthy 19th century estate owner might construct a faux ruin in the gardens—a folly.”

“So can I move in and live there?”

“No, well, you could stay there a few nights, it’s a bed and breakfast, and there’s a small restaurant on the roof. Pricey but the view is awesome.”

Gotz from his perch was impressed by the bosky quiet of Richmond’s streets, its open places and park. Tia related the pride of the city in its “arboreal husbandry,” and she stated this absent any trace of irony. She was, after all, in marketing.

A city landscaping and design office opened around 1910. She further explained how a team of professionals responsible for the health and well-being of the urban forests shares that responsibility with the state, in maintaining The Woods. The extensive James River Parks System, with the only Class V rapids in a U.S. downtown, is the center of sports events and river enjoyment.

“We have bald eagles nesting out there, otters and herons, and even the sturgeon are coming back.”


“Yup. But not like the big boys from John Smith’s days, and even into the late 19th century, when they were 15 feet long and weighed hundreds of pounds. The farmers markets here used to sell caviar.”

“You know, I’m standing here, and in most other cities -- at least in this country -- I think I’d see lakes of asphalt for parking.”

“Not in Richmond, no.”

“Where’d they all go?”

Tia clasped her hands on the rail. “They didn’t go anywhere because we never really had them. The city has remained from the beginning anti-car, pretty much, especially downtown.”

“I’m sure that’s been a fight.”

“Oh, yeah. Well. Not so much these days – people have kind of gotten used to it.”

Gotz watched as a commuter train slid along near the river, and another raised tram ran toward the distant towers. A few cars moved on the streets, but what he noticed were people walking and asphalt biking paths embedded in the sidewalks.

The silhouettes of clouds slide across the city like parade balloons.

He said something, but the wind took it away, “Say again,” she asked.

“Thinking out loud. I said, ‘Urbane pastoral.’ Conjuring titles and subheads and subjects.”

“’Urbane pastoral. That’s ‘town and country.’”

“Rather reductive! Words have shades and resonances.”

“Oh, I know, but I’m in marketing, which is the communications business, and if we don’t communicate, there’s no business.”

“Town and country sounds far more hokier than this looks.”

“I’ll buy that,” she said.

Tia spoke next about the eastern swale by Gamble’s Hill, Harvie’s Canal Basin, an intermediate staging area for canal boats in their travels. “If your boat that you’re going to take is scheduled to meet another boat coming down from the west, then, what you’ll do is kind of hang out at Harvie’s, and there’s a restaurant and a bar there, and you can watch the other one go and then you start up again.”

“This really will be a slow boat, huh?”

“Which is why people take it. So, right around there, is where the state penitentiary used to be, and now there’s a park, and a memorial wall with the names of the people who died there—naturally or otherwise, including those who were killed by the death penalty.”

“Which you don’t have anymore.”

“Not since the 1930s. It’s probably in your information.”

“Richmond’s got this…thing, right? Museums to slavery, the Civil War and a park about the death penalty. Guilt’s like fertilizer around here.”

“At least we own up to it.”

“But I mean, join a 12-step or something.”

“I’d rather have a park or a museum than go to meetings, Mr. Gotz.”

He chuckled. “Wouldn’t we all.”

The William Mahone Bridge cut across into old town Manchester. Spread along the south bank bluffs a tall grove of upscale hotels. Signs announced Hilton, Marriott, and Omni. Down the hillside a building notable for its contemporary sleekness, “That’s the convention center,” Tia said.

“Looks like it’s about ready to launch into the river.”

“Yeah, some people call it The Mayor’s Yacht.”

“Why’s that?”

"Mayor Carruthers, who really wanted it at that place, and there was a big argument about its cost, and who built it. Typical stuff. But it’s great, and people love it.”

Nearby was one of the strangest buildings Gotz had seen since arriving in Richmond. First, it wasn’t 175 years old, and he recognized the unusual sweep of its lines from photographs. “That’s Richmond Symphony Space?”

“Yes. By Jamgochian, who also designed the airport, among other things.”

“What do you think of it, non-marketing aside.”

“I think that some people say it looks like the sound of an orchestra reaching a crescendo. I know, because I’ve heard him speak, that Mr. Jamgochian was inspired by the James River and the spray and rush of the rapids. Besides that, it’s a very cool place to go into and listen to music. One of the most acoustically perfect rooms in the country. Now, speaking of Mr. Jamgochian, you can’t see it so well from here, but sort of left of the hotels and all that, you can see this kind of stick figure tree building. With its branches coming out. Do you see? There?”

Gotz leaned forward, peering, and yes.

“It’s like, you’re right, some kid’s drawing of a tree.”

“Jamgochian designed that in the mid-1960s and wanted to put it on a piece of property he owned right next to the Garden Club of Virginia’s building – the Kent-Valentine House. Well, the city council wouldn’t approve it, because the preservationists were really opposed to this, even though people said they liked it. A developer saw the proposal photograph in the paper, and when council denied it, he said: build on my land. It was Mr. Jamgochian’s first commission. And it opened Richmond up to modern architecture.”

“Happy ending.”

“He also designed several of the residential high rises, over there, in Parnell and Broad Rock, you can see one – looks like a flying saucer landed on it.”

“Yes. You’re right. Let me guess. Revolving restaurant.”

“Doesn’t revolve, but it’s a restaurant, ‘Top of the Tower,’ and it’s big on prom nights and for weddings. Now, here, running north south, is Belvidere Street,” and she passed her hand over a tumble of brick and frame houses, some two stories, humble and all old. “This is Oregon Hill, so-called, because as you can see, there’s Gamble’s Hill over there, and what was then a huge ravine, and before the roads were put in, when you moved to this side of town, it was like going to the Oregon Territory.”

The community, she explained, sprung up as worker’s housing for the nearby Tredegar Iron Works. At the center, cloaked behind a wall of green and other houses, the Belvidere Plantation of Willam Byrd III, and kept now by the National Park Service. Byrd’s grandfather was given much of the land upon which the father founded the city. Belvidere was built in 1755 though Third Byrd didn’t spend much time in it, as he was off having military adventures and gambling away the inheritance of his far more industrious ancestors. His first wife went nuts and may have killed herself, just as Byrd did in 1777, at his ancestral Westover Plantation, east of the city.

“What trouble was he in that he did that?” Gotz asked.

“Money and scandal.”

“Finest kinds.”

“Except that he got so deep in debt that he auctioned his land – Almost everything you can see from here. And, during the Revolution, he wouldn’t join either side. That didn’t do much for his popularity.”

“I guess so.”

“But the house survived, more-or-less, it’s kind of an on-going archaeological and restoration project. Your slow boat will stop there, and you can go there and to Hollywood Cemetery. And they have a tram that takes you around. Seriously, though, there are presidents, governors, writers, and 18,000 Confederates. It’ll be beautiful this time of year; gorgeous overlooks of the rapids, too.”

“OK, hold up, here. So where’s the Miniborya arts colony that I’m visiting.”

“Oh, that’s way south, central, kind of through there,” Tia squinted an eye and leveled her arm past his face. “Our view here’s not quite that good. That’s deeper into Chesterfield, near Meadowbrook.”

“You say so, good enough for me. Now, that was some other rich guy’s house, yes?”

“Correct. J. Scott Parrish was a builder and contractor and his country estate—compound—was Miniborya—which had its own dairy farm and extensive gardens. When the house and grounds passed out of the family in the 1970s, a trust was set up and now it’s this big-time arts colony.”

“Looking forward to that,” he said.

Tia continued to guide him along where this slow boat would take him, past the trees, to Maymont Park and Dooley Mansion, and the Pump House, “Right about there – you see the Carillon?”

Gotz spotted the Georgian Revival bell tower poking up along the horizon.

“At the Pump House there’s a Canal Museum and restaurant, it’s very nice and with the weather we’re having, you’ll really have a good time. And then it takes you on out to Goochland, and you can stop at Tuckahoe, and there’s a rail shuttle back. Unless you want to take your slow boat to Lynchburg.”

“I’ll pass.”

They walked toward the western banister. Spread before them was the Fan District and the campus of Ginter College with its imposing red tiled roof buildings and grounds by Charles Gillette. On Main Street and across on Belvidere big, mansard buildings with interlocking courtyards interested Gotz; these were some of the student dorms. The writer wondered about the minarets above the park next to Sacred Heart’s dome.

“That’s the Richmond Shrine Auditorium, that looks like a mosque,” Tia said. “The city’s owned it since the 1930s, and it’s a public venue for performances and city functions like graduations. It’s one of our more incredible buildings, and Sacred Heart is stunning. This is Monroe Park, and over there, on the corner of Belvidere, you can see Monrovia, which is the restaurant.”

Gotz nodded toward the handsome stucco building and its big arched end windows.

“The building was a big police and fire alarm station, and now it’s a great restaurant, Amazing Southern comfort food, very good and reasonable, fantastic brunch, but if nothing else, a great place to get a drink. The bar on the first level’s called Monroe’s Tomb, mostly because Monroe is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, down the street. There’s this jazz band, Deadly Nightshade, that plays there on Thursday nights. You’d love the girl who’s their singer. It’s fun; you’ll meet some characters.”

“Sounds like a recommendation, to me.”

Luxe interwar apartment buildings faced the park and behind the Prestwould the massive spire of Pace Memorial Methodist Church displayed to the faithful the countdown to redemption with clock faces in all directions. Spreading across to Broad Street a rich variety of Edwardian splendor and the wondrous creations of Ginter’s architects. Trees obscured a detailed view of varying slants and pitches of rooftops and chimneys and dormers. Off to the west several higher rise buildings broached the horizon.

Notes on images:
1) The drawing of the Gallego Basin is from an electronic copy of Edward King's The Great South, a touring book describing the South in 1873-1874. The James Wells Champney illustrations show some of the views including this of the Great Basin. Now covered over by parking lots, the James Center and the Omni Hotel, the basin was first filled in for a railyard. During excavations in the 1980s, canal researchers unearthed from the muck more than 50 portions of canal boats and other river craft. In Tia's Richmond, Gallego Plaza is a major public space ringed by robust architectural elements.
2) Pratt's Castle is from Of the numerous wreckerball atrocities committed in Richmond during the past one hundred years, this loss is in the top five. The Ethyl Corporation (now NewMarket) pulled it down in 1958 after preservationists failed to get clemency for the structure. There is today no marker, no indication that it ever stood on Gamble's Hill.
3) "Richmond Convention Center" was inspired by the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Image via Richmond in the early 1980s could've done something like this before the fateful decision to brutalize the city to save it.

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