Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five commentaries examining the current challenges and possibilities for preservation in fast-redeveloping areas of the city.
It’s easy to be slack jawed at the frenetic pace of residential construction hereabouts. But with so many rooftops being built in mature and historic neighborhoods, there is also the danger of losing architectural remnants of what makes these places special, if not unique.
Pockets once bypassed are increasingly threatened with development as we contemplate the bittersweet adage: “Poverty is the best preserver.”
Southside, no stranger to social stress and often denigrated as “Dogtown,” has historically been ignored by local preservationists. If Philadelphia has Camden, Chicago has Gary, and San Francisco has Oakland as blue-collar, industrial, and across-the-tracks (or water) sister cities, Virginia’s capital has Manchester. The town was a separate jurisdiction from 1742 until it was merged in 1910 with Richmond. Today, Hull Street is lined with the best remaining historic fabric, mostly Italianate commercial structures. Nearby, a number of architecturally handsome legacy church complexes survive.
But in the 1960s and 1970s the single-family residences that once graced the tree-shaded, granite curb-lined streets between Hull and the river were decimated at the hands of one man, Harwood Cochrane. He was the uber wealthy and crusty chairman of Overnite Transportation. From his office atop his trucking empire’s headquarters (now UPS Freight) on Semmes Avenue at East 11th Street, he looked disparagingly at the aging neighborhood. “I don’t care about houses,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1982. “We’ve still got bootleggers and dope peddlers.” Cochrane’s acquisition and demolition of some 140 buildings in the vicinity created the tabula rasa for the recent and ongoing construction boom.
In the mid-1990s the sprawling Truist operations center that sprawls along Semmes Avenue at West Ninth Street was the first structure built on the former Cochrane- and Overnite-owned tracts. Its fortress-like modernist architecture, that signals disdain for the neighborhood, did nothing to establish a sympathetic reset on the gently rolling cityscape. More recently built, single and multi-family residences have been a repetitive and relentlessly cloying architectural boxiness. Meanwhile, a developer who was restoring a number of properties on Hull Street is facing criminal charges. Clearly, the architectural gods and goddesses have not been smiling on Manchester.
But help may be on the way. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the City of Richmond and Historic Richmond (a not-for-profit preservation organization) have recently begun work jointly on a historic resource survey of Southside Richmond. It should provide an understanding of the area’s history while identifying potential sites for historic districts and communities and cemeteries previously overlooked. These findings will contribute to an ambitious citywide preservation plan whose first phase will be launched this fall and winter with completion in May 2024.
The survey and plan couldn’t come at a better time. As fast-paced redevelopment of industrial Manchester continues near the riverfront and floodwall, interested eyes are awaiting the footprint and design of a new Mayo Bridge that must thread a tight needle through the floodwall and with relatively limited access approach roads from both the Shockoe Slip and Manchester sides of the span.
Nearby, the future is cloudy for one of our region’s most iconic high-rise structures, the Southern States grain silo at Hull and riverfront. This 80-year-old behemoth is an essential element of Manchester’s character. Architectural historian Don O’Keefe says that its “raw, industrial beauty is compelling.” The preservation of this landmark will require the best combined thinking and action of local preservationists and developers.
Another threatened building that would have caught the eye of planners, if there had been an earlier preservation plan, is the old stalwart, two-story brick horse stables at 200 Decatur St.
Despite scant information on its origins, this 40-stall survivor of the early industrial age may be Richmond’s oldest surviving “parking” garage, albeit for horses. And with its clearly delineated windows, no building whether old or new, better exemplifies form-follows-function.
Viewed in concert with nearby train tracks, the Richmond Railroad Museum offers a rare example of how two forms of transportation once co-existed here. The city has issued a permit for the developers to demolish this rare horse stable as part of a larger residential redevelopment of the former Caravatti’s architectural salvage building at 200 E. Second St. I say nay. Ah, make that neigh; this gem should be saved.
Since so much of Manchester’s architectural fabric has been lost, every old and historic structure, large and small, should be seriously examined and considered for possible preservation and adaptive reuse.