The Fifth and Main Downtown Historic District (400-500 Blks E. Franklin St., 400-600 blks E. Main St., 00 blks N 4th, 5th and 6th Sts., 00 blk S 5th St.) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Text, below, was adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
The Fifth and Main Downtown Historic District, located in the central business district of the City of Richmond, encompasses the core of the city's early twentieth century retail development and the remnants of a nineteenth century residential neighborhood. This area became part of the city in 1769 and, like the rest of the early city, was laid out in a regular grid of square blocks. The east-west streets were 65 feet in width while the north-south streets were 55 feet wide. Franklin, Main and Cary streets run east to west along the down hill edge of a plateau. The land to the north and west is relatively flat, but to the south it slopes steeply towards the James River. From 1800 to 1920, Franklin and Fifth Streets were the heart of one of Richmond's most fashionable neighborhoods and home to some of Richmond's wealthiest and most influential citizens. The streets were lined with large homes (some could even be called mansions) and row houses set within narrow front yards often enclosed by fences constructed of wood or iron. In the second two decades of the twentieth century, much of the early residential neighborhood was demolished and replaced by small shops and tall office buildings built in the latest architectural styles. Primarily built in the revival styles inspired by the early architecture of Italy, Spain and the United States, the buildings exhibit a wide variety of materials and decorative elements that blend into a rich palette of textures and details. The majority of the buildings are three stories or less in height, with some of the corner lots punctuated by office buildings rising as high as eleven stories. The buildings are situated close to each other and separated from the street by generous sidewalks and trees. The regularity of the blocks, the scale of the buildings, and street trees lend an intimate quality to the district. The district still retains much of its early twentieth century integrity, with a few remnants surviving from the antebellum and late nineteenth century residential neighborhoods. There are forty primary and two secondary resources in the district. Thirty-eight of these resources contribute to the integrity of the district. Five of the contributing resources are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as two secondary resources associated with the Barret House. There are two noncontributing parking garages/decks and two noncontributing buildings in the district.
When Richmond became Virginia's capital in 1780, the village consisted of a cluster of houses near what is now the 17th Street Market, one at 22nd Street, and St. John's Church, which sat by itself on top of Church Hill. Construction on the Capitol began in 1785 and a string of inns and taverns in the area followed soon after. The Court End area of Richmond, just north of Capitol Square, became home to many prominent Richmond residents. A wave of prosperity in the 1840s was the impetus for a rash of new construction, and because Court End was largely built out, Grace, Franklin, and the side streets of the Fifth and Main Downtown Historic District, offered ample room for new residential construction, becoming a fashionable area for the city's elite to reside. Franklin and Fifth streets, and to a lesser extent Grace Street, became one of the most fashionable residential areas in the city. Few public buildings except churches interrupted the residential character of the neighborhood until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The eighteenth century dwellings that stood in the neighborhood were all frame and unfortunately few visual records survive of these early dwellings. Two early frame houses that once stood in the neighborhood were the Barret-Brown House (1789-1878) at the southwest corner of Franklin and Fifth streets and the Anthony Singleton House (1788-1847) at the southwest corner of Main and Fifth streets.
The oldest surviving building in the district is the Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House at 2 North Fifth Street. The Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1808 for Michael Hancock and later sold to William Wirt, Attorney General for Virginia and later the United States. The house remained in the Caskie family from 1854 until the 1940s. The Federal period house is constructed of brick laid in a Flemish bond pattern with English bond below the water table. Three bays on either side of the entrance are formed into octagonal ended bays flanking a central two-story wooden loggia. The Adamesque loggia has elongated Tuscan and Doric orders on the first and second stories respectively. The octagonal rooms and neoclassical styling show the influence of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an English trained architect, is considered the founder of the profession in America. Latrobe practiced his trade in Virginia from 1796 to 1798 and had a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson while designing the United States Capitol. The Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House was once part of a series of twenty-five octagonal bay houses located in the City of Richmond, but today is the only survivor. One other house in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Point of Honor in Lynchburg, possesses this detail. Moldavia, built in 1800 by Molly and David Meade Randolph, stood diagonally across Main Street from the Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House until 1890 when it was demolished. The house, garden and eight outbuildings occupied nearly the entire block bounded by Main, Fifth, Cary and Sixth streets. The house was enlarged between 1804 and 1836 by its second owner, Joseph Gallego, to include an octagonal bay like the Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House, a two story portico overlooking the James River and a wing to the north with triple windows. The Gibbon House built in 1809 on the northeast corner of Main and Fifth streets was a precursor to the later Greek Revival style houses. It was a three-story, stuccoed brick house with a small entrance porch, a two-story portico on the rear and a shallow hip roof. The Gibbon House was demolished in 1902 and replaced with the Virginia Building.
The years 1819 to 1835 saw little construction in the City. The flush times of 1816 to 1818 witnessed a fever of real estate speculation, which would result in a nationwide depression in 1819. Richmond was not immune to its effects. The tax value of buildings was cut in half in 1819 and again in 1820, thus ruining the fortunes of many of the city's wealthiest citizens. The few houses constructed during this period had no remarkable characteristics and ornamentation was considered non-essential. One house built in the district during this period was the Rootes-Enders House, which stood at 6 North Fifth Street from 1824 to 1914. Photographs of the house depict a two-story, three-bay, center hall dwelling. The house was heavily altered in 1853 and Italianate decorative elements, including pedimented lintels, an arched portico, and a bracketed cornice, were applied. The Rootes-Enders House was demolished in 1914 to make way for the YWCA building.
The apex of residential development in the district occurred during the 1840s and 1850s. Two surviving houses from this period, the Scott-Clarke House and the Barret House were built on lots carved out of Moldavia's garden. James Scott, a successful tobacconist, built his home at 9 South Fifth Street in 1841. The Greek Revival style house was constructed of painted brick instead of the stucco finish that was common at the time. William Barret, also a prominent tobacco merchant, constructed his house on an adjacent lot in 1844. The Barret House is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Predating the Scott-Clarke and Barret houses, the Bransford House stood at 13 North Fifth Street from 1840 to 1954 when it was moved to 1005 East Clay Street. These Greek Revival style houses share many design elements, most notably the three-bay facades, central front porches with Doric columns, and monumental porticoes on the rear elevations. The Boyd and Fry houses were built on lots just north of the Bransford House in 1840. The Boyd House was three-stories in height with an offset entrance with a square portico. The Fry House resembled the more traditional center hall, two story Greek Revival style dwellings. The Fry House received a mansard roof and Queen Anne porch before being demolished in 1911 for the construction of the Professional Building. The Boyd House was demolished shortly thereafter for a parking lot. Two exceptional Greek Revival style mansions were constructed in the district in 1847 — the Strother-Gray and the Hobson-Nolting houses. The Strother-Gray House, 8 South Fifth Street, was a handsome two-story brick dwelling set on a raised foundation with a balustrade at the roofline. A single bay portico with Ionic columns punctuated the entrance to the four-bay wide dwelling. The Strother-Gray House was demolished in 1924. The Hobson-Nolting mansion occupied the quarter block on the southwest corner of Main and Fifth streets — the site of the 1788 Anthony Singleton House. The Hobson-Nolting House was three-bays wide and three stories in height set on a raised foundation. There were triple windows in each story with the third story windows being truncated. A Doric order portico announced the central entrance. Two-story Doric columns graced the rear portico, replacing the more popular piers seen in other dwellings of this period. In addition to his own home, John Hobson built several other dwellings in and around the historic district, notably three small houses on the southwest corner of Main and Fourth streets and two dwellings at 3 and 5 South Third Street. The Hobson-Nolting House was demolished in 1950 for the Equitable Life Insurance Building. Immediately south of the Hobson-Nolting mansion stood three small frame Greek Revival style dwellings that were demolished in the 1920s.
Two churches were constructed within the boundaries of the historic district in the 1840s. Second Baptist Church was completed in 1841 on the southwest corner of Main and Sixth streets. The Greek Revival style church was designed by the noted Philadelphia architect, Thomas U. Walter. Massive Doric columns supported a pediment with a plain frieze and unadorned tympanum. The Classical building was surmounted by a steeple, which blew down in 1896. The building was demolished in 1906. The only surviving church in the district is Second Presbyterian, designed in the Gothic style by renowned New York architect and author, Minard Lafever. This building represents Lafever's only building in Virginia. Completed in 1848, the mediaeval inspired church was a radical departure for a city obsessed with Classical models. A pinnacled tower dominates the symmetrical facade. Second Presbyterian Church is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After the Civil War, residential development continued to push west.
While the Civil War and the April fire of 1865 destroyed the core of Richmond's commercial and industrial districts, the residential areas remained largely untouched. Because the industries upon which Richmond had laid its foundation were still viable, the city's merchants were able to quickly attract capital for redevelopment. Richmond's economy remained strong and its population doubled between 1890 and 1920. At the turn of the century most of the gracious homes in the district still stood. The advent of streetcars as well as other transportation improvements made the new suburbs very popular among the city's middle class. The reduction in the number of household servants and smaller family sizes made many of the large homes in the district impractical. Some were converted into boarding houses, private clubs, and offices but the majority were eventually demolished and replaced with commercial buildings. The 1895 Sanborn map shows that the neighborhood's residential character was still largely intact. Except, Moldavia is noticeable absent and the area to the southeast -- half way between Main and Cary streets and Fifth and Sixth streets had been given over to industry. Valentine's Meat Juice Company had erected a factory on the southeast corner of Cary and Sixth streets in 1872 and the Allen and Ginter Branch of the American Tobacco Company had built a vast complex of buildings on the remaining three corners of the intersection that extended south to Canal Street and east to Seventh Street. The Y.M.C.A. building was built on the northwest corner of Main and Sixth streets in 1885. The Philadelphia firm of Cope & Stewardson designed the Romanesque Revival style building. The eclectic building had a rusticated stone base with large arched openings, polychrome bands and a five-story tower on the corner with a soaring conical roof. The building displays the influences of Stewardson's mentor, Frank Furness. Furness's buildings were often dramatically over-scaled and boldly articulated with a variety of sculptural forms and materials. The Y.M.C.A. stood at this location until 1913 when it was demolished to make way for the Atlantic Life Insurance Company Building. A small row of four shops had also been constructed on the north side of Main Street in the middle of the 500-block.
The Italianate style was used to construct most new buildings during the era of Reconstruction, although it is hard to recognize in some cases due to the penchant for decoration and innovation that many architects of the time displayed. Cast-iron was also used extensively for both decorative elements and as facing for wood and brick buildings. It was mistakenly believed to impart fireproof qualities to the areas of the buildings that it covered. The style of commercial architecture that became popular during this period was centered around the two-dimensional arrangement of elements on a facade. Because of the proximity of neighboring structures and narrow lots, the sides and rear of buildings were often given an entirely different treatment from the facade. As the Italianate style matured and Victorian sensibilities dominated architectural trends, the use of existing buildings as templates for new construction fell out of favor. The style that was born out of this evolution was the Italian Renaissance that is observable in a majority of the buildings in the Fifth and Main Street Downtown Historic District. "Victorian architects were all agreed that the copying of older styles was undesirable; they might provide motifs or themes which may be used, but such elements should be transformed or improved. Emphasis was placed on originality and variety."
The row, 501-519 East Main Street, constructed as a group in 1903, is representative of the early two-story Italianate commercial buildings erected in the district. The original facade of the shop at 519 East Main has been covered with a moderne treatment giving it an entirely different appearance from the surrounding buildings. Modifications to the other buildings have given each a unique appearance today but all were originally constructed with cast iron storefronts with recessed entrances. A cornice that separates the first and second stories remains intact on some of the buildings. The buildings originally housed a variety of merchants, including tailors, a furniture repair shop and other specialty retail shops. Second Presbyterian Church expanded its facilities in 1902 with the construction of the building at 512 East Main Street. The building originally functioned as office and education space that shared a rear property line with the sanctuary. The building has a unique architectural character and draws from a variety of early-twentieth century revival styles. The rusticated stone base, decorative gothic-influenced brickwork above the first floor windows and the Palladian window on the upper story join to create a building that has a distinctive identity in the district yet meshes with the architectural character of its neighbors. By 1905, the Gibbon House had been replaced by the Virginia Building and a row of shops and flats (501-519 East Main Street) and four dwellings (1-7 South Fifth Street) occupied the former site of Moldavia. The Virginia Building at 1 North Fifth Street was built in 1905 as the Richmond headquarters of the Virginia State Insurance Company and was the first building in the district to exceed three stories in height. The building was divided into two parts with flats occupying all of the northern half of the building and floors 3 to 5 on the south side, reflecting the rapidly changing residential patterns of the area. Designed by the Richmond firm of Noland and Baskervill, it is a fine example of early-twentieth century commercial classicism with its rusticated base, curved corner, columned entrances and ornate cornice and balustrade. The Virginia Building is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As commercial development stretched westward, the 400 block of East Main Street was developed. The four originally identical buildings at 412-418 East Main Street were constructed in 1910. The brick buildings have undergone modifications to the facades that had wooden storefronts with recessed entrances. The upper floors retain their original appearance with a three-part central window. Designed by the Richmond architectural firm of Carneal and Johnson, this series of buildings is representative of the simplified classical style of the other newly constructed buildings in the district. Also designed by Carneal and Johnson, the 10-story Classical Revival office building at 530 E. Main Street was constructed in 1913 for the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and later occupied by the Atlantic Life Insurance Company and the Eskimo Pie Company. Typical of early skyscrapers, the Eskimo Pie Building has a classical base with monumental columns announcing the entrances on Main and Sixth streets; the middle five stories are relatively plain and the upper most floors are highly ornamented with multi-colored terra cotta decorations. Like many downtown buildings a projecting cornice has been removed.
Commercial development on the side streets of the district followed this initial wave of construction along Franklin and Main streets. The YWCA Building at 6 North Fifth Street replaced the Rootes-Ender House that was built on the same spot in 1824. The Ionic portico and five bay arrangement of the facade, along with decorative medallions ties it to the earlier residential architecture. The flat roof and masonry quoins, along with the cornice with modillion blocks place it within the newly emerging twentieth-century Revival styles. The Richmond firm of Noland and Baskervill designed the four-story Renaissance-style building. The YWCA Building is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. North Fourth Street gave way to commercial development soon after, with the Classical Revival Massad Building constructed in 1914 and the Massad House built in 1921 as the Washington Apartments. The Massad House is constructed in the Tudor Revival style, but the verticality and abstractness of its facade links it to the Art Deco movement. The one-story Commercial-style building to the south was constructed in 1921. The two Greek Revival style houses at 12-14 North Fourth Street were left standing, but were significantly altered from their original appearance and were eventually demolished in the late-twentieth century, removing the last traces of the residential history of this block.
The Professional Building at 501 East Franklin, an 8-story Chicago style office building constructed in 1916, was the first commercial structure built on East Franklin Street. It replaced the Fry and Boyd Houses, both built in 1840 at the apex of the district's popularity as a residential neighborhood. Other commercially oriented construction followed later, including 421 East Franklin Street, constructed in 1927. The building was originally built in the Art Deco style but was completely refaced in 1972, giving it its current Renaissance Revival appearance. The transformation of the 500 block of East Franklin Street continued in 1927 with the demolition of the remaining residential buildings and the construction of 507 East Franklin Street. This building is a two-story Commercial style office building with some Classical Revival decorative elements. The first story facade has been modernized but the original masonry enframement remains. The three-story yellow brick building at 519 East Franklin Street was constructed in 1949 and served as a garage.
The Colonial Revival building at 2 South Fifth Street was built in 1936 and is similar to those on the 500 block of East Main Street. The adjacent building at 6 South Fifth Street was also constructed in 1936. It has Colonial Revival elements but is one story and is unique in architectural style in the district. The nine-over-nine windows with louvered shutters and fish scale-pattern slate roof set it apart from the other commercial structures in the district. A projecting bay was added in the 1970s. The newest additions to the district are two modern parking garages, built in 1986 and 1987.
The district reflects the area's evolution from an upper class residential neighborhood to a thriving commercial district in the early-twentieth century. With the exception of the Scott-Clarke and Barret houses on South Fifth Street and the Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House and Second Presbyterian Church on North Fifth Street, the mid-nineteenth century residential character of this area has disappeared. The district possesses a high level of integrity and has withstood the pressures to demolish buildings for parking lots and new construction, which has been the fate of several surrounding blocks. The Fifth and Main Downtown Historic District is one of the few portions of Richmond's central business district that is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Fifth and Main Downtown Historic District is significant as a collection of early twentieth century retail buildings that were built in a nineteenth century residential neighborhood, remnants of which are also significant. The buildings represent over one hundred years of continuous development and a variety of nineteenth and twentieth-century architectural styles, which give the district a quality, found in few other areas of the City of Richmond. The buildings represent a collective body of work by some of the leading mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth century architects in the United States and Richmond. The district reflects the economic development of the city and serves as a visual record of the evolution of architectural styles from residential in the nineteenth century to commercially architecture in the first part of the twentieth century. Not only did the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries see the academic revivals of many architectural styles, including Gothic, Tudor, Georgian, Spanish Colonial, and Italian Renaissance, the era also saw the introduction of new styles that were less based on the past, like the Chicago School, Art Deco and Moderne.
When Richmond was incorporated as a town in 1742, it had a population of 250 and covered approximately two-tenths of a mile from 17th to 25th Streets and from the James River to Broad Street. Retail and commercial development was concentrated in Shockoe Valley on the west and residences sprang up on Church Hill and Main Street to the east. Between 1790 and 1819, Richmond grew from a town to a city. It was the seat of the legislature and related courts of law. Long a center of trade Richmond was becoming a manufacturing center with mills for the processing of wheat, corn, cotton and tobacco. The city was also a major producer of coaches, soap and candles. Spurred by expanding industry and trade, the first banks were founded in Richmond during this period thus making Richmond a financial center as well. By 1817, the city's population had swelled to 14,328 inhabitants. Court End, the area north of Broad Street between 9th and 13th Streets, was the new, desirable residential area and in response retail and commercial development began to appear along Broad Street. As Court End became built up in the 1830s and 1840s, dwellings for some of Richmond's most prominent citizens were built along Grace, Franklin and South Fifth Streets.
The district became a popular residential area beginning in the 1840s. Homes for many of the city's leaders in business and government were constructed mainly in Greek Revival and Classical Revival styles on spacious lots. Among the prominent residents of the area was William Wirt, who resided in the Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House that still stands at 2 North Fifth Street. James Scott and William Barret, both successful tobacco merchants, built homes in 1841 on adjacent lots carved out of the side yards of the former Moldavia, built in 1800 by David Meade Randolph and later associated with Edgar Allen Poe. The area was entirely residential until the turn of the century with the exception of two churches. Second Baptist Church was built in 1841 at the corner of 6th and Main Streets. Thomas U. Walter, the prominent New York architect, designed the Greek Revival style building. The church was demolished in 1906. Second Presbyterian Church, on North Fifth Street, is the only surviving church. This building was the first Gothic Revival church to be constructed in Richmond and marked a departure from the widely used Greek Revival style previously favored. The church is architect, Minard Lafever's only Virginia Building.
On the eve of the Civil War, Richmond had a population of 37,910 and had "become the third most affluent city in the nation, with a per capita wealth of $1,593.42. Ninety-one manufacturing establishments (52 of which were tobacco plants) employed more than 11,000 workers. Tobacco, flour, and iron were indeed the capital industries." On 3 April 1865 retreating Confederate troops set fire to the munitions depots; the fire spread and engulfed the area from Main Street to the River and from 8th to 18th Streets. Even though the evacuation fire destroyed much of Richmond's business and manufacturing district the industries that had attributed to the city's prosperity in the proceeding years were still viable and attracted capital investments. Recovery was phoenix-like. As the Dispatch reported in its issue of 9 December 1865, Virginia's capital displayed "an instance of enterprise almost miraculous...Richmond has sprung up to a new life, and renewed her energies with all the vigor of youth." Richmond then would enter upon a vast economic expansion reasserting itself as the premiere city of the South.
The turning of the twentieth century brought with it changes that would forever alter downtown Richmond, especially Grace and Franklin streets. Richmond exemplified the new south with its diverse economic base and rapidly expanding population. In 1890, the city had a population of 81,388, which more than doubled to 171,667 by 1920. The Richmond Traction Company, later known as the Virginia Passenger and Power Company, was organized in 1895 and operated electric streetcars on Broad Street from Chimborazo Hill to Reservoir Park. By 1928, just less than 86 miles of streetcar tracks were completed. The expansion of the city's trolley system brought with it the development of the suburbs. Monument Avenue was laid out in 1890, as were Ginter Park, Barton Heights and Bon Air. The suburbs offered relief from the congestion of the urban areas. "Unlike the rigid town house, which was restrained by the straitjacket of small city lots, the suburban house could be free and informal, with sun porches and verandas opening into gardens on all sides." Windsor Farms was laid out in the 1920s. Improvements in transportation and suburban growth ended Grace and Franklin Streets' era of residential prominence. Changes in family structure and reduced use of household servants made the large homes of the area somewhat impractical and expensive to maintain. Many of the large houses were converted to private clubs and schools and were later demolished to make way for new retail and commercial development. Economically the city thrived during the first decades of the twentieth century and with this prosperity came disposable income and a need for places to spend it. As was typical in many cities during this era fashionable department stores grew in popularity, as did small specialty shops. With dwindling downtown residential growth, Franklin, Main and Cary streets were ripe for redevelopment as a commercial/retail center.
Beginning early in the twentieth century the district began to make way for business with the demolition of many residential properties. The most notable loss was the demolition of Moldavia in 1890. By 1924, dwellings in the 00 block of North Fourth Street, the 400 block of Main Street, the Gibbon, Rootes-Enders and Fry houses and Second Baptist church had been replaced by shops and apartments. The first commercial buildings in the area were the row of shops and flats constructed in the 1890s at 506-512 East Main Street. Another similar group of buildings was built across Main Street in 1903 on the former site of Moldavia, which was demolished in 1890. The tenants in the buildings included a number of tailors, specialty merchants, antiques dealers, a furniture repair shop and medical offices, reflecting the fondness for department stores and specialty retailers at the time. Office buildings were also constructed in the area as well as multi-story buildings housing flats and apartments. Many of the smaller commercial buildings had apartments on the upper stories, reflecting the changing residential patterns of the neighborhood. The majority of buildings constructed in the district adhered to the revival styles that were popular at the time. Classical and Colonial Revival are present throughout the district, but the majority of new construction was Italian Renaissance. Italianate design was widely used to rebuild the commercial areas of Richmond destroyed during the Civil War. The Italian Renaissance style is related to this movement, but instead of copying the design of existing buildings, certain elements are borrowed to create an original design.
The commercial character of the Fifth and Main Historic District has remained. The gracious homes that once served as anchors of the residential community have been well preserved. The Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House has been meticulously maintained and remains an outstanding example of Federal architecture. The Scott-Clarke and Barret Houses have also been well maintained. These three buildings are currently used as offices. The Second Presbyterian Church has an active congregation and the church building is in excellent condition. The building at 512 East Main Street, originally built to accommodate administrative functions for the Second Presbyterian Church, now houses an independent congregation known as the Apostolic Church. The YWCA building has continued its original function and still houses educational programs. The majority of buildings in the district currently house small local retailers and offices. The storefronts of many of the buildings have been altered to suit the changing needs of the business owners and to accommodate functions different from those originally intended. The large office buildings in the district house a variety of businesses today.
While the district is still a viable commercial area, a portion of it is threatened with demolition for a large-scale mixed use development. A high-rise building has been proposed for the south side of the 500 and 600 blocks of East Main Street. The project, named Centennial Towers, would include first floor retail space, offices, hotel rooms and 150-200 condo units. The developer has purchased a number of properties on the 500 block of East Main Street and plans to begin construction in 2007. The Scott-Clarke and Barret Houses would be directly affected due to the proximity and scale of the planned development.
The district as it stands today reflects the diverse past of the area. The buildings are a visual reflection of the area's transformation from an upper middle class neighborhood with stylish residences to a thriving commercial area in the twentieth century. The economic fortunes as well as the evolution of architectural styles can be clearly read across the facades of the district's buildings.
Richmond long held a view of itself as a cosmopolitan city -- one of the premiere cities of the South. A direct product of this view was a strong inclination for hiring architects from New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington. While this pattern became particularly evident in the twentieth century it was also true in the early nineteenth century. In fact the earliest surviving building in the district, the Hancock-Wirt-Caskie House built in 1808, was directly influenced by the work of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) was born in Yorkshire England and received his training in architecture and engineering in England and Germany. He came to the United States in 1796 and divided his practice between London and Richmond until 1799 when he relocated to Philadelphia. The majority of his buildings are in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington where he designed the south wing of the United States Capitol and began a life long relationship with Thomas Jefferson.
One of his (Latrobe's) earliest Richmond projects was the Harvie-Gamble House, the house in which Elizabeth Gamble, the second wife of William Wirt, was raised. For the first owners, the Harvies, Latrobe attempted to create the latest and best in cosmopolitan neoclassical design. Latrobe took a nascent tradition of bow windows in Richmond and took the English idea of a projecting central bow on the garden side and maximized it to take advantage of the striking views of the James. Latrobe expanded the motif of the single bow into a double bow with his design for Clifton, built 1808-9 in Richmond. Latrobe considered the design a critique of his Harvie-Gamble house, and utilized a pair of projecting bows (which he had earlier employed in his Virginia State Penitentiary, Richmond, 1797-1806) to capture commanding views of the city and the James. One innovation at Clifton was to bear architectural fruit in Richmond was the development of the twin bows framing a porch.
The Hancock-Wirt-Caskie house was once part of a series of twenty-five other bowed houses in Richmond, and is the only one that remains. These Federal-era bowed houses became popular in Richmond for reasons of both fashion and function -- the bows allowed multiple windows to capture light and views of gardens, streets, and in some cases, the James River. Other similar dwellings in Richmond include the Wickham-Valentine House (NHL), designed in 1811-13 by Alexander Parris, Latrobe's informal apprentice. Other examples that have been demolished include Moldavia, the childhood home of Edgar Allen Poe, located diagonally across the intersection from the Wirt House, and the Alexander McRae House, which featured the same twin bows framing a porch as Clifton.
The next architecturally designed building in the district, Second Baptist Church, was demolished in 1906. Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887) was a native of Philadelphia, trained in the offices of William Strickland and John Haviland, and perhaps best known for his design of the wings and dome of the United States Capitol, which were begun in 1851. Walter was also instrumental in the founding of the American Institute of Architects. For most of his career, Walter's office was in Philadelphia but he designed a number of buildings in Richmond and other Virginia cities. His Richmond buildings included First and Second Baptist churches, Odd Fellows Hall, and the John Freeman Building.
Minard Lafever (1798-1854) is perhaps best known for his five builders' guides that spread the Greek Revival style nationwide. However, many of his New York churches popularized the Gothic and other revival styles. The Rev. Moses Drury Hoge, the first pastor of Second Presbyterian Church was determined to build the first Gothic church in Richmond, as he had grown tired of Grecian temples with spires on them. The building committee persuaded Minard Lafever to design the building. Second Presbyterian Church is the only Lafever commission to be built in the South.
The trend to hire noted architects from major cities continued into the twentieth century. Cope & Stewardson, the architects for the Y.M.C.A. which was built in 1885 and demolished in 1913, were from Philadelphia. The partners Walter Cope (1860-1902) and John Stewardson (1858-1896) "had a versatile practice encompassing collegiate, medical, and residential projects." Much of their work was in the Collegiate Gothic style, which was extremely popular for academic and religious buildings in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The Y.M.C.A. building however is more reflective of the Romanesque Revival style, which Stewardson likely learned while employed in the office of Frank Furness. Starrett & Van Vleck, the architects for the Richmond Trust Company Building (1922) "were noted as the designers of stylish department store buildings in New York." They were first brought to Richmond in 1915 "to bring New York chic to the design of the stylish Mosby Store at the corner of Jefferson and Broad streets. Five years later they were to design Miller & Rhoads' Grace Street frontage." The simplified classical and Renaissance elements they combined to create the dignified appearance desired by the major stores at this time are reflected in the design of the Richmond Trust Company Building at 627 East Main Street.
By the early twentieth century Richmond had also begun to produce a group of local architects who contributed many noteworthy buildings to the district. The firm of Carneal & Johnston contributed the Richmond Chamber of Commerce Building (Eskimo Pie), and the storefronts at 412-418 East Main Street and 507 East Franklin Street. The storefronts reflect the firm's typical approach to small commercial buildings -- simplified classical ornament and large window areas. The Chamber of Commerce Building is a well-composed example of a Renaissance Revival skyscraper. William Carneal (1881-1958), a native Richmonder, was educated at the Virginia Military Institute and began his architectural practice in 1906 in the office of Claude K. Howell. In 1908, Carneal formed a partnership with James Johnston (1885-1955) that lasted for the rest of their lives. Johnston was born in Rockbridge County and received engineering degrees from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Cornell. He arrived in Richmond in 1906. "A 1957 newspaper article estimated that Carneal & Johnston had designed 1,334 commercial and public structures." The firm remained active in the city under the name Carneal & Johnston until the 1990s.
The firm of Noland & Baskervill was responsible for the design of the YWCA and the Virginia Building. Henry Eugene Baskervill (1867-1949), a native of Richmond, studied engineering at Cornell University and was for a brief period engineer for the City of Richmond. In 1897, he formed a partnership with William C. Noland. William Churchill Noland (1865-1951) was a native of Hanover County and after studying abroad he worked in the Philadelphia office of Cope & Stewardson. Noland practiced for a short time in Roanoke and came to Richmond in 1893. He was a partner in Noland & Baskervill until 1917 and practiced independently until 1940. "William Noland was regarded as an architect of great talent and played a major design role in the Baskervill firm while he was a partner. His style was sophisticated and literate; his buildings were both well designed and detailed." This sophistication of detail is evident in both buildings in the district attributed to the firm.
Charles M. Robinson (1867-1932) was a prolific architect, perhaps best known for his designs for schools statewide between 1910 and 1929. Robinson, the son of an architect, was a native of Loudon County and received his training in the office of D. S. Hopkins and John K. Peebles. He practiced for a short time in Pennsylvania and relocated to Richmond in 1906. Robinson designed the Professional Building at 501 East Franklin Street in 1916, which has been considered by some to be "a bland, uninteresting work by a Richmond architect who usually showed much more imagination and flair."
1895, 1905, 1924 Sanborn Map
Green, Bryan Clark, William Wirt House National Historic Landmark Nomination (127-0042), (Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 18 September 2002)
Loth, Calder, ed. The Virginia Landmarks Register (Fourth Edition), (Charlottesville and London: the University Press of Virginia, 1999)
Morrison, Andrew, ed., The City on the James: Richmond, Virginia, (Richmond: George W. Englehardt, 1893)
Scott, Mary Wingfield, Houses of Old Richmond, (New York: Bonanza Books, 1941)
Scott, Mary Wingfield Old Richmond Neighborhoods, (Richmond: William Byrd Press, Inc., 1984)
Ward, Harry M. Richmond: An Illustrated History, (Northridge: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1985)
Wells, John E. and Robert E. Dalton, The Virginia Architects 1835-1955, (Richmond: New South Architectural Press, 1997)
Winthrop, Robert P., Architecture in Downtown Richmond, (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson Printers, 1982)
Winthrop, Robert P., Richmond's Architecture, (Reprinted from The Richmond Times-Dispatch Sunday Real Estate Section, August 9 through October 11, 1981)
[‡] Chen, Kimberly, Johannes Design Group, Fifth and Main Downtown Historic District, nomination document, 2006, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
4th Street North • 5th Street North • 5th Street South • 6th Street North • Cary Street East • Franklin Street East • Main Street East