Richmond’s No. 1 Fan: A Brief History of the Fan District

Hello dear reader,

Today I write to you, not from the City of Richmond, but from the equally urban City of Detroit. Well…more specifically, the suburban-ish outskirts of Detroit, fondly referred to as Redford Township. My apologies for not updating you sooner, but the last few days left little opportunity for blogging. The last two days were spent on the road, as we quite literally went over the hill and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Before we left, however, I managed to collect several great resources on the history of both the Fan and architecture, successfully acquire a library card, and learn from experience that 10 books is too many to fit in a bike basket – especially when biking against traffic on a one way street.

So I will research remotely for the next week. I have more than enough books to tide me over, and there is always the omniscient internet to fall back on if I run out. Today, however, I thought it might be good to introduce you all formally to Richmond’s Fan District.

So strap in, ’cause here we go.

The Fan is, simply put, a neighborhood. Having been around, growing and changing, for nearly two centuries, however, it has accumulated quite a bit of history. Which is not surprising, given it resides in one of the most historical cities in America.

Geographically it lies on the western side of the city, bordered by Broad St. to the North, Main St. to the south, Monroe Park in the east, and the Boulevard in the west.

The boundaries of the Fan District.

The boundaries of the Fan District. Click to enlarge.

The District acquired its name from the way the streets diverge, fanning out from one another. This name was not coined, however, until 1958, when real estate listings began to refer to the area as “The Fan” in local newspapers. But the roots of the Fan extend much further back than the 1950’s. It began as Scuffle Towne. Legend has it that there was a short conflict – a scuffle if you will – between the British and Americans during colonial times, thus granting the area its name. Other sources report that it was so named after the local tavern.

The area grew over the years, connected to the city at large by Scuffle Towne road (presently, Park Ave). When Monument Avenue was built after the Civil War, population in the area spiked. Much of the District’s development occurred around the turn of the century, leading up to the depression.

The first emergence of a real community feeling came in 1941 with neighborhood improvement groups the West Avenue Association, which remains dedicated to the three block street, even electing their own mayor. The slow but sure revitalization of the area post-war, coupled with their new identity as “The Fan,” lead to in creased interest in a group to represent the residents of the area.The Fan District Association was created in 1961 and it continues to “preserve and enhance the character of the neighborhood.” The Fan has maintained this community feeling to this day and cookouts and block parties in the alleyways abound.

Yet this community feeling does not mean that the residents cannot act as individuals. In fact, individuality is highly prized in the Fan, the proof of which is evident in the architecture. Far removed form the soul-absorbing, cookie-cutter, sameness of my old suburban residence, houses in the Fan differ vastly in style. One glance down any street can reveal Victorian, colonial revival, Italianate and Edwardian style houses nestled together on the same block. These anachronistic neighbors visually compliment each other. The differences are what make it interesting. They give the streets their personality.

And one can hope that perhaps that personality has rubbed off on the residents.

Until next time,

Sarah

Comments

  1. jgdownie says:

    Hi, Sarah. I enjoyed reading your post, and I was intrigued and entertained by the descriptions of your research into the history of Richmond’s Fan District. I found it interesting how the neighborhood developed such a strong sense of community in the 1940s and 1950s, as you described. I think it would be fascinating to study the underlying causes of the growth of such a feeling of group solidarity. Do you think that some of the root causes are the Fan District’s long history and its idiosyncratic, highly diverse architecture? What are your thoughts on the development of the Fan’s sense of community? You mentioned that its original name, Scuffle Towne, might have stemmed from a legendary colonial skirmish between the British and Americans. What other legends or stories underlie the Fan District’s history and contribute to its reputation and its sense of historical importance?
    I also wonder whether the Fan District is unique in its close-knit sense of community among other neighborhoods in Richmond. Do other districts in the city also maintain feelings of closeness and solidarity, and does each have its own neighborhood association and set of traditions? If not, why is the Fan District so different and special—what in its history led it to cultivate such a unique character? You probably don’t have the answers to all of these questions at this point in your research. I just thought I would share these open questions, which were thoughts that came to my mind as I was reading your post; perhaps they are questions that could lead to further inquiry and research.
    I would be interested to see some examples of the diverse architecture of the homes in the Fan District, and to learn more about the homes’ histories. This leads me to another question regarding the origins and reasons behind the vastly varying architectural styles. Are the homes built in widely diverse architectural styles because they were built at different times, across centuries? This would seem to make some sense; I could imagine that a home build in the 1890s might be built in the style that was currently in vogue, and a home built in the mid-twentieth century might be built in a completely different style. But on the other hand, I know that many neighborhoods in cities contain homes that were all built around the same time, and thus have similar architectural styles. The Fan District is a historic neighborhood, but were its homes built across centuries, each reflecting an architectural style popular at the time of its construction? Or did the neighborhood emerge in a relatively short time span with homes built around the same time, whose different styles simply reflect their owners’ or builders’ individual preferences and tastes?
    I hope that the books you managed to lug back from the library prove to be valuable sources of information about the district’s history. Please keep us informed—I will be interested to learn more about your discoveries about this historic neighborhood in the weeks to come!

  2. Thanks for responding Juliet,
    You raised some interesting questions that I definitely want to explore as I get further into my research. I had planned to investigate when and why certain architecture appears in the fan and construct a sort of visual timeline of the Fan’s growth. I’ll definitely be providing more examples of the architecture as I go along, especially when I begin my studies and sketches of specific houses.
    Don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted.