Bear with me, cause this post is gonna be a long one.
As the summer has come to a close, I must present you with the fullness of my research. I have constructed a timeline of the events surrounding the architecture of the Fan, and hopefully shed some light on the reasons for such architectural evolution as was present during the Fan District’s construction.
My goal was to represent this evolution visually, through sketches and paintings of the city. During my investigations I came across a group called the Urban Sketchers. A loose collective of artists, the Urban Sketchers’ goal is to represent a location as truthfully as possible. Unhindered by specific media or styles, their focus is on telling the story of their surroundings, of the places they have visited and the places they live. In their own words “we show the world. One drawing at a time.” I adopted this goal for my own research and I hope that these drawings, along with this history can tell the story of my own little corner of the world.
All of the images you will see below are original paintings done in watercolor and pen and I have attempted to stay as true as possible to the architecture of the house.
The Fan District’s history begins with a lottery. In the 18th century, much of the land that is now the Fan belonged to a trader named William Byrd I who fast became very wealthy. Unfortunately for his estate, however, William Byrd III did not have his grandfather’s skills with land ownership and maintenance, managing finances or even keeping a wife who, it was said, died under mysterious circumstances. In 1768, to solve his declining financial situation, Byrd III decided to divide up his land and sell tickets to a lottery. There were to be 839 so-called “fortunate adventures” who would receive parcels of the land. Most of the prizes were never claimed and Byrd III only made it to New Year’s Day, 1777 before committing suicide. The Lottery didn’t change much of Richmond in the years immediately following, but the divided land had laid a rough outline of the development that was to come in the next two centuries.
As the 18th century trudged on, bringing with it a revolution, there was some settlement in the land to the west of Richmond. Called Scuffletown, reputedly because of a skirmish between the Virginia Militia and the redcoats, this settlement consisted of a tavern and some dwellings connected to the rest of the city by Scuffletown Road (now Park Ave). In the late 1700s, prominent Richmonder John Mayo began using this Scuffletown Road as a commute from his place of business to his country home. As Richmond grew, it attracted educated bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers. This wealthy middle class was not content to live in the questionable conditions of an 18th century city and so the idea of commuting from the “suburbs” became more popular. As the residential hub of the city moved west, the Byrd Lottery land became more interesting to capitalists looking for profits and even a suburban home for themselves.
And so the real story starts with the first house to lay its bricks down on Fan District soil. “Columbia,” the residence of Petersburg merchant Phillip Haxall, was constructed in 1817. The original estate was 15 acres and, though the building has been altered a bit in 198 years, it still stands at 1142 W. Grace Street. “Columbia” Was built in the Federal style. This style of Architecture was popular in America from the 1780s to the 1840s and is characterized by such traits as a flat solid façade with rectangular panels recessed between the first and second floor windows, an elliptical fanlight over the door, and a low, hipped roof with a balustrade. Federal houses also typically had dentil moldings in the cornice, Palladian windows and a decorative roof over the front door. As America began to grow its own identity after the revolution, its architecture began to evolve. During the colonial days, American Architecture closely followed English architecture as there were no trained architects in the colonies save those who traveled over form England. Much of the Architecture before the 1800’s was Georgian Colonial style. The new nation adapted this old style by adding more decorative touches and curved lines to the façade. The Federal style was fast becoming the architecture of a new nation and “Columbia” was representative of the evolving Architectural tastes of an area.
Unfortunately the year 1819 brought with it a serious economic downturn and interest in building, especially on the outskirts of the city, took a dive. Home construction dropped to practically nothing between 1819 and 1830. The Town of Sydney, a development planned for the Byrd Lottery land before the depression, fell through and very little was thought of the future Fan District for some time.
In the 1830’s however, things began to slowly turn around for Richmonders. A major factor in reviving the city was the transportation boom caused by the construction of railways and canals that would connect the city to major markets across the country. The first railroad in Richmond left the station in 1836. The railroads brought with them the Tredegar Iron Works and other industries that settled in along the James River. Workers in these industries were beginning to settle where the work was, and the neighborhood began expanding west, following present day Main and Cary streets. Construction began again.
Which brings us to the next house of import, “Talavera.” A man named Thomas Talley had collected 25 acres of John Mayo’s old land and built “Talavera” in 1838. The house now sits at 2300 W. Grace Street and is somewhat of an architectural anomaly for the time period. When it was built, Federal architecture had been popular for some time and Greek Revival Architecture was becoming fashionable. “Talavera,” however, displays many of the characteristics of the Georgian Colonial style frame cottages that were being built in the late 1700s. This style of architecture is typified by a square, symmetrical shape, five windows across the front, paired chimneys, a decorative crown over the front door, and dentil molding along the eves. These homes were meant to imitate the larger and more ornate homes being built in England. The style’s popularity had pretty much died down around 1830, which makes “Talavera” somewhat out of place. Its anachronism suggests that homes on the western edge of the city proper lagged some years behind the fashionable architectural trends. The estate itself was used as a sort of market garden where Talley could grow fruits and vegetables and then sell them at his store downtown. It is also holds historical significance as it is the last standing house where Edgar Allen Poe was known to have visited. In fact, Poe spent his last visit to Richmond before his death reading to and spending time with Mr. Talley’s daughter Susan. The two were close friends and he even discussed the composition of The Raven with her.
As the century wore on, building picked up in the Town of Sydney and Richmond at large. Parks were laid out in anticipation of new development. Most of the new tenants were middle class merchants. While the rest of the city was concerned with the Greek Revival style. Houses being built in the West End seemed to have missed the memo. The Italianate Villa style of architecture won out and is evidenced in several houses around the Fan today. The Italianate style was popularized by a landscape gardener named Andrew J. Downing in his book entitled The Architecture of Country Homes. Houses typically feature low-pitched roofs, wide overhanging eves, bracketed cornices, a porch topped with balustraded balconies, and narrow windows with hood moldings. Italianate architecture was considered particularly suitable for construction out in the suburbs of Richmond. For one thing, the clientele was primarily middle class. This middle class was more prone to experimenting with style, whereas the more elite social circles were perhaps adhered to the fashionable Greek Revival style. Italianate designs could also be adapted to various materials to suit various budgets, which was important for a middle class neighborhood. New manufacturing techniques also contributed to increasing Italianate popularity in the 1840s and 50s as ornamentation could be produced more affordably. The development of cast iron created an easy and cheap way to ornament facades, and Richmond’s many Iron foundries facilitated this even further. Cast iron details can be seen decorating many Italianate houses in the Fan, most notably the Robinson House at 200 N. Boulevard. The Robinson House was constructed sometime in the early 1850’s and now stands on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Another popular style that surfaced around this time was the “Farm Cottage” style. Also popularized by A. J. Downing, farm cottages were usually frame houses. This type of construction was an inexpensive option for middle class Richmonders and, since the area was still considered part of the country, the “Farm Cottage” was particularly appropriate. The most well-known of these cottages is “Fox Farm.” It was constructed by John Whitworth in 1858 then sold to John F. Fox who rain a dairy operation there. The Cottage style did mix a bit with Italianate and the result can be seen in the Morien Cottage at 2226 W. Main Street. The residence successfully combines Italianate characteristics with the shape of a cottage.
In the spring of 1861 Virginia seceded from the Union and entered into the Civil War. Once again, building came to a halt as few citizens of the new Capitol of the Confederacy had the means or resources to build new homes. The neighborhood suffered damages and, although it was spared destruction by the Union army, many structures were pulled down to fuel the campfires of Confederate troops. After the war the city was desperate to generate tax revenue and recoup its losses. Its citizens, however, could barely afford the current real-estate taxes. The only available option was annexation of the settled lands surrounding the city limits and, in 1867 the West End suburbs officially became a part of the city.
The early 1870s, though not really economically productive, were a watershed period for the future of the Fan District. The West End was looking less and less like the country to affluent Richmonders who began to build urban housed west of Belvidere Street for the first time. By the late 1870s Richmond’s economy was pretty much revived. People were drawn to Richmond’s new employment opportunities and many of the newcomers were seeking middle class positions in management, sales and service. The next generation of families began looking for neighborhoods a little farther removed from the commotion of rapid industrial growth. Land values in the West End grew higher, and those who had invested in the land of Sydney were starting to realize the good fortune of their purchases.
The construction of the Lee Monument was announced in 1887. The statue was to be built on a circular plot of land at the convergence of two grand avenues in the West End. The land was donated from the estate of William Allen who held much of the land from the Sydney venture. The monument was built and Monument and Allen Avenues were cut through in 1890. Monument Avenue provided an artery from the heart of downtown to the West End which was quickly losing its suburban status. Two years later another annexation was made, extending the city’s reach even further.
By the mid-1890s new architectural features had begun to appear among the houses being built in the Fan Area. While charming, the old Greek Revival and Italianate styles were becoming monotonous. Queen Anne style rose to prominence as the chosen architecture of the middle class. With the West End becoming more and more urban, the style had to be able to fit neatly into a narrow city lot. The style was also a good choice for speculative builders who could develop whole blocks at a time, slightly altering surface features like shape and placement of the tower or roof turret to avoid monotony. This mass production method brought the houses into the price range of even more middle class families, encouraging their migration to the area. Queen Anne town houses were characterized by a steep roof, asymmetrical shape, bay windows, and round or square towers. The style had a short lived, but fruitful, popularity from 1880 to 1910, and houses such as the one at 1300 Floyd Avenue can be seen all over the Fan today.
Romanesque Revival also had an influence on the architecture of the late 19th century. This style became the favorite urban design of more wealthy residents. Like Queen Anne houses, they also featured a tower, but added other details like broad Roman arches over arcades and doorways and patterned masonry arches over the windows. Romanesque houses were typically built of expensive, rough-hewn stone which made them less popular with the middle class folk moving into the Fan, but several examples of this style can be seen in the District where they were constructed by some of the wealthier residents.
When the century turned, the ranks of the middle class were swelling and home construction could barely keep up. The city responded with an unprecedented effort to extend utilities and municipal improvements to the West End, adding to the desirability of the area. Construction was particularly frenzied in the extremely fashionable area on Monument Avenue surrounding the Lee Monument. The first few years of the century were transitional, as no new style was particularly prominent. The heavy ornamentation of the Victorian era styles was becoming old fashioned; however, and European Neoclassicism was gaining popularity with American architects trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The old Georgian precedent aligned very closely with the Beaux-Arts teachings and the result was a surge of Georgian Colonial Revival. Houses of this style returned to the symmetrical shape and sported such details as a gable roof, pillars and columns, classical detailing and a temple-like entrance with a pediment topped portico. The grand house at 1800 W. Grace Street, built sometime between 1910 and 1920 demonstrates many of these features.
Though Colonial Revival endured long into the mid-century, much of the construction in the Fan District was completed by the outbreak of World War I, which brings us to the end of our architectural journey. In the years to come, the neighborhood would suffer a decline, but the community growing around this unique area dedicated themselves to its restoration. In 1958 the term “The Fan” was coined by the Richmond Times Dispatch and by the 1970’s the neighborhood was again a great place to live. It survives today on the National Register of Historic Places and is a vibrant community of fun people in beautiful houses.
Dulaney, Paul S. The Architecture of Historic Richmond. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 1968. Print.
Winthrop, Bob. “Columbia: The Oldest House in the Fan District.” Fanfare (June-July 1985): 4. Print.
Winthrop, Robert. “Elegance of Italianate Style, Cast Iron Seen in Fan Homes.” Fanfare (Dec.-Jan. 1995-1996): 8. Print.
“The Fan Area Historic District.” Fan of the Fan. Rvanews Network, 2012. Web. 18 June 2015.
Fletcher, Banister, and J. C. Palmes. Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture. 17th ed. New York: Scribner, 1975. Print.
Craven, Jackie. “House Style Picture Dictionary – Residential Architecture.” About Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“Urban Sketchers: About.” Urban Sketchers. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2015. <www.urbansketchers.org/p/about-usk.html>.