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Jewel of a Hill

A classic book on Church Hill just got better.

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At the Valentine Richmond History Center I recently visited a sleeper of a cultural treasure, the sculpture studio of Edward Valentine, whose life stretched from 1838-1930. This artist created some our city’s most familiar statues, such as the marble Thomas Jefferson, which welcomes guests to the Jefferson Hotel, and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue. Although Valentine fashioned these, and dozens of other works including a statue in the national Capitol, the Valentine guide pointed out that there’s no major biography of this accomplished native son. How can this be? What other history is hiding under our noses?

Happily, the same can’t be said of many of our neighborhoods. Downtown, Monument Avenue, Manchester, the Fan and Church Hill all have been fodder for books in recent decades. And the Church Hill tome just got better. The Historic Richmond Foundation has recently released an updated, expanded and now-colorful version of its 1991 study, “Church Hill: The St. John’s Church Historic District” by John G. Zehmer. Reissued as “The Church Hill Old & Historic Districts,” the solid scholarship and encyclopedic photos have been expanded by documentation of the architecture north of East Broad Street and with additional, fresh, full-color photographs by noted photographer Richard Cheek. With Cheek’s clear and strategic framing of a shot, Church Hill never looked so good.

This welcome survey not only is a thorough, block-by-block record of our city’s oldest neighborhood, but also includes indirect shout-outs to the 1957 founding of the Historic Richmond Foundation and our city’s system of old and historic districts.

William Byrd II established the familiar street grid of Church Hill in 1737 with today’s St. John’s Episcopal Church anchoring its northeast corner. In the late-18th century Richmond was expanding westward, but by the 1950s most of Church Hill’s building stock was dilapidated. Nevertheless, thousands of visitors made the pilgrimage to the old St. John’s where Patrick Henry delivered his call for “liberty or death.” A group of prominent Richmonders, under the umbrella of the Historic Richmond Foundation, launched a brilliantly comprehensive program to restore the decrepit district. Their efforts paid off. Remarkably, not only is Church Hill one of the glories of our region, but also a supporting cast of old neighborhoods—Shockoe Bottom, Rockett’s Landing, Union Hill and Tobacco Row — have bucked up dramatically.

The Church Hill North District can be considered one of the adjunct beneficiaries. Defined roughly by Marshall, Jefferson, O and 30th streets, vernacular frame structures provide much of the “glue” that holds Church Hill North together architecturally. But as this new book makes beautifully clear, there’s a rich gamut of 19th- and early-20th-century designs here, including Italianate, Gothic Revival, beaux-arts, even art deco and modern.

This is a must-have book for Richmonders who care about their city. The stewardship of the Historic Richmond Foundation (and the hundreds of folks who have painstakingly restored the area), John G. Zehmer’s scholarship and the talented eye of Richard Cheek, combined in this important new book, will only make residents care that much more. S

For information on “Church Hill: The St. John’s Church Historic District,” go to thechurchhilloldandhistoricdistricts.com.

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