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Slave History Clouds Shockoe Bottom Project

Warehouse with a hazy past could be a good test case for Shockoe's comeback.

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Seeing the boarded-up windows and broken glass, a passerby would be forgiven for thinking that the vacant brick warehouse at 15th and Cary streets in Shockoe Bottom isn't all that important. But the building, which some people say was used for slave auctions in the 1800s, could become a microcosm of the city's efforts to revitalize the neighborhood while marketing the area's slave-trading history.

Last week, the owner — 1425 E. Cary LLC, backed by Shockoe Bottom developer Richard Stutts — filed papers with the city's architectural review board to begin the approval process for a $4.3 million renovation. The 170-year-old building was used as an antebellum auction house for dry goods — and possibly slaves. With all eyes on Shockoe Bottom's ability to stage a comeback that balances business growth with properly memorializing its history, how the development unfolds will be an interesting test case.

Through a spokeswoman, Richmond Delegate Delores McQuinn, head of the Slave Trail Commission, declines to comment but confirms plans to place a permanent marker within the next several months that recognizes the building's historical significance as a slave auction house. The city's parks department already has placed a temporary historical marker across the street in front of Buffalo Wild Wings.

Meanwhile, Monument Construction, the company planning to renovate the structure, is working to minimize any possible slave connection. In a news release May 28, the company states that “the building was rebuilt in approximately 1880, fully 15 years after the end of the war, during which the original building was nearly demolished.” Nevertheless, paperwork Monument Construction filed with the architectural review panel notes that “the building's two westernmost bays were built ca. 1840.”

Kim Chen, an architectural historian and partner with Johannas Design, has researched Shockoe Bottom's historic buildings and says that while the property was certainly used as an auction house, and likely had occasion to sell slaves, she's never seen it definitively confirmed.

The city Commission of Architectural Review will review the application at its June 22 meeting.

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