News & Features » Miscellany

An architectural-conservation group is looking for someone to love its top 10 endangered buildings in Richmond.

Building Support

by

comment
Amid the throngs of commuters rushing around Capitol Square each morning, a few may occasionally glance at the posters plastered over the three-story building at 1323 E. Main St., faded advertisements for CD releases and concerts long past.

No one stops and squints up into the bright September sunlight to see the still-stately arched windows on the upper stories of the old abandoned store, or the ornate ironwork around the door. Although a sign declares owner Jerry Cable's desire to sell, for decades the 135-year-old building has been the province of pigeons.

Yet the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods hopes someone will look up one day, fall in love with the decrepit building and bring it back to life. That's the idea behind ACORN's recently released list of "10 Most Endangered Historic Sites and Structures," Richmond properties with historic value that are threatened by decay or demolition.

Many might see the buildings only as eyesores. But Jennie Knapp, the executive director of ACORN, sees historic artifacts with personality, as anxious for adoption as puppies at the pound. They're "just wonderful buildings sitting there and waiting for somebody to do something with them," she says.

It's not hard to find vacant buildings in Richmond. ACORN counted 7,500 a few years ago, and the city has an official register of about 2,000, she says. But the ones on the endangered list stand out in the crowd.

The named sites include the cluster of buildings around 1323 E. Main St., along with the Barton Heights Cemeteries, the Byrd Park Pumphouse, the Old Finance Building in Capitol Square, a trolley shed from the 1880s, the Bailey-Furman House, Venable Street in Union Hill, the neighborhoods in Jackson Ward, the 2300 block of East Main Street and four neighborhood theaters.

Many served functions that are now obsolete. "We don't have trolleys," Knapp points out. "We don't make buggy whips. We don't show silent films anymore." Yet decades ago, she says, each place was essential to keep Richmond running and their legacies should be preserved.

All vary in age and degree of disrepair but share one thing in common, says Kimberly Chen, an architectural historian on ACORN's executive board. Despite the sites' colorful histories, little was known about them until she unearthed the stories surrounding each one. "In their anonymity," Chen says, "they were in danger."

Her favorite is the Bailey-Furman House at 3025 Q St. Few Richmonders would recognize the name, yet the house had two distinguished residents: Madison Jones Bailey, one of the first licensed black contractors in Richmond, and his daughter Ethel Bailey Furman, the first female architect in Virginia and the nation's first African-American woman in the profession.

Furman designed about 200 structures in her lifetime, Chen discovered. Yet the house, now subdivided, bears no trace of its former occupants' achievements.

Chen is the first to admit it's unlikely the "Top 10" list will instantly transform the properties into desirable real estate. Some aren't even for sale, but are held privately for future investment or unrealized projects. And the "endangered" designation may have little effect on owners' plans.

"I had no idea it was placed on the list," says Tonya Scott of the 75-year-old, two-story stone Venus Theater. Scott is the director of real estate development for the Imani Community Development Corp., which bought the Venus about two years ago, along with several other properties in the 1400 block of Hull Street.

"We'd like to save it, but we don't know if we'll be able to," Scott says cautiously. Imani plans to develop stores and a community center in the area, she says. No definite plans have been made yet. "It's a great building, but it's old," she says. "I don't know how long it had been abandoned before we bought it."

Ed Christian, who owns the Brookland Theater at 115 W. Brookland Park Blvd., was also surprised to hear his pet project was on the list. "Endangered?" he asks with a laugh. "I didn't know it was endangered."

Christian, a musician, bought the 77-year-old theater 14 or 15 years ago with the intention of renovating it as a performance hall and musicians' club, he says, and has been working slowly on improvements the whole time. "You can see on the outside it's not falling down," Christian says with a hint of indignation. "Inside now, it don't look like a theater. It looks like a club, a New York-style disco club."

The theater is in better shape than some of the other properties on the list. Christian says he replaced the roof when he first bought it, and although some windows are broken, swirled green and onyx glass still gleams on the faded fa‡ade.

The Venus and Brookland theaters are located in historic districts and enterprise zones, which means tax credits and city loans and grants are available to help renovation, says Cary Brown, a commercial development coordinator for the city. For the rest of the properties, however, it's up to the owners to pay for restoration.

The 1883 Pumphouse in Byrd Park is the most likely candidate for a real rejuvenation, Chen says. Its open-air pavilion overlooking the canal and the James River seems like an ideal site for a restaurant, she says, "if we can only figure out how to get people in and out of it." The 21st-century dilemma of finding sufficient parking space has delayed development.

ACORN members say they think the other structures have a chance as well. Despite the urban decay, each site has a certain allure that may save it from the wrecking ball.

Chen and Knapp seem confident that someone will notice the carved stone medallions on the Venus Theater. Or the architectural details on the neglected Venable Street buildings. Or the ironwork on the 1323 E. Main St. storefront.

Someone will stop and look, Chen says, "and take it on as their life challenge."

Add a comment