Surrounded by family members and close friends, Richmond native, H. Louis Salomonsky, Jr., an architect, real estate developer and teacher at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, died peacefully at his home Aug. 31 after a long battle with cancer. He was 84.
His children announced his death and on behalf of the family, his eldest son, Stephen, issued the following statement:
"Most of the world knew our father, Henry Louis Salomonsky, as a visionary developer, architect and businessman. The world knew him to be successful and tough, but fair and honest. He came from humble beginnings and earned everything he ever had through hard work and relentless determination ...
“He was the loving father of seven children, all of whom he mentored and helped to be successful and happy. He was the husband to two wonderful women and the patriarch of our family. He was charitable at levels very few will ever know, as he never wanted credit for his charity and helping others. Words cannot give justice to his accomplishments, his sacrifices, his stability, and his kindness and generosity. Words also cannot describe the love we have for him and the way he loved his family and friends. We love you, Dad."
Born March 6, 1939 in Richmond, he was the only child of Henry Louis Salomonsky, a traveling salesman, and Elizabeth Brockwell Salomonsky. She died in 1986. He was educated in Richmond Public School Schools, attending Robert E. Lee Elementary, Albert Hill and Chandler Middle Schools before graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1957. He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Architecture in 1962.
Salomonsky credits his father’s unexpected death in 1955 with instilling in him a determined work ethic. “After my father died, we had nothing. I was 16 years old, and I needed to find a way to make money for my mother and me.”
In a career spanning nearly seven decades, Salomonsky went from being a rebellious teenager with a talent for mechanical drawing, to being a principal of his own firm with assets collectively worth more than three quarters of a billion dollars.
To some, he was a complicated genius and a brilliant visionary. Others castigated him for fueling gentrification and questioned his developer, dollar-driven efforts to build various projects throughout the city. Twenty years ago, he spent 18 months in prison for his role in trying to bribe a Richmond City Council member.
When asked about that experience, he said, “Looking back on it, going to prison was one of the best and most painful things I ever experienced. It taught me humility and made me a better human being.
“After that I tried to accomplish things with soft persuasion, rather than brute force. Being more humble not only led to greater success in my personal and professional relationships, and as with Martha Stewart, it quintupled my net worth.”
As a young man, faced with supporting himself and his mother following his father’s death, Salomonsky walked into an architect’s office near his high school and offered to work for free (with the possibility of being paid) finishing blueprints and plans for the firm.
Intrigued, the architect gave him a chance. He agreed to pay Salomonsky for freelance work on one condition — that he stay in school. “Had he not made staying in school a requirement for future work, I am sure I would have dropped out and pursued life as a juvenile delinquent,” Salomonsky recalled in a recent interview.
“And had that same architect not pushed me to apply to the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, I would have never applied. I knew I didn’t have the grades or the money to get in. I had always struggled in school,” noting that it wasn’t until he was an adult raising his own children that he realized that he had Attention Deficit Disorder and was dyslexic.
To his amazement, UVa accepted him. "I loved it! I was the first person in my family to go to college. I was thrilled to get to pursue something that I had always wanted, but didn’t dare dream about."
“After that," he said, “I was off to the races. Full throttle.” After graduation, he returned to Richmond, “determined to leave Richmond a better place than I had found it."
He came full circle five years ago when the University of Virginia School of Architecture asked him to teach and lecture on financing development projects, “I was thrilled again. It has been a joyful and fun experience. I love the students and the faculty. I loved teaching and watching the students grow.”
- Salomonsky Jr. in a photo from 1962.
Laura Stephens, who worked for Salomonsky for 40-plus years, describes him as a man who not only knew how to make stuff happen, but inspired everyone to love life and love the job: "He loved pushing everyone in the office to work hard and have fun doing it. He fiercely loved life and was fearless. He loved what he did as an architect and developer, he loved his family, he loved Richmond, and he loved making things happen.”
For example, she adds, he spent thousands of dollars giving Richmond Public Schools necessary cash to buy musical instruments and helped immigrant people start businesses. Even though he was going through chemo, he agreed to shelter a Ukrainian family fleeing the violence in their homeland.
Tim Kaine, now a United States Senator and former Governor and Lt. Governor of Virginia who is also a former Mayor and City Council member in Richmond, recalls working with Salomonsky on various projects:
"Louis was part of a small group of pioneers who figured out a way to combine local, state and federal tax incentives to rehabilitate urban properties. These pioneers played a key role in reversing a half century trend towards suburbanization — leading to growth in Richmond and central cities all over the country."
Kaine specifically notes that the Maggie Walker High School renovation and transformation—from abandoned and blighted structure to one of the best performing schools in the nation—“would never have happened without Louis. He helped a lot of people. He was a driven, talented, complicated genius.”
Former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, friends with Salomonsky for almost 50 years, says he was sorry to learn of Salomonsky’s death. He recalls that the pair recently had lunch and discussed their friendship. “It was a great lunch. Louis was a good man who helped a lot of people. I loved him and he loved me."
Totems to success of the firm that Salomonsky built with his partner, David White, can be seen throughout the city and region: Shockoe Bottom, Shockoe Slip, Church Hill, Scott's Addition, Manchester, the Maggie Walker and Appomattox Governor's schools.
Jennie Dotts, a historic preservationist who butted heads with Salomonsky more than a few times, notes that he was always cordial and kind, even when he disagreed with her. "In addition to being an architect, Louis was a pioneer. He recognized the potential of areas such as Church Hill, Shockoe Bottom, Fulton Hill, and Manchester before others envisioned them as the popular hot spots they are today. Opening these areas to development put him in the cross hairs of preservationists like me. Disagreements about design and density aside, I thank him for bringing people back into abandoned neighborhoods.”
David White, his business partner of 30 years, says that he and Salomonsky made a great team because they were different but respected one another’s views. "Louis was the consummate problem solver. Though he could be a bull in the china shop, the shop he crashed through would reopen quickly and show a profit. Verve, vigor, humor, appetite, persistence, and generosity are all epitomized in his larger-than-life character. I will miss Louis terribly.”
White said that two of his favorite projects they undertook together were the renovations of the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology and Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies. "Funding for both projects relied on historic tax credits. Louis made sure the credits were protected and monetized, and that the legions of owner representatives, contractors, subs, architects, engineers, and consultants stayed on a course he defined. As a result of those efforts, our region serves a wide range of gifted students of all races and incomes through two excellent public high schools."
Mark Merhige, a developer in Richmond says that he always appreciated Salomonsky’s candor and counsel. "He was very generous to me as a partner and a mentor. He was always straight up with me. Never minced words. You may not have liked the words, but there was never ambiguity.”
Despite his reputation for being a bull in a china shop in a town where power walks on soft carpets and speaks in nuanced tones, Mimi Sandler, a historical architect who worked with Salomonsky says: "Louis’ love of life is clear to anyone who has joined him for a good meal or at the bargaining table. He relishes ‘a win’ like you’d relish a gourmet dinner. He is the friend and businessman you’d turn to if you needed help and razor sharp insight and intellect.
"I don’t know how early Louis was given the black hat of a troublemaker, or if he deserved it, but since I’ve known him, he’s always worn his black hat with panache and hidden his fundamental goodness behind the bad boy mask.”
Salomonsky was twice president of Or Atid Synagogue, active in B’nai B'rith, served on the board of directors Immune Therapeutics, Inc., was appointed by former Governor L. Douglas Wilder to the Board of Visitors for Virginia State University, he also served on the UVA School of Architecture Foundation Board.
Internment services will be private. Memorial services are pending. The family suggests charitable contributions be made to Transform Pancreatic Cancer Into a Curable Disease.
Full disclosure: Carol A.O. Wolf’s husband, Tom Wolf, has represented Salomonsky and his companies in various legal matters over the years.