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Behind the esoteric and well-appointed walls of the Tuckahoe, a surprisingly diverse community insists that being "Very Richmond" is precisely what its next generation needs.

Eminent Domain

When Armand Roman ran away from home and ran away from Richmond, he raced to New York with enough adolescent arrogance to conquer the world.

And the world was in tumult. Richmond, in the midst of World War II, was not the place where Roman wanted to leave his mark. "I was too wide then," he says, of a cultural idealism that took years to refine.

He speaks with a worldly voice that the ear follows up and down so as not to miss a single syllable. It's the kind of voice that promises details of wild adventure. And Roman, 73, a retired senior vice president with Gulf and Western Industries - the once leading manufacturing conglomerate that acquired Paramount Pictures and later became Paramount Communications — has had them. A black-and-white photo of Roman with Maria Callas rests on his piano where sheet music might be. Presiding over the front parlor is a 18th-century oil portrait of the king of Poland's daughter, the wife of Louis XV, which once hung in Versailles. Ancient Madonnas crafted in silver and gold form a collage of Russian icons in a bedroom where, he says, it's easy to sleep at night. He's circled the globe 23 times as a prospector for business and pleasure, putting his mastery of seven languages to good use. His travels have helped him bring home treasures from adventures too many to count. A self-proclaimed "incurable collector," Roman, whose family came to America from the Basque country dividing France from Spain, is passionate about two things: art and living well. They are passions that, along with a lower cost of living, brought him back to Richmond five years ago. And when Roman moved from New York he insisted on just one thing. His address had to be 5621 Cary Street Road - home of the Tuckahoe.

For 71 years, the Tuckahoe has been a tower of mystery to legions of Richmonders curious enough to guess who and what lies inside. Here, it is imagined, faceless and aged socialites keep secrets and legacies locked away from the rest of the city. Names of past and present residents spring to mind — Dabney, Dementi, Reynolds, Wheat — the trust of Old Richmond. It seems as if behind the brick, mint juleps and cucumber sandwiches are passed as casually as conversation. But now, residents of the Tuckahoe speak out against the myth. Still reserved and proud - and, at times, even paranoid — of what owners call a "Very Richmond" sensibility, residents claim their community is no more nor less an enigma than the typical suburban neighborhood. Their world, they say, is hardly the making of an "American Beauty" or "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." While they argue over assessment fees, what should be planted in the wrought-iron urn facing Cary Street Road, and who should serve on what committee, they agree not coincidentally that the Tuckahoe is "Richmond's best kept secret." They contend a new time has come to the Tuckahoe - one that is decidedly youthful and, what's more, inclusive.

Still, change at the Tuckahoe, as in so much of Richmond, is more a flirtation than an insistence on commitment. It's as if its guarded status, perhaps even its allure, hangs in the balance like a celebrity who has become too familiar with her fans. Understandably, at the Tuckahoe, the more things change, the more they truly stay the same.

"I used to call this the castle and I'd ask my mother 'Why can't we live in the castle?'" says Roman of the six-story luminous red-brick building that looks like a grand old New York Hotel — the Barbazon, even — and stretches from Rio Vista Lane to Hampton Hills Road and faces the Country Club of Virginia. As a child, it was proof to Roman that splendor existed, if only for a wealthy few.

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Armand Roman, a retired trade expert turned antiques aficionado, who returned to Richmond from New York five years ago, claims the Tuckahoe is the only place he's truly felt comfortable. "I've found happiness here," he says. Since 1929, the Tuckahoe has been the grande dame of Cary Street Road, tucking away occupants, respecting neighbors and cultivating its luster of civility. It's an interesting contrast to how its name originated. Tuckahoe derives from an Indian name for a bitter underground fungus unfit to eat. In Colonial times, Indians used the word to describe the poor white settlers who first worked land that later became Tuckahoe Plantation. Today its name reaps an image of gentry as enduring as wheat and tobacco.

The Georgian Colonial-style Tuckahoe Apartments building was built by Rosewood Construction Corporation in 1928 and was completed in 1929. The original 72 units were rented as luxury apartments targeting upper-class Richmonders — ironically during the Depression. Today, the units are sold as 53 condominiums with price tags ranging from under $100,000 to well over $300,000. And with monthly assessment fees - costs incurred for utilities, landscaping, insurance, security and other services - of $330 to $625, the Tuckahoe still is a financial stretch for most. But Cynthia Gates Wheeler, owner of Community Resources, the condominium's management company, says despite its reputation for attracting retirees and for what some consider exorbitant costs, the Tuckahoe is experiencing a renaissance. "It has a diverse collage of owners and residents," she says, everyone from married couples with kids to seniors to divorced men and women. She's quick to add that available units don't stay on the market long.

No one knows this as well as Edith Cox, who has worked as the Tuckahoe's receptionist for seven years. "I've lived in Richmond all my life, and I always wondered what that building was and who lived there," she says. "When I was called in for my interview, I thought 'Oh my gracious, I'm going into the Tuckahoe,'" she says now amusedly. Inside she discovered a lobby much like other lobbies she'd visited — airy and bright but noticeably sparse. Two shell-colored rooms off the lobby frequently are empty and seem to await visitors like a library on a sunny afternoon. Residents prefer to steal away to the canary-yellow rooftop solariums where white wicker makes reading breezy. "At first, it seemed to me that everything there was old. But today, more and more young people want to live there," insists Cox. By her account, only 32 of the 78 residents are over 65, and there are five families with two or more children. "Just yesterday a man and his wife came in with their two children asking if anything was for sale." Their response is one that Cox sees often. "When you say $300,000, they kind of swallow their tongue."

On a day like today it feels oddly natural to tower over the Country Club of Virginia.

Opposing the course from the Tuckahoe's six-story terraced roof, golfers on the fairway appear as colored flecks swinging invisible irons into a lazy spring breeze. A constant hail of white dots hops on the green, evidence that even the wind stops shy of carrying golf balls hundreds of yards to the Tuckahoe.

"We can see them," says attorney Brad Cann, shielding his eyes to look northwest. He pauses to consider his lofty hiding place from the noble amateurs leisurely slicing the horizon with drives and chip shots. "I really don't think they can see us."

At 5:30 p.m., the slow parade of cars below creeps south along Cary Street Road toward the James. And from the rooftop, it's hard to imagine a more exclusive spot in town. Cann, who, in his 40s, is one of the younger owners at the Tuckahoe and president of its association, can't seem to think of any place he'd rather be. He chose the Tuckahoe, he says, because it's a value worth the price — and he doesn't have to worry with yard work. Still, he's had to dispel an age-old myth. "I got a lot of laughs at first when I told people I was moving here," he says, referring amusedly to the Tuckahoe's reputation as a place where only affluent retirees and widows choose to live. "But isn't this great?" sighs Cann. He doesn't wait for a reply. Instead he watches the waning sun flicker amid maples and oaks, sweeping the slate roofs of Rio Vista Lane's palatial homes with the same coziness that — since moving into the Tuckahoe — Cann says he's claimed for himself.

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