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COMMENTARY: A Tale of Two Houses

How the Robinson House at the VMFA and Westwood in North Side took very different roads to changing with the times.

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How does our community either lose irreplaceable chunks of its material culture or embrace historic landscapes where roads, fields and dwellings embody even the most difficult histories?  

This is a tale of two historic former country places, each about 3 miles from Capitol Square. 

One is the Robinson House at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The other, Westwood, is on the Union Presbyterian Seminary campus, in North Side on Brook Road. The places have parallel narratives. Both anchored white-owned farms dating back perhaps to colonial times. Being the rural South, enslaved people worked and lived on the land. When freedom came in 1865, Blacks continued to live and be employed at these places. 
Each residence was enlarged over time according to 19th century trends. Both makeovers embraced the Italianate style, a mode that harmonized homes with their rural settings. Eventually, the Robinson House and Westwood became inextricably linked to the groves of sheltering trees.

A generation after the Civil War, both estates became linked with the Lost Cause narrative. In 1885, the brick Robinson House became the anchor of a large Confederate veterans’ home. In 1887, Westwood was purchased by the Hunter Holmes McGuire family as a summer cottage. The accomplished surgeon was himself a Confederate veteran and co-founder of what became Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. But also, after the Civil War, McGuire published excruciatingly inhuman theories about the abilities of Blacks and their place in the New South.  

Jump to the early 20th century. The Robinson House and Westwood acreage became absorbed into the campuses of two leading educational institutions. By 1900, the 34-acre Westwood tract was a superblock at the nexus of three emerging streetcar neighborhoods – Ginter Park, Laburnum Park and Sherwood Park – when it was purchased by Union Presbyterian Seminary. Student and missionary housing and attractive faculty homes were built here. Former farmland became playing fields. The seminary’s annual Thanksgiving Day [John] Calvin Bowl, pitting liberal versus conservative students and faculty, was surely the world’s only sports event named for a theologian. Meanwhile the Westwood house was adapted and used as student apartments for more than half a century. Most recently, Shalom Farms, an urban farm, has tilled the soil there –a worthy complement to the frayed but solid, centuries-old farmhouse.

SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File

Meanwhile at the Robinson House, since 1935 the art museum has occupied the former grounds of the Confederate retirement camp. If the Westwood house became apartments, the Robinson House housed VMFA classrooms, offices and photo studios.  

In the 21st century, the museum expanded to within yards of the Robinson House with its sleek, Rick Mather Architect-designed McGlothlin Wing. Most recently, following best practices, the museum undertook a scholarly study of the former farmhouse that included the legacy of enslaved people. Restored and slightly enlarged, following plans devised by Glave & Holmes Architects, the Robinson house now boasts a regional tourism center, museum offices and an illuminating exhibit that interprets the complex place. 

The VMFA’s re-embrace of the Robinson House came on the heels of the lead of other local institutions. For a quarter century, the Valentine history center has offered programs that are racially balanced and industrial era- and information-age-savvy. Maymont was a trailblazer with upstairs-downstairs examinations of numerous ethnicities that populated the Gilded Age estate.  

This brings us to Westwood tract. 

In late January, Union Presbyterian Seminary bulldozed the modest house in a mercenary and malicious act of cultural and environmental vandalism. How can this happen in a town where a shared value of the residents is historic preservation? 
Despite years-long discussions with neighborhood and preservation groups, including Historic Richmond and Preservation Virginia, the seminary administration and board of trustees might have been sparked by last summer’s calls for racial equity. The ministerial training ground for a mostly white denomination – membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is 92.9% white – could satisfy a guilt check by plucking low-hanging fruit from real estate holdings once associated with McGuire. According to the seminary, the cottage was removed “as recognition of and in repentance for the resourcing provided to the seminary through the labor of enslaved people.” I get it.

But for more than five years the seminary has shown disinterest in anything resembling an imaginative approach to the Westwood tract. The administration and its mostly out-of-town board of trustees ignored master planning, was challenged in court by its neighbors and then quite recently constructed the 301-unit Canopy at Ginter Park apartments. This architecturally ordinary complex could have made the adaptive reuse of the Westwood house a centerpiece of the development. The seminary’s lame offer to have the house moved at others’ expense reveals a lack of sophistication in recognizing that yanking a building from its physical context, subtracts much meaning. 

So sadly, the oldest and one of the most evocative – for better or worse – places in the North Side has been obliterated.

The seminary’s backward thinking echoes how many old Richmond districts, including Black neighborhoods, were sacrificed for highways and housing projects: Wipe out old memories to create a tabula rasa to financially leverage what comes next. And here’s the thing: Within days of the bulldozer onslaught, the seminary’s Canopy apartment complex was sold for $84 million. For that figure, you’d think funds could have been found to restore a modest farmhouse to serve, well, how about Shalom Farms?