The indifferent, negligent property owner is the scourge of American cities, and there are few neighborhoods in Richmond that have not been wounded by this parasite. Plywood windows, peeling paint, trash-blown weedy yards and graffiti are his calling card. This owner is indifferent to appeals of community or home, and is difficult to prosecute. His properties are invariably cited, then condemned as unsafe and demolished before they reach the point of collapse.
Not for the first time, the City of Richmond has been identified as the neglectful owner of an abandoned building, in this case the former Westham Station. It stands on the north side of Robin Hood Road at the Boulevard, in the shadow of the interstate. Built in 1911, the little station originally stood on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad tracks near the site of the Huguenot Bridge, and provided passenger and freight service for decades. When service was discontinued in 1961 and the trains no longer stopped at Westham, the building was acquired by the city.
Moved to its present location in 1963, Westham Station became part of a travel-themed park called Travelland, which also featured a locomotive and airplanes. The former station building itself became the Richmond Visitor Center, and signs on what was then called the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, today's Interstate 95, directed visitors to Travelland.
Described in 1989 as "beautifully restored," the station served the city as the point of entry for tourists until 2002. The visitor center moved to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, and the Westham Station has languished ever since, shuttered and decaying. One city official who works for the Richmond Department of Recreation and Community Facilities confirmed the station was on the city's list of parks properties, but "has not been looked at in years."
Her comment reflects Richmond's wretched record with city-owned historic buildings. In all too many cases, apathy seems to be the policy, where buildings like the Westham Station are simply padlocked and left for another generation.
This policy of abandonment is precisely what left the Leigh Street Armory a roofless ruin in the middle of Jackson Ward for 20 years. Damage from a fire destroyed much of the roof in the 1980s, and the city literally locked the armory doors and walked away. Finally rescued from city ownership, what is now the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is an important tourist destination. The building itself is on the National Register of Historic Places and is recognized as an architectural jewel.
On Marshall Street, the city maintains Richmond's largest outdoor urinal, formerly a grand edifice known as the Richmond Light Infantry Blues Armory. Under its indifferent and negligent owner, this building the size of a city block in downtown Richmond remains dark, boarded and overgrown, and has been kept in that state for a decade. Trash accumulates around the former food court doors, while overhead a stained and torn awning ironically proclaims Richmond is "Building a Brighter Future."
The small rural train station is a building type that is disappearing from the American landscape, and many of these buildings that served their communities for generations have vanished. Railroads tear them down, not wanting to maintain them, so a survivor, which is in the hands of a municipality, is as much a rarity as it is a valuable asset.
All of which is lost on the uncaring owner of the Westham Station, the City of Richmond. If this administration and this council are so indifferent to the condition of city property, if they are so devoid of vision and of potential for this kind of structure — if this administration and this council has no sense of history, and feels free of all moral or fiduciary responsibility to the residents of the city — that's OK. The people of Richmond have a keen sense of diminished expectations for our government, and nobody will be surprised.
If the city just doesn't care, as the evidence of the condition of the station clearly demonstrates, then sell the Westham Station. It has been moved before, and it can be moved again. Or, better still, give it back to Henrico County, a place that seems to have a well-developed concept of community and respect for its past.
Whatever happens, do not let this building deteriorate because of the continued indifference of our mayor and City Council. Urge them to avoid the apathy of their predecessors, and let's see the little train station saved before it is too late.
We can no longer afford to let city-owned historic structures like the Westham Station become endangered by the very bureaucracy that is supposed to be maintaining them. It is a grim irony, indeed, that our city government has become that same indifferent and negligent property owner who is the sworn enemy of a healthy and progressive American city. S
Selden Richardson is a local historian and the author of "The Tri-State Gang in Richmond: Murder and Robbery in the Great Depression" and "Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond."
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