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Photo Finish

A new book, “Historic Photos of Richmond,” charts the city's changes.



Nostalgia can be the coinage of the land hereabouts, but by the time I'd examined some 200 images in the just-published “Historic Photos of Richmond in the 50s, 60s, and 70s” (Turner Publishing), I felt relieved that I'd lived to see the 21st century.

Sure, we've lost historic buildings, seen the collapse of downtown shopping and watched interstates and expressways scar our inner city, but compared with what many of these images from the middle of the last century show, Richmond has never looked as good as it does today.

The authors and husband-and-wife team of Emily J. and John S. Salmon, both historians, mined the apparently rich photographic resources of the Library of Virginia to compile a visual overview in black and white of how Richmond appeared during three tumultuous decades of political, social, economic and racial change. And while they've included numerous brochure-worthy shots of our most iconic sites, such as St. John's Church, Virginia House, the Lee Monument and the Maggie L. Walker House, more interesting and telling are the photographs that are, well, more depressing.

Shots of treeless East Broad and East Main streets and Shockoe Bottom show bleak business fronts and sparsely populated sidewalks. A 1954 group portrait of the Richmond City Council presents an all-white body. And a 1958 shot of black children, romping on the George Mason Elementary School playground, contrasts with a 1960 image of all-white bathers enjoying suburban Overhill Lake or May Day pageant participants at Albert Hill School in 1954. It's clear from all these photos that while locally and nationally the broader culture was headed in certain directions in terms of politics, integration and suburban development, there were concurrent causalities and disconnects.

This is a curious book. While the Salmons offer often thoughtful and clarifying captions that offer historical context and descriptions of the current status of the sites, there's a lot left unexplained. There are no attributions as to who took the pictures — or for what purpose or for whom. Context is important in photography. Those photographs that are documentary and clinical were probably commissioned for such corporate clients as Ford Motor Co., American Tobacco Co. or the Swift Ice Cream company.

Other images are more spontaneous, such as the delightful shot of teammates and cheerleaders whooping it up at a 1959 high-school basketball championship game at the Richmond Arena or a well-dressed crowd boarding a ship at Deepwater Terminal.

But one senses that the authors have a quirky side. They include a 1970s photo of the European Health Spa on Horsepen Road, an early Ukrop's Super Market on Hull Street and delightful shots of Tobacco Festival floats and princesses at Parker Field. They include a photo of Yankee Joe Pepitone surrounded by young, engrossed baseball fans and a wide shot of Arthur Ashe playing at an indoor tennis tournament.

Unfortunately the book has some glaring errors. There's a photograph of the Richmond Howitzers Armory, a fortress-like structure that stood in the 600 block of North Eighth Street before being demolished more than a generation ago for the downtown campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. But it's identified as the still-standing, all-black First Virginia Battalion of Virginia Volunteers headquarters. The former Lyric Theater is identified as the former Hotel Richmond, and residents of the handsome Belfry condominiums in the 2500 block of East Broad on Church Hill will be shocked to read in a caption that “All the buildings are now gone, and in their place is a green space. …”

Some buildings in other places have been lost, however, and this book reminds us that the art deco-style Richmond Public Library was a gem and that the Old Eighth Street Office Building and the Broad Street Methodist Church offered so much more than the surface parking that now occupies sites they once graced.

The 1950s, '60s and '70s were indeed a time of radical change. And the underlying theme of this book is that despite what's shown here, the main culture was evolving elsewhere. The interstate highways and expressways were rerouting traffic; corporate behemoths Reynolds Metals, Circuit City, Best Products and Heilig-Meyers were transforming the suburbs; and hospitals moved outwards. That visual history remains to be told.

But “Historic Photos of Richmond in the 50s, 60s, and 70s” is a refreshing take on a city too often wrapped in the haze of the Civil War and ensuing cult of the Lost Cause. S

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