A boarded-up former slaughterhouse that’s been closed since Tropical Storm Gaston flooded Shockoe Bottom in 2004 was opened recently, revealing a time capsule of Richmond’s anarchic art and literary scenes from their volatile inceptions in the late 1950s.
Once owned by poet, real estate developer and mad eccentric Lester Blackiston, the two-story building at 19 N. 17th St. contains a trove of counterculture ephemera, art, poetry, trash and treasures, including dozens of poems, journals, short stories and day timers. There’s even a screenplay by Blackiston and his friend, poet Rik Davis, who was murdered in an adult bookstore in 1983.
Correspondence and works by such literary heavyweights as Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, Will Inman and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are filed among folders kept in cabinets among water-damaged clothes, personal belongings and a case of 1975 Spam.
After chasing out a squatter, a casual look around the first floor of the building, near the 17th Street Farmer’s Market, reveals fat, black garbage bags bursting with mildewed clothes, a mattress, a suitcase full of ’70s-era eight-track tapes and stray cans of skunky Budweiser. The second floor contains dozens of undamaged paintings, drawings and prints Blackiston collected from three larger-than-life artists active in this chaotic, early underground scene: William Kendricks, Bill Amlong and William Fletcher “Bill” Jones.
Art, poetry and the original Village Restaurant was the glue that held this group of nonconformists from alcohol and pharmaceutical self-destruction in a city and a time known more for genteel Southern etiquette. They were beat-generation boozers and brawlers, with cults of personalities that drew numerous admirers but repelled just as many others.
Blackiston was the short-tempered epicenter of this rebellious scene. Born July 25, 1931, he was raised in Richmond, with occasional forays into New York and Washington. His first wife, Betsy, left him in the mid-’50s not long after their daughter was born, telling writer Charles McGuigon in 2011, “He’d get real mad and he’d get abusive … he would put cigarettes out on my body.”
In the late 1950s, Blackiston and fellow beatnik Bill Walker briefly owned a Greenwich Village-style coffee shop called Coffee ‘n’ Confusion in Washington. But it was in the “mysterious aura” of Richmond’s Village Restaurant, as described by artist Eddie Peters, where Blackiston, fueled by screw-cap wine, exploited his Klaus Kinski-esque reputation. Sometimes he drunkenly roamed the aisle, rebelling against mediocrity and screaming his poetry, demanding to be paid for it and occasionally slapping patrons for not paying attention.
He also cultivated relationships with Ezra Pound and Norman Mailer that, like most, were punctuated with physical violence. On April 2, 1969, Mailer wrote: “Sometimes I love you, you insane bastard. Incidentally, a Jewish lawyer will shortly be visiting you for damages to my masterful upper lip.”
“There was a poetry reading on Hanover Avenue near Lombardy Street in the early ’60s,” longtime Richmond resident Bill Beville recalls. “This other poet started ranting, and Lester was offended by the guy debating him. So Lester pulled a pistol out of a drawer and shot him in the shoulder.”
It wasn’t the only gun incident. Blackiston’s third wife, Lilly, wrote in a diary found by her daughter that he “grabbed me by my face and another time he put a gun in my mouth.” In 1980 Blackiston was sentenced to five years for a shooting but was pardoned by Gov. Doug Wilder after serving nine months. “He was such a good bullshitter,” former acquaintance Robbie Ellison says about Blackiston’s abilities to weasel out of trouble. “A charmer when he wanted to be — a menace when he wasn’t.”
Lilly couldn’t seem to escape being around violence. Her first husband was Hal Philips, whose son Christopher was murdered July 4, 1980, by the notorious Briley Brothers. Prone to rages of her own, Blackiston said in 2006 that Lilly once took gunshots at him.
Blackiston had a soft spot for local art, and soon began collecting dozens of paintings, drawings and prints of his colleagues. “His heart was always in preserving the works of his friends,” longtime friend Rubin Peacock said in a 2006 interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Many people say the pieces were acquired dishonestly. Sometimes he commissioned a piece, then traded it for rent, food or a six-pack. He’d even borrow a work, saying he intended to sell it on the artists’ behalf but instead stash it on the second floor of this Shockoe warehouse, where only Lilly was allowed. At least once he reportedly had an addict friend break into an artist’s studio and steal a painting. That young man took his own life around 1986 in one of Blackiston’s buildings.
Former Village alumnus and painter Bill Amlong is recognized as one of Richmond’s finer talents, yet never exhibited until he saw 23 of his paintings in a Blackiston-donated collection titled “Extreme Personalities, Elegant Paintings” at Longwood University’s Center for the Visual Arts in 2009. “They were stolen,” he says of those and many of his works still in the warehouse.
William Fletcher Jones and Bill Kendrick also are revered as two of Richmond’s greatest artists and personalities of that same period. Author Tom Robbins once wrote: “The Village [Restaurant] was a clubhouse for most of the intelligent misfits in Richmond. But [Bill Kendrick] and Bill Jones were the classic models ... warriors of the heart in Richmond at a time when Richmond was in a state of cardiac arrest.”
Like Blackiston, Jones is remembered for his capricious individuality. Kendrick described their friendship as “a nuclear explosion.” In 1962 Jones closed his Pyramid Gallery, abandoned his wife and two children and moved to New York, saying he needed new surroundings to do new painting.
Back in Richmond years later, the apartment he shared with his fifth wife, Sharon Hill, became Richmond’s counterculture party central. Despite Jones’ drinking and drug use, his painting output was considerable. Many of his works are at Longwood and in many businesses and living rooms across Virginia. There are several more stacked inside the 17th Street warehouse.
According to Ellison, Jones died in his studio in 1996, standing up, his mouth open and arms outstretched.
After receiving an inheritance after his father died in 1975, Blackiston gave up poetry to live with Lilly on a houseboat he called Shanty in the Kanawha Canal, managing real estate, making homemade dandelion wine and holding numerous parties. He frequently chartered fishing boats near Deltaville and applied for a trademark for the Cut Bait-Mate, a gadget for cutting up bait fish. He was active in the Shockoe Bottom Association and in real estate until 2005, when he was confined to a wheelchair and moved into assisted living. He died a victim of his excesses in 2007, preceded in death by Lilly a few years earlier.
Considering the cultural and artistic treasures discovered in the warehouse, the big question is: What’s next?
For now, that seems a mystery. In a 2013 Richmond abandoned property listing, the building was still listed under Blackiston’s name. It was recently purchased by realtor Philip Stein, who says he plans to resell the building but was unclear about the future of its contents.
Antique paper dealer John Whiting reviewed a portion of the paper and manuscript material removed from the building for safekeeping but hasn’t made an appraisal yet. Family members of Jones, Kendrick and Amlong, as well as friend Sharon Hill have made been attempting to contact Stein to see the paintings, as is local art dealer Ginger Levit, who has sold works by both artists. S