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Richmond Metropolitan Area

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This section includes the city of Richmond and the adjacent metropolitan area of Henrico County as well as a portion of Hanover County. The 2000 census recorded 197,790 residents for the city and about 1 million in the metropolitan area.

Europeans discovered the future site of Richmond, at the falls of the James River, when Captains John Smith and Christopher Newport landed somewhere near what is now Great Shiplock Park, at the eastern end of the falls, in May 1607. Not until the 1730s, however, did major English settlement take place, when the James River falls site became by law a location for the grading of tobacco exports. William Byrd II recorded on September 19, 1733: “When we got home we laid the foundation of two large Citys. One at Shacco's [Shockoe Creek], to be called Richmond.” The name apparently came from the similarity of the site on the James with that of Richmond on the Thames in England. In 1737 he commissioned Colonel William Mayo to lay out the new city in series of “squares,” or city blocks. Mayo's neat rectangular grid, oriented northwest-southeast to align with the riverbank, fronted the James River with a town common. The original town incorporated the area bounded by the James River to the south, present-day 15th Street to the west, Broad Street to the north, and 25th Street to the east. Mayo's grid plan set the standard for future city expansion. A small settlement grew up in the 1740s, and in 1752 the General Assembly moved the Henrico County seat to Richmond. On the eve of the American Revolution, about 600 persons lived in the tobacco-trading port.

The big shift came in 1779, when, under the leadership of Governor Thomas Jefferson, the state capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond; the General Assembly first met there in a rented frame building in May 1780. The assembly decreed that the Richmond plan would be expanded by 200 “squares” and that six blocks of the new seat of Virginia government were to be reserved for state government. In 1780 Governor Jefferson, after surveying the expansion, selected the six blocks that would make up present-day Capitol Square. The small tobacco port became overnight the capital of the largest and most populous state of the new United States. The provincial community became a cosmopolitan city, attracting a varied and talented population that included lawyers, actors, artisans, and architects. Although Virginia retained for only a few decades the distinction of being “first among equals,” Richmonders never lost that feeling of self-importance. Until well after the Civil War Richmond considered itself the first city of the South and a leader in finance, commerce, industry, and culture. The result is a remarkable series of buildings and a cityscape that can be easily glimpsed downtown, out Franklin Street, along Monument Avenue, and in western suburbs such as Windsor Farms.

The major expansion of Richmond in the nineteenth century and for the greater portion of the twentieth has been to the west. The James River on the south and Shockoe Creek on the east provided natural barriers; and even though Church Hill, across the creek, was part of the original Byrd-Mayo plan, its location meant its initial development was relatively dispersed. West of the creek or in Richmond proper the result is a series of neighborhoods that, with some exceptions, flow out to the west and north. Periods of intense real estate speculation and development occurred nearly every decade, followed by the inevitable downturn. Architects of national stature, following the money, came to the city: Benjamin Henry Latrobe in the 1790s, Robert Mills and Alexander Parris in the 1810s, Thomas U. Walter and Thomas S. Stewart in the 1840s, Carrère and Hastings in the 1890s, John Russell Pope in the 1910s, and William Lawrence Bottomley in the 1920s. They were supplemented by local talent: Albert West, D. Wiley Anderson, William Noland, Henry Baskervill, Marcellus Wright, Charles M. Robinson, and others, and their successor firms, who helped create the fabric of the city.

From the early nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth, the riverfront, Shockoe Valley, and the James River and Kanawha Canal (Richmond's attempt to secure a western transportation route) served as a commerce and transportation center. Along it grew up large tobacco warehouses, processing plants for various products, and ironworks. In the three decades before 1860 Richmond became the tobacco manufacturing center of the United States. It also became known as the city of cast iron porches, which began to appear in the 1850s and increased in usage until about 1900. Remnants of these industries, such as the Tredegar Iron Works complex or the tobacco warehouses, can still be found, although the character of the riverfront, especially along the James River, has changed considerably. Adjacent to the industrial waterfront, the commercial sector developed, initially along Main Street and in the Shockoe Slip area, and then leapfrogged over Capitol Square to Broad Street in the 1860s and spread west. In the late 1840s John Notman of Philadelphia laid out Hollywood, a rural cemetery, and in 1851 the city of Richmond acquired three park sites.

By 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Richmond had an area of two-and-one-half square miles and a population of 38,000, of whom 14,275 were slaves and free blacks. Among American cities it ranked twenty-fifth in size but thirteenth in manufactures. Home of four banks, fifty-two tobacco factories, the largest flour mill in the world, and the largest iron foundry in the South, and served by five railroad lines, Richmond was essential to the Confederate cause. Between May 29, 1861, when Jefferson Davis arrived, and April 3, 1865, when he hastily departed, Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States of America, was the prize the North sought. As the Confederates left, they planted explosives, set fires, and destroyed much of the city's industrial base along with twenty blocks of the commercial sector to keep these resources out of the hands of the Union army.

Nevertheless, post–Civil War Richmond recovered with amazing speed. The idea of Reconstruction hardships that applies to areas of the rural South in Richmond's case has been overblown. The commercial section along Main Street was rebuilt rapidly—ironically, with significant northern investment—in new, larger brick and cast-iron-front buildings. The population grew rapidly, and the city's industries—the Tredegar Iron Works, Albemarle Paper Company, Old Dominion Nail Works, and Belle Isle granite quarries—recovered. Tensions between whites and newly freed blacks and problems of political representation were constant. The politics of race remains an ongoing problem for the city. Richmond felt the effects of national economic depressions; the big slump of 1873 halted growth for the rest of the decade. Until the 1870s Richmond was a walking city, but this changed as horse trolleys began tentatively to push development to the west. In 1888 Richmond introduced the world's first successful electric streetcar system, and the urban center exploded, creating areas such as Ginter Park and and the West End. Almost no building activity occurred in Richmond between 1893 and 1900 because of the depression triggered by the panic of 1893. Afterward, the city grew geographically, annexing the areas just mentioned, as well as Manchester, or South Richmond, in 1910 and Barton Heights and others in 1914.

Architecturally, Richmond followed national trends; some important commissions, such as the Jefferson Hotel, went to Yankee firms. Locally, a major innovation gave built form to the myth of earlier Virginia. The creation of the giant-columned Southern colonial style by architects such as William Noland and nostalgia for the “Lost Cause,” played out on Monument Avenue and elsewhere through the area, pointed to a proud past. The Colonial Revival and especially its James River variant remain very strong in Richmond today.

Richmond in the early twentieth century appeared to be, especially from an architectural point of view, a supremely confident city. The infrastructure created up to World War II is overwhelming. Although there was none of the radical innovation that took place in Chicago or Los Angeles, the overall quality and consistency were certainly equal, if not better. Richmond entered the twentieth century believing that its position was intact, but in reality it was no longer the first city of the South. Indeed, even within the region its stature would be diminished. The conditions for this change had been established much earlier, even before the Civil War, when Richmond remained focused on the Kanawha Canal rather than fully embracing the railroad as the primary form of transportation. Instead of thinking on a national scale, Richmonders remained provincial. Hence today a walk down Broad and Grace streets tells part of the story. The former large department stores, Thalhimer's and Miller and Rhoads, are closed. In part this is a national trend. The building of I-95 a few blocks away was a contributing factor. The unresolved problems of race continue to plague the city, and the population is declining. This is not to say that significant post–World War II buildings and landmarks do not exist in Richmond. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts addition, the Federal Reserve Building, and, in Henrico County, the Reynolds Metals Building, Best Products, and others date from this period.

The major highway projects of the 1960s such as Interstates 95, 64, and 195 created a controversial splitting of the city, cutting off sections and causing major destruction in portions of Jackson Ward (a large African American community) and Oregon Hill. At the same time it linked Richmond with the major cities of the North. Richmond became the southern end of the East Coast megalopolis. The consequence is that many Americans see Richmond only by highway as they speed past the old Main Street Station, sitting now in lonely splendor.

Part of the importance of Richmond is its past and the preservation of that heritage. Beginning in 1935, the local chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, the William Byrd Branch, led by Mary Wingfield Scott, Richmond's first architectural historian and preservationist, pioneered preservation techniques such as revolving funds. Scott held a doctorate in French art but devoted herself to her native city's imperiled historic buildings, saying modestly, late in life, “You try to do the right thing at the right time.” Members of the William Byrd Branch founded the Historic Richmond Foundation in 1956 to focus on the St. John's Church area as a decaying urban neighborhood with significant historic building fabric. The block just west of the church, bounded by Broad, Grace, 23rd, and 24th streets, was selected as Carrington Square, popularly known as the Pilot Block. The block—rejuvenated through the cooperative efforts of individuals, government, and nonprofit organizations—was intended to serve as a springboard for restoring the entire neighborhood. Historic Richmond has continued in its efforts and been joined by other organizations, such as the Monument Avenue Preservation Society. Also underway is a revitalization of the James River waterfront in a San Antonio–type River Walk.

Writing Credits

Richard Guy Wilson et al.

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