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The Fan District

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The Fan District (bounded by Broad Street to the north, the Boulevard to west, Belvidere Street to the east, and Cary Street to the south) is one of Richmond's most famous neighborhoods. Historian Drew St. J. Carneal points out that the name dates from the mid-twentieth century. Earlier it was known as Sydney or simply the West End. Containing more than 2,500 properties, the Fan is one of the largest urban neighborhoods in Virginia. The area developed along with roads into Richmond in the eighteenth century. The Westham Road, the primary route, traversed what is now the Fan, generally following the route of the present Park Avenue. Over time additional roads were built, including the present Cary Street and the Richmond Turnpike, the present Broad Street. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a small number of Richmond-ers built country homes in the area. In 1769 William Byrd III held a lottery for large development lots along the Westham Road, and a small community, known as Scuffletown, developed. Intense land speculation following the War of 1812 produced in 1816 a proposal for a community named Sydney, which encompassed most of the present-day Fan and provided its street pattern. The Sydney plan was presumably laid out by the developers Jacquelin B. Harvie, George Winston, and Benjamin Harris, Jr., who had consolidated property holdings between the Westham Plank Road (present Cary Street) on the south and the Westham Road (present Park Avenue) on the north. These streets diverge from the center of Richmond in a manner analogous to the struts of a fan. The 536 one-acre lots of the Sydney plan were laid out in four-block squares (to use the parlance of the times) that extended several blocks west of the present Boulevard. The squares east of Morris Street are on a due north-south axis. West of Morris Street the east-west streets bend slightly to the northwest. Unfortunately, the speculative bubble burst in 1819, and until the Civil War only a modest number of suburban homes and country villas were constructed.

After the Civil War, the area began to change from a suburban enclave to an urban neighborhood. In 1867 the city annexed the neighborhood west to Lombardy Street, and by 1900 it had annexed most of the remaining area. In 1869 a horse-drawn streetcar line connected the neighborhood to the center of Richmond. Starting in 1888, electric streetcar service extended out Broad and Main streets. This public transit enhanced the development of the neighborhood. By the 1880s large numbers of row houses and town houses had been constructed. Although the panic of 1893 halted development, by the turn of the twentieth century the neighborhood saw the construction of housing at a fever pitch. Churches, apartments, and commericial and institutional buildings followed. By 1920 the neighborhood essentially had been built. The Fan has remained a largely intact and popular neighborhood throughout the twentieth century.

The growth of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Academic Campus (1950–present; bounded by Grace, Cary, Harrison, and Cherry streets) has resulted in the large-scale clearance of much of the eastern tip of the Fan District for a haphazardly planned group of forgettable buildings. Notable exceptions are the Franklin Street buildings (see the following section, covering West Franklin Street), which predate most of the other structures on campus.

The sheer number of important buildings in the Fan makes it impossible to note every one. Emphasis here is on the contextual variety that makes up the Fan.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Richard Guy Wilson et al.

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