Tuesday, September 26, 2023

A Tale of Four Cornerstones

The removal of the Lee statue on Monument Avenue in September 2021 kept the subject of its cornerstone and what might be contained inside it in the public’s eye. An archeologist at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources opened the battered copper box, and its contents were dutifully compiled and reported here.


The next box that turns up at DHR may be from the wreckage of the City’s soon-to-be-demolished former Safety, Health, and Welfare building at 500 North 10th Street, whose fate is tied to the planned expansion of the VCU medical campus. When the cornerstone for that building was laid in 1962, a box was placed in it containing among other items, a City agency report, photos of the 1961 demolition of John Marshall High School, a copy of the “unsuccessful Richmond-Henrico County merger agreement,” various police and fire badges, and a copy of the City Charter.


The Richmond Safety, Health, and Welfare Building on 19th Street.


The seat of city government, the City Hall, is the literal and sentimental heart of the municipal government and special treatment is often accorded the cornerstone of these important structures. That has been true in Richmond, with the exception of the first City Hall, which stood on the site of what we call Old City Hall today. Completed in 1818 and demolished in 1874, the City Hall designed by Robert Mills apparently had no ceremonial cornerstone. City officials certainly expected to find one, to the point the Common Council passed a resolution in July 1874 that if a cornerstone was found that they should be sure to preserve it. A few weeks later the Richmond Dispatch reported that the cleaning and leveling of what for years would be known as the vacant “City Hall Lot” had been completed, but glumly concluded regarding the missing cornerstone, “It is doubtful it ever existed.”


Richmond Dispatch, July 20, 1875, noting the inexplicable absence of a cornerstone in the foundation of Richmond’s first City Hall.


In contrast, Richmond staged a gala celebration in April 1887, almost twelve years to the day after the city surrendered to Federal troops at the end of the Civil War. The occasion was the 1887 laying of the cornerstone of the exuberant Gothic granite confection that was to be the new City Hall. “Not only was there laid in due form the cornerstone of a noble edifice of granite and mortar, but the suggestion was present that the occasion was the foundation of a new era of prosperity and happiness for Richmond,” gushed the Richmond Dispatch. The State went even further, describing the cornerstone placement and said of the new City Hall, “All our hopes, our aspirations and dreams are indissolubly linked to her fate for weal or woe.”


An early picture postcard view of Richmond’s City Hall.


The cornerstone laid in 1887 had a variety of mementos, coins, and documents from not only Richmond but around the world. Among the dozens of items were a bullet from a battlefield in Spotsylvania, a large amount of Confederate money, a Roman coin, a General Lee medallion, a plug of tobacco, a photo of Jefferson Davis and his daughters, a Nova Scotia penny, a copy of a proclamation of the Governor regarding the distribution of salt, and a piece of stone “from Stone’s Castle in Ireland.” There were also railroad timetables in the cornerstone, a German spelling book, and “a poem about the 1886 Charleston earthquake by Edgar Lufsey, age 14.”


The Richmond Dispatch, April 6, 1887.


The parade to the site of the cornerstone ceremony was emblematic of Reconstruction Richmond, with Confederate veterans followed by the “Colored” battalion of troops, the Police Department, City Council, White and Black civic societies marching separately, the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, a contingent of Masons, and ranks of City employees. Thousands of Richmonders flooded downtown to watch the event and everyone was reported as wearing their finest “Sunday clothes.”


The ceremony was overseen by the Masons, using their regalia and as is Masonic custom, the cornerstone was placed at the northeast corner of the building. Because of the obvious association, the Masons became an integral part of the observances surrounding cornerstones, ensuring the proper blessings are conveyed along with the practical matter of correct placement of the stone, both the sentimental and fundamental foundation of the building. The Richmond Dispatch confirmed the location: “In the northeast corner was the corner-stone: its middle hollowed out and then filled with the copper-box, containing the coins, newspapers, etc. etc.”


Unlike many other buildings, the 1887 cornerstone was not physically marked and for all the pomp and ceremony, celebration, and promise, its location was utterly lost over the generations. In 1969, City Hall was cleaned for the first time and the dirt and soot of 75 years was removed, once again revealing the sparkling gray granite. “Although the cleaning job itself apparently was successful, the project was disappointing in one respect. It failed to uncover the location of the City Hall cornerstone,” wrote the Times-Dispatch, “…It had been hoped that the cornerstone did indeed bear some identification that had been covered by grime, and that the cleaning would disclose the location. But it was a vain hope.”


The exact location of the “lost” Richmond City Hall cornerstone is here, on the northeast corner of the building, below the level of the sidewalk.


Actually, the exact location of the fabled Richmond City Hall cornerstone was described by the Richmond Dispatch on April 5, 1887. The basement and foundations of the City Hall required a huge excavation that consumed the entire city block. Referring to the northeast corner of the hole, the Dispatch said, “In the east corner the masonry is some five or six feet high, but it is not yet up to the street line,” meaning modern sidewalk level. “Here, in a solid block of granite a space 9x9x14 inches has been hollowed out. In it will be deposited a tight-fitting copper box, and in that box will be contained – for the benefit of a far remote posterity – memorials of the age in which we live, newspapers, coins, books, etc. etc….” The answer to the mystery of the lost cornerstone is that it may in fact be visible in the Old City Hall basement, about at eye level in the Broad Street corner, even if it is unmarked and looks just like all the other massive blocks that hold up Old City Hall. Armed with this new information about the location, the stone walls deserve a close inspection inside the building to see if some clue was left indicating which is the block with the embedded copper box.


There is an item of particular interest in that box. Part of the mystery about the 1818 City Hall is why it was in such wretched condition when it was demolished. The City Engineer found parts of the dome unsupported and on the point of collapse, yet Richmond’s venerable architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott noted: “the wreckers found it so solidly constructed that they had difficulty in tearing it down.” This is due to modifications to the building which ruined Mills’ engineering of City Hall. The Shockoe Examiner explored this paradox in 2021.

In the list of items deposited, there is a sketch of the “Plan of old City Hall as it existed when pulled down in 1874,” which was drawn by Assistant City Engineer S. Edward Bates. Examining that drawing could reveal the modifications and confirm the theory that well-meaning if incompetent City functionaries undermined the building’s supports. As a result of their changes, they denied Richmond another magnificent domed building in addition to Mill’s Monumental Church on the city’s grandest boulevard. The truth about the first City Hall is tantalizingly out of reach deep in the granite foundation of Old City Hall.


There was very little pomp and ceremony when the cornerstone for the new 1971 Richmond City Hall was unveiled on one of the last days of that year. A small number of City officials joined Mayor Thomas Bliley, Jr., and Councilman Aubrey Thompson on the southeast corner of the new building on the afternoon of December 29. No brass bands played, no passing processions of citizens or soldiers saluted the new facility, and no Masons appeared in their ceremonial garb. A few Richmonders walking by on Broad Street paused to see what was going on, and among them was 14-year-old Selden Richardson with his camera, vaguely aware that something verging on important was happening in front of City Hall.

The placement of the cornerstone of the current Richmond City Hall, December 29, 1971.


The 1971 cornerstone of the City Hall as it appears today.




Bliley and Thompson inserted a copper box into the wall with a selection of innocuous mementos of the city: a Richmond telephone directory, the Christmas issue of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper, a letter from City Council to whoever opens the capsule, and other small items selected by the staff of the Valentine Museum. The box was shoved behind the date stone with little fanfare and the edges were sealed by City employees. Once again recalling the loss of the 1887 cornerstone, the Times-Dispatch account of the 1971 event ran photos for the benefit of generations of Richmonders yet unborn under a succinct headline directing them to “The Southeast Corner” of the new City Hall.


The tradition of preserving mementos for some future age evolved from strictly cornerstones and expanded into time capsules in the 1970s. Improbably, Richmond was home to a chemist who was identified by the New York Times as “the time capsule industry’s leading technical consultant.” When interviewed, James E. Kusterer admitted, “Well, there’s no industry, so I don’t know how laudatory that is…” Kusterer’s previous claim to fame was at age 15, he “almost blew up Benedictine High School” after mixing up a quart of nitroglycerine in the science lab. After the building was evacuated, Kusterer’s experiment was removed from the school by the Fort Lee bomb squad.


The time capsule industry’s leading consultant, Richmond’s own James E. Kusterer. Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 30, 1976.


Kusterer went on to patent a method of preserving items in time capsules by first deacidifying and then stabilizing them in inert argon gas. In cooperation with Reynolds Metals, Inc., Kusterer took advantage of the mania for time capsules in the 1970s created by interest in the American Bicentennial and prepared aluminum repositories that were installed all over the country. An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about Kusterer and his time capsules cited the frustrating loss of the Richmond City Hall cornerstone as an example of the dangers inherent in using building blocks as vessels of cultural preservation.


For now, the City Hall cornerstone contents remain in the perpetual dark for more than 130 years. One of those items that was placed in the cornerstone in 1887 was submitted by Mr. E. B. Gatling, a clerk who lived on North 20th Street. Dutifully listed among the other mementos in the copper box is Gatling’s list of “Questions to be answered in the sweet bye-and-bye.” Hopefully, one day when the 1887 City Hall finally reveals its secrets and provides the answers to Mr. Gatling’s questions, the Richmond of the future will be a city that truly meets the definition of that “sweet bye-and-bye.”




Friday, September 8, 2023

“I’ve got a church in my back yard!” The hidden history of Granite Chapel on Forest Hill Avenue

Richmond’s long history, as recorded in its built environment, does not always survive to tell its history and the story of the people who created it. Churches, grand homes, office buildings, and entire neighborhoods rise and fall. Sometimes their passage is momentous, and sometimes buildings simply vanish due to fire or demolition and its fate unnoticed. Rarer is the building that still exists but its history has been forgotten and its original purpose blurred and then lost. Such is the case of the small Presbyterian church that once stood beside Forest Hill Avenue, not far from the railroad siding once known as Granite Station.


Both the church and the little depot existed because of the industry in what was then northern Chesterfield County. There are vast deposits of granite under the south side of the James River at Powhite Creek, and beginning in 1868 quarries in this valley provided stone for large projects in Richmond, Washington, and cities up and down the East Coast. The Southern Railroad ran through the center of the mining area and the siding at Granite provided shipment directly from the quarries.


A geologic survey from a 1911 geologic survey of the Powhite Creek valley. Surrounding Granite Station, the gray areas are granite deposits, and the crossed pick symbol shows the locations of quarries.



A snapshot of the activity around Granite Station in 1888. The depot itself stood where the Southern Railroad crossed “River Road,” today’s Forest Hill Avenue. Note the number of quarries in the area and the small houses on high ground east of the crossing.


Today, the Powhite Creek valley is not much more than the conduit for a highway that crosses the James in a river of fast-moving cars and trucks, but in the early 1900s this was a very different landscape. The valley would have been a rough-looking industrial zone of railroad tracks, gaping water-filled pits, gravel piles, cranes, and noise. The principal buildings such as the depot and a general store clustered around the railroad tracks at the grade crossing against a backdrop of raw stone and blowing dust. The valley was punctuated by the constant roar of grinding rock into gravel, the whine of drilling and occasional shouts followed by the crack of dynamite. Uphill and east of the works stood the small frame houses of quarrymen and their families, arranged along the River Road (today’s Forest Hill Avenue).



Today the area where the Southern Railway crosses Forest Hill Avenue shows none of the industry that employed the parishioners of Granite Chapel. On the right stood the Granite Station. Where the Powhite Parkway now runs through the valley, now only the walls of a water-filled quarry on the western edge of the highway hint at the amount of activity that once took place here.


Granite slabs, gravel and cobblestones were shipped from Granite Station constantly, but passenger service there was discontinued and the station itself eventually burned down before World War I. Nevertheless, the name Granite Station was still used as a reference point well into the 1950s when a derailment on the Southern was described in a Richmond newspaper as being a mile and a half from the “old Granite Station.”


The next station to the west on the Southern Railroad was Bon Air, a town created by Richmond developers as a suburban resort. Bon Air Presbyterian Church was founded in 1884 and under the energetic and popular leadership of Rev. James K. Hazen began a program of outreach and growth. The Presbyterian Church created “missions” in underserved parts of Richmond and the surrounding counties, and chapels opened in places like Fulton in 1908 and in Montrose Heights in 1912, each intended to eventually develop into full-scale churches. Rev. Hazen himself was responsible not only for the growth and popularity of Bon Air Presbyterian but also the construction of a chapel on Warwick Road and another to serve the workers of the Granite Station area. Research has failed to reveal the location and appearance of the Warwick Chapel where Rev. Hazen officiated at the dedication of the building in the summer of 1900. It was probably very similar to Granite Chapel. If the building on Warwick was sited like the original site of Granite Chapel, it was fronting directly on the road and the widening of Warwick to four lanes in recent years may have destroyed the site.


Construction of Granite Chapel was well underway when the weekly Presbyterian newspaper reported in June 1900, “Granite: A commission from the East Hanover Presbytery visited this place, which is about a mile and a half from the corporate limits of Richmond on May 8 and organized a church.” The Richmond Dispatch reported only a few weeks later that the new little church beside the River Road was almost completed.


The new chapel was 25 x 35 feet, built with arched windows, a small steeple, and one chimney served by a woodstove. The interior was finished with plastered walls above wainscoting, and ghost marks on the eastern wall indicate the position of a pulpit, raised a couple of steps above the floor level.

A conjectural sketch of how the Granite Chapel may have appeared when it was constructed in 1900.


Rev. Hazen, who died in 1902, did not live to see the church at Granite Station thrive and become a center of the surrounding community. The little building was the scene of numerous weddings and celebrations, and probably a quite few funerals although there is no evidence of a cemetery associated with the chapel. Marcus Lynch came all the way from Newport News to marry Richmonder Lillie Carbaugh at Granite Chapel in 1903, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch approvingly reported the bride was clad in white chiffon trimmed in lace when she emerged from the church doors. These little missionary chapels were also used for training students from Richmond’s Presbyterian Seminary, and Granite had its share of earnest young guests delivering the sermon.


The purpose of Granite Chapel expanded as it was used by local groups and individuals who formed a civic association. The Granite Civic Association met at the church in 1921 for an extensive “health drive,” with a presentation by a representative of the State Health Department. That same year the Civic Association also petitioned for improvement to Forest Hill Avenue, especially on the road to Bon Air. In the stretch between roughly today’s Stratford Hills Shopping Center and Thompson School, they counted 170 water-filled potholes. This survey of conditions underscores the difficulty of travel on some county roads and underlines the need for small facilities or chapels to fill the geographic gaps between large, established churches. It also demonstrates the degree of interest and the engagement of the community.


That location of the chapel between the Presbyterian churches in Bon Air and near Forest Hill Park was important. The little church that filled that gap largely catered to the quarrymen and workmen’s families within walking distance or a short wagon ride. Because of the concentration of quarry workers among the congregants, Granite Chapel may have been regarded as “blue collar” in comparison with the established churches down the road. Far more important than social standing among the congregation, the neighborhood church was local and familiar and must have been the spiritual home for many of the families who lived around Granite Station. For the dusty quarrymen walking home, seeing lights on in the chapel at quitting time must have signaled that a welcome diversion from their grueling occupation might be taking place that evening.


The Granite Chapel as it appears today. The chimney has been removed above the roof as has the small steeple. The once-arched windows have been replaced by conventional windows, the interior plaster and plank ceiling stripped and a garage door has been added in the wall beside the original entry.


One of the interesting details of the interior of the chapel is a pedestal chimney. This was an inexpensive way of creating a masonry chimney that stands not on the ground but on a cantilevered platform built on a wall. A tin stove pipe from a woodstove met the brickwork flue, hopefully eliminating the risk of fire. It should be noted this design, although less expensive than an entire brick chimney and footings, is understandably subject to deterioration of the wood support from the weight of the masonry above it, and chimneys like this are wildly out of code today and never used.


The “pedestal chimney” in the Granite Chapel building. A tall wood stove pipe ran up to the circular opening, eliminating the need for what would ordinarily be a masonry chimney running all the way to and through the floor.


A smaller version of a “pedestal chimney” in a room with intact walls can be seen a couple miles away from Granite Chapel at the Old Bon Air Post Office (circa 1916). Here the wood stove is still in place, but the tin pipe between it and the chimney flue is missing.


A window inside Granite Chapel as it appears today. Note the plaster has been removed from the walls but much of the supporting lath remains. The tops of the arched windows have been covered with exterior siding and conventional windows installed in their place, disguising the original appearance and purpose of the building.


An angle in the remaining wainscoting indicates the position of a raised dais and pulpit in the east wall of the former Granite Chapel.


With the exception of the brown wainscoting that runs around the walls of Granite Chapel, the interior must have looked much like this example of an unidentified rural church, with its dark ceiling and white walls.


The interior of Granite Chapel today shows the rafters that once supported the plank ceiling and the walls covered with lath, but the plaster was removed.


The standing seam metal roof still shows a patch where a small steeple or belfry was removed.


Glimpses of life in Granite can be seen in occasionally in newspapers, such as notice of an “elaborate entertainment” to be held at the Chapel on Christmas Eve in 1913. There was a large turnout in June of 1918 during World War I, when a patriotic service was held at the chapel. Service flags were ceremonially unfurled, one with six stars representing members of the congregation who were serving in the military during World War I, and another flag of sixteen stars, each representing service members from the Granite community. The newspaper noted that “practically every man of draft age has been called from the community, virtually stripping that section of young men.” The building may have served as a schoolhouse in the early 1920s after the Granite Civic League met with representatives of the school board to plan to accommodate seventy-five school-age children in the growing neighborhood.


Quarrying granite in this part of Chesterfield County continued in the first decade of the century, but declined in the years leading up to World War I. At the same time, the advent of affordable automobiles like Ford’s Model T meant people were no longer dependent on getting to church on foot or by horse, and Presbyterians in this part of Chesterfield now had the option of attending the larger churches in Bon Air or in Woodland Heights, or elsewhere in the city. Still, the chapel had value and as an indication of community interest, a hundred people signed a petition in 1915 urging the Richmond streetcar line be extended to Granite Station. Had this happened, a station there might have had a second life as a commuter hub and perhaps meant a different eventual fate for Granite Chapel.


In 1932, the dwindling congregation of Granite Chapel honored Rev. W.S. Campbell for his twenty years of service in leading the church. By the late 1930s the building was being used occasionally for Sunday school but principally by the Forest Hill Presbyterian Church Youth League, and at the end of 1937 the remaining congregation finally petitioned Forest Hill Presbyterian to move their membership to the larger church. A Granite Chapel Youth League was created and put in charge of the building, and announced they intended to repair the plaster and repaint the interior. As the only structure in this part of Chesterfield County suitable for meetings of any size, Granite Chapel was still filling a variety of needs, meetings, and entertainment for the area. On a warm summer’s Sunday evening in June 1938, for example, the “Young People’s League of Forest Hill and Granite” entertained their peers from Second Presbyterian on the lawn of Granite Chapel.


A 1942 topo map of the area around Granite shows the chapel, marked with a tiny cross and labeled “Granite Church” in its original site, close to the north side of Forest Hill Avenue. Notice all quarrying activity around this once-busy part of Chesterfield County has ceased by this date. At some point after 1942, the Granite Chapel was moved downhill from the small knoll where it was built and became a barn in the backyard of 5540 Forest Hill Avenue. The brick home that now occupies the original site of Granite Chapel was built in 1946.


Since the removal of Granite Station, the name, “Granite” still persists, but today more closely identifies the Black community that once existed west of Powhite Creek and the name is rarely used where it is shown on this map.

The current owners of what must surely be one of the few Richmond homes with a church in the backyard are Jessica Voutsinas and Alex Patin. They heard stories from previous owners and neighbors about the unique quality of their backyard barn and the improbable story of how the little church was put on rollers and moved. They hope to gradually restore the interior and return Granite Chapel to what was its original simple grace.

In 2020, Michael Paul Williams chronicled thestory of the “other” Granite, an African American village that was located on the west side of the Powhite valley and in many ways mirrored the White community to the east. Also made up of quarrymen, small farmers and their families, the western Granite community formed around Gravel Hill Baptist Church. The commercialization and widening of Forest Hill Avenue and the construction of Chippenham Parkway has ensured the complete destruction of almost all of the homes of the vanished African American village of Granite.

The Shockoe Examiner also explored the western, Black section of Granite and its community cemetery which has been almost completely lost to history. 








Thursday, July 20, 2023

A $60,750 House Made of Garbage.” Reynolds Aluminum Tests Recycling as Architecture in Henrico

America in 1973 was a place of shortages, and the word was used over and over to describe the economic and societal condition of the country. The headline on the first page of a Richmond Times-Dispatch from December read, “’Brother, There’s No Shortage of Shortages,”’ and it was on everyone’s mind. Everything from nurses to boxcars were in short supply, as was cotton for clothes. “Nothing is more common than food and clothing,” the Times-Dispatch noted glumly, “…and that might prove to be the biggest crunch of all.”

It was the dwindling flow of crude oil that proved to be the most damaging shortage. The winter of 1973-1974 saw the oil embargo of the United States because of support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war. That lack of the supply of energy affected American industry across the board, reducing stocks of gasoline and heating oil but also crippling the manufacture of industrial products – including building supplies. Not only were building materials more expensive to produce, but transportation of these items became more difficult.

In the face of the lack of resources, the government and the public both became gradually aware of the potential for recycling and the economic savings that could result. This is especially true of aluminum. To produce one pound of aluminum from ore required more than six pounds of coal, but to produce the same amount of aluminum from scrap cost less than a quarter of a pound. Among the enthusiasts for recycling aluminum was Richmond’s Reynolds Metals Corporation, which pioneered recycling aluminum beginning in 1967 and operated twelve aluminum recycling plants across the country.  The company opened a new facility in Williamsburg in 1973 which was projected to recycle 450 million cans.


A publicity photo of the house at 101000 Cherrywood Road in Henrico County. It was built by Reynolds Metals in 1973 as a demonstration of how using recycled materials was both practical and affordable.


Reynolds was anxious to develop a market for the metal as a building material that was strong, lightweight, and could be produced by reusing aluminum products. The company’s competitor, Alcoa Aluminum, had already built a demonstration house in Richmond in 1958 that showcased the extensive use of aluminum as a building material.


See the Shockoe Examiner’s examination of this astonishing mid-century home HERE.


The Alcoa model home emphasized the unique properties of aluminum, but in contrast, Reynolds wanted to demonstrate how a full range of recycled materials could be incorporated into a modern home. The Alcoa house, with its hyper-modern and colorful appearance, promised a “carefree” lifestyle, but the Reynolds building is carefully designed to blend in and, from the street, intended to be indistinguishable from hundreds of other tri-levels in Richmond. On August 24, 1973, the house on Cherrywood Drive was opened to the public for tours.


A cutaway view showing the location of various recycled building materials in the 1973 Reynolds demonstration house.


Reynolds said that the scrap aluminum that went into framing the house, the joists, siding, windows, and gutters were the equivalent of 183,500 beverage cans and that 8.5 tons of newspaper went into the subflooring, sheathing, roof deck, and paneling. The driveway was made of a slurry of shredded rubber tires and crushed glass, and glass was also used as foundation fill and footings. The carpet was recycled nylon fiber and the pipes were recycled cast iron. What appeared to be conventional bricks on the exterior were actually a mixture of crushed glass and quarry tailings. Robert Testin, director of environmental planning for Reynolds, said in an interview the only components of the house not made with reused waste material were the window glass, the hardwood steps and trim, plasterboard, and a few sheets of plywood.

By the end of October 1973, the tours were discontinued and the house was put on the market for sale. The New York Times, ever eager for an eye-catching headline, wrote about the house Reynolds built in Richmond, calling it “A $60,750 House Made of Garbage.” Despite that sensational title, the article had to admit that the home is “indistinguishable from any other suburban house, even though it is the first to be constructed almost entirely from recycled materials.”


The Reynolds Metals Corporation’s “recycled house” as it appears today.


For its utterly unique combination of elements, the Reynolds house still looked just like any other tri-level of that type. Indeed, even people living in it were unaware of the house’s unusual history. Twenty years ago, a writer for “Waste 360,” a website that serves the recycling industry, revisited Richmond’s Reynolds Metals house. “The homeowner I chatted with had no idea that her house was made from recycled products,” wrote John Wilford. “To her, it was just home. She remembered that the neighbors said there was some kind of fuss over the house when it was built, but they couldn’t exactly remember what it was.”

There is no record of another test house like this having been constructed, although many recycled aluminum building materials like siding became common in America’s rush to the rapidly growing suburbs. The fact that the recycled house was completely indistinguishable, even for the people occupying it, from any other suburban Richmond home is the real triumph of this exercise in the reuse of resources. In contrast to the Alcoa home, with its attention-grabbing purple anodized aluminum panels and revolutionary, open design, the ordinariness of the Reynolds house has meant it fits in seamlessly with other houses in the West End. Submerging into that unremarkable streetscape confirmed that houses “made of garbage” could and do serve their occupants well, and in the case of the Reynolds “recycled house” has done so for fifty years.




Monday, July 3, 2023

"Richmond Murder & Mayhem" - new book by Selden Richardson.

Selden Richardson's latest publication is available for sale online and in bookstores today. This is Selden's third book and focuses on crime and tragedy in Richmond. The jacket describes the setting for the book:

Explore the dark side of the history of the River City... Richmond has a curious share of horrific accidents, coolly calculated slaughter, and incidents of implacable deceit in its history. Here, the wronged, the devious, and the heartbroken enact their lives on the stage set of the River City's ostensibly genteel neighborhoods, where a tree-shaded city street may have been the site of a crime of passion and an innocuous path in the woods recalls a grisly unsolved murder. Discover these and other lesser-known stories, from a young bride poisoned by her husband to the horrific fate of an entire airliner. Local historian Selden Richardson explores tales from a time when murder and mayhem stalked the streets of Richmond.

Selden, in addition to being one of the long time editors of The Shockoe Examiner (and lately, its major contributor), is a local historian who writes and lectures about history and architecture in his native city of Richmond. He is the author of Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia (The History Press, 2008) and The Tri-State Gang in Richmond: Murder and Robbery in the Great Depression (The History Press, 2012). 

Selden will be signing copies of the book at Barnes & Noble at Libbie Place on July 8th, 2023 at 1 p.m.

Read more about Selden and his new book in this recent feature in Richmond Magazine by Harry Kollatz.

Congratulations Selden!

Friday, June 23, 2023

1963: Mystery at College Siding -- Elaborate suicide or an unsolved murder?

Richmonders have been found floating in the Kanawha Canal for many years, probably beginning soon after it was completed in the 1850s. Black or White, drunk or sober, the still water that ran beside the roaring James River concealed them all until fate decided when to reveal the bodies of accidental drownings, suicides, or murder victims. As recently as May 2023, a body was found in Tuckahoe Creek, which is a part of Richmond’s canal system and water supply.

That location is not far from College Siding, a term that has fallen into disuse since the University of Richmond ceased heating its buildings with coal in 2012. A branch line ran from the main Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, crossed the canal on a gracefully curving bridge and entered the campus at the intersection of Huguenot Road and River Road. Automobile traffic would come to a halt as coal cars crossed the intersection where the River Road Shopping Center now stands and continued to the UR steam plant on a right of way reimagined in 2020 as the UR “Eco-Corridor.” Despite the only occasional use, the trestle that carried those coal cars across the canal still had to be inspected as debris would float down the canal and accumulate against the bridge’s pilings.


C&O Railroad workers James Bendall and C.E. Kennedy were making a routine inspection of the bridge on the morning of April 24, 1963, as they walked the College Siding tracks and peered over the edge. It was cool and dry that Wednesday morning so a quick look at the bridge was a pleasant break in their daily routine. The two men made their way across, leaning over the edge on the upstream side to see what had collected on the pilings below when their attention was drawn to an extraordinary sight. Bendall and Kennedy were astonished to see a pair of shoes sticking straight up out of the water near the bridge. “We thought it may be the feet of a dummy at first,” recalled Bendall. “After we were pretty sure it was a body, we called the police.”



The former railroad trestle at College Siding as it appears today, sixty years after Earl Lester’s body was found here.


The upside-down body was that of Earl Lester, a 49-year-old former coal miner from West Virginia who lived at 2313 West Grace Street. Staff from the Tuckahoe Volunteer Rescue Squad were frustrated in their attempt to recover his corpse until they discovered what kept the floating body in its inverted position: tightly bolted around the neck was a length of chain with a hundred-pound block of concrete on the other end. Adding to the mystery, there was a bullet hole in the center of Lester’s forehead. Dr. Pedro Lardizabal, the Richmond Medical Examiner, said the body had been in the water for about a week, which didn’t make it any easier on Lester’s son, Raymond, who had the grim task of identifying his father’s body at the morgue from a tattoo on his arm. As to what happened to Earl Lester, “We’re considering 50-50 between murder and suicide,” said Dr. Lardizabal.


Railroad personnel found Earl Lester’s feet protruding from the surface of the canal on the right side of the College Siding bridge. There was no guardrail in place here in 1963.


Lester was a retired coal miner who had to give up work in the mines due to an arthritic condition of his spine, a condition so debilitating he was often forced to wear a brace. He and his family lived in Richmond for four years, but Gladys Lester said that her husband was in the habit of disappearing and going off on “trips” without telling anyone where he went, sometimes for more than a month. He left the house on April 15, leaving a note for Gladys that said simply, “I’m going.” She recalled, “He liked to get off by himself, liked to walk and see things. He didn’t gamble a bit and wasn’t a drinking man.” She thought that the former miner might be headed to Tennessee to visit his mother. Gladys Lester also told the police that when he went on these trips, Earl often took a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle with him – the same caliber gun that made the hole between his eyes.

The Henrico County Police were stumped as to what happened. Chief W. J. Hedrick said the police had found weighted bodies before, but “never had a case that looked so much like murder but could be suicide.” The large block of concrete was the heart of the mystery. The police said Lester apparently would have had to “drag the block to the middle of the trestle, chain it to his neck, and – in a bent-over position because of the chain stretching only 15 inches from his neck to the weight – shoot himself. Then, according to that hypothesis, he would have toppled into the canal.” Lester’s wife, Gladys, didn’t believe it and said of Lester, “he was strong in his arms, strong all over, but he didn’t have any strength in his back.” Lester’s death certificate specifies, “gunshot wound to the head” as the cause of death, and the medical examiner noted there was no water in Lester’s lungs, indicating he was dead when he hit the water. If he had shot himself, leaning over the bridge, where was the gun? And how did the crippled ex-miner manage to drag a hundred-pound concrete weight across the trestle? – something that his family was convinced Lester could never physically manage by himself.


Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 26, 1963.


Someone suggested an experiment: a similar rifle be purchased, cut down like Lester’s, and dropped off the College Siding trestle to see how it might drift in the canal. Instead, on April 27 the Henrico Police requested the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad close the gates at Nine Mile Lock and drain the section of the canal at College Siding. A frustrated Chief Hendrick said if they don’t find the gun, “we’ll have to settle on homicide.” The canal was drained and Henrico detectives donned hip boots to wade around in the muddy bottom but never found Lester’s sawed-off .22 rifle.

The medical examiner said it was his opinion that the bullet hole in Lester’s forehead was made from a distance – inconsistent with somebody shooting themselves. Dr. Lardizabal felt the issue of the chain around Lester’s neck was also indicative of murder, saying the victim’s neck was sixteen inches and the chain only allowed fifteen and a half inches.  Lardizabal maintained this arrangement was the work of someone else who wasn’t concerned about tightness and discomfort. Chief Hendrick disagreed, saying if Lester was going through “all that,” (meaning dragging the concrete block and chaining himself to it), “whether it was loose or tight wouldn’t make any difference.” Further confounding the suicide theory, Lester was known to have been wearing a watch and carrying his wallet when he left the house, and neither were found on his body.


The intersection of Huguenot Road and River Road can be seen from the College Siding trestle.


The canal continued to give up its dead with the discovery on May 11 of James McClare of 17 South Davis Street, whose body was found lodged underwater near the Virginia Electric and Power Company plant at 12th and Byrd Streets. The cause of his death was listed simply as “drowning.” Back in Henrico, the police (sounding somewhat exasperated) finally gave up and declared Earl Lester’s death at College Siding a suicide. “Chief Hendrick said all evidence points conclusively to suicide. There was no one single piece of evidence uncovered to indicate this, he said, ‘but we know it was suicide.’” Earl Lester’s body was shipped back to the mountains and buried in a cemetery in Montcalm, West Virginia.

It has been a long time since the coal cars halted traffic at the River Road Shopping Center, and most strollers on the UR Eco-Corridor have no idea that the nicely landscaped path was once a railroad siding. The curved College Siding bridge across the canal, replete with “No Trespassing” signs, today only serves to carry car traffic to homes on the other side of the railroad tracks. Below the bridge, the canal is a poisonous-looking pea soup green and its impassive quiet surface offers no hint regarding what lies below.

Earl Lester knew how to disappear, so was this an elaborate suicide followed by the ultimate act of self-obliteration? Or did Earl have help in engineering his dive into the quiet green water of the canal and other hands lugged that concrete block out on the tracks? Was it possible that a wooden stocked .22 rifle, lightened by the removal of part of the barrel, simply floated to the surface after the huge splash of that concrete block hitting the water and drifted off down the canal?

Earl Lester’s death certificate states as the cause of death, “gunshot wound to head,” and the section with the rather mild title, “Describe How Injury Occurred,” has been filled out with the terse notation, “Shot in head with .22 caliber firearm,” after which someone has added to the form, “concrete slab chained to neck.” The chilling description of his body yields nothing to explain Earl Lester’s mysterious end, sixty years ago at College Siding.