Sunday, May 6, 2018

More Rare Images of Richmond, 1928.

Another set of rare views of Richmond from a publication called Down Where the South Began published by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce in 1928. Enjoy.

- Ray.

Some Rare Views of Richmond, 1927-1928

A friend of mine who happens to be a historian was kind enough to share two rare Richmond publications with me a few weeks back. I thought a few of the images should be shared. Here are four images from the first item. These are from a promotional publication for the years 1927-1928 for the Richmond News-Leader which was the city's long time afternoon newspaper. 

- Ray

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Imperial Tobacco Co. Office Building (1904): Gone But Not Forgotten - Wait, It IS Forgotten.

Drawing of the proposed Imperial Tobacco Company's office building, Sixth and
Cary Streets, Richmond, VA, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 17, 1904 (page six).

A friend showed me this Richmond Times-Dispatch image from Chronicling America about two years ago and he sent me the URL. The building is now demolished but was still extant in 1977 when the images (see below) were taken. These images are from VCU Libraries' Digital Collections web site. The excellent blog Vintage Richmond (which has been dormant for several years) posted those images and wrote about the building back in 2011 which is where I discovered them online. Here's a very truncated history of Imperial Tobacco Company.

 Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 17, 1904 (page six).


The above cut is a reproduction of a drawing for the new office building for The Imperial Tobacco Company, as it will appear when finished. 

The building is to be erected at the corner of Sixth and Canal Streets, this city. The design and plans were prepared by Mr. H. J. Blauvelt, Architect and Engineer, Richmond, Va. The contract has been awarded to Mr. Charles H. East, Danville, Va. The building is to be constructed of brick, with granite and terra cotta trimmings and slate roof, and is to be occupied exclusively for offices by The Imperial Tobacco Company. The main offices and counting room are on the first floor. The second floor is to be used as a sample room, taking the light from the roof through ceiling lights constructed of prism glass. The interior finish is to be of mahogany and quartered oak, panel ceiling and wains coating and hardwood floors; the reception hall, vestibule and lobby floors are to be of tile. The building is to be lighted through out with electric light and provided with a power elevator. The heat and ventilation system will be of the most modern arrangement, forced draft system, radiation to be taken from the power plant in the rear, and so arranged as to provide a circulation of cool air throughout the various offices and counting room in hot weather. 

The arrangement of the offices is the work of Mr. James MacDonald, resident director, and Mr. W. C. Read and they will no doubt be the most convenient of their kind in this country.

Images of the building from 1977.

The entrance as seen in 1977.

Here's a view of the site of Richmond Plant of the Imperial Tobacco Company (of Great Britain and Ireland), Limited. Stemmery and Warehouse, Sixth and Cary Streets; General Office, Dispatch Building, Ninth and Main Streets. from Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James : the Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests [found on Google Books] published in 1903. This image was published one year before plans their office building were printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in January of 1904. More about the tobacco industry in Virginia and Richmond HERE.

- Ray

Friday, April 27, 2018

An Unique Richmond Structure is Dying: The Daubrenet Mortuary Chapel at Oakwood Cemetery

The fate of one of the rarest of Richmond architectural types is literally hanging by a thread, and it may soon disappear forever.  One of the few mortuary chapels in this city is threatened with eminent collapse, and it remains to be seen if anyone will rescue it before it vanishes from the landscape of Oakwood Cemetery.   There are chapels in some Richmond cemeteries, like the former gatehouse and chapel at Hollywood Cemetery (now the cemetery offices) and the mortuary chapel at the Hebrew Cemetery (now brutally stripped of its interior and used as a tool shed).  These chapels were designed for use for foul-weather funerals and the semi-public purposes of their cemeteries and no burials under them were ever intended.  To encounter a private, nineteenth-century building that combines the functions of a religious chapel and a tomb, like that built by Leon Daubrenet in Richmond, or even Virginia, is rare indeed. 

The Daubrenet mortuary chapel at Oakwood Cemetery, circa 1890.

Richmond’s memorial architecture ranges from the granite family monoliths of Hollywood Cemetery to the fantastic, like the Richmond mausoleum of Diamond Peters:  Some mausoleums, like the Peters tomb, have a tiny anteroom, perhaps with a small table for flowers.  In contrast, the structure listed on the Oakwood records as “the Daubrenet vault” has room for several people to be seated, and features a tiered, altar-like shelving for flowers and images and icons, was originally illuminated by windows on two sides, and is also the burial place of family members in a crypt or basement below a wooden floor. 

The story of this interesting structure began, unfortunately, with the death of a baby.

This inscription in French is to the memory of Leon Daubernet’s infant son, Richard, who died in Richmond in 1889.  This small marble plaque on the wall may once had brass plaques in the voids.

The red-brick structure that has sheltered the remains of the Daubrenet family was probably built around 1890.  The previous August, Leon and Marie lost an infant son, Richard.  They built a small brick chapel with a slate roof on the edge of a hillside in Oakwood Cemetery, and on the wall, in French, is a small plaque that says:
Here rests the body of Richard Daubrenet, born at Washington the 22nd of September 1887 – died at Richmond the 6th of August 1889, at the age of twenty-two months and six days.  Regrette de toutes a famille. [roughly translated as “to the sorrow of the family]

This example of the much-weathered scrollwork at a corner of the Daubrenet mortuary chapel is a survivor of 130 Richmond summers and winters.  It hints at the elegant appearance the building must have had when originally completed.

Leon Daubrenet (then spelled “D’Aubrenet”) was 29 when he arrived in America, an ambitious young man with a wife and young daughter, sailing from Liverpool on a steamer ironically named City of Richmond and arriving in New York in October 1883. The couple had some connection with Virginia, as demonstrated by their young son having died and been buried in Richmond, and that the Daubrenets invested considerable money in their brick chapel at Oakwood. In 1889 they were back in Washington and received a permit from the authorities to operate a boiler for a ”French steam laundry.”  His wife died some time during this period and was apparently interred beside her dead child under the little chapel she and Leon had built. When he married Reine Cotte in Henrico County in 1891, Leon is listed as “widower.” 

The padlock suggests it has been many years since anyone entered the Daubrenet chapel.  An inelegant sheet of plywood topped with a metal grate replaced the original door.

While Daubrenet’s “French Steam Laundry” was constantly advertising in the Washington Post and apparently doing well, Leon and his wife’s marriage was deteriorating. In March 1899, Reine Daubrenet filed papers for divorce on the grounds of “gross cruelty and habitual drunkenness” and sought a protective court order to keep Leon from “interfering” with her.  Reine’s divorce never proceeded as Leon died two months later, his death being listed as from “pneumonia.”  Despite his abusive behavior, Reine had Leon brought back to Richmond and buried under the floor of his chapel in Oakwood with his children and first wife.  According to cemetery records, on the same day Leon was interred in the Daubrenet “vault” so was Martha Daubrenet, Leon’s eight-year-old daughter who died of appendicitis and who was evidently buried elsewhere, and her body then moved to the family mortuary chapel in Oakwood.

Inside the Daubrenet mortuary chapel, looking toward the entrance.  At some point the floor collapsed into the “crypt” below.  Note that the walls of the lower level were once whitewashed, and the overturned bench on top of the shattered floor.  Below the fallen debris of the interior of the building, Leon Daubrenet and his family are buried.

Throughout the early 1900s, Reine Daubrenet lived in Washington with a bewildering variety of family and extended family (including some related to Leon’s first wife), apparently still successfully running the family’s laundry business.  As she grew older, perhaps she visited Richmond: an old woman with a French accent, unlocking the door of the Daubrenet memorial and sitting quietly in the musty interior and lighting a candle for the dead below her.

A correspondent for a Richmond newspaper wrote an article in 1920 about Oakwood Cemetery, and provided a unique description of the interior of the Daubrenet chapel:
One of the most unusual spots in the entire place is the Daubrenet vault, built about 1890 by M. Daubrenet, of Washington, a Frenchman, as the final resting place of his infant son.  The structure is of red brick, and looks like a little chapel, which, indeed, it is, for on the ground floor there is an altar completely enriched with the symbols of the Roman Catholic Church, of which the owner is known to be a devout son.  To one side of the door is a stairway leading to the crypt where not only is the body of the child, but also that of Madame Daubrenet.

The other end of the chapel, showing the tiered altar mentioned by the visitor to the Daubrenet chapel in 1920 as decorated with religious symbols and imagery.  When the floor collapsed, this structure slid down the wall and the ghost mark of the original position can be seen above it.  The line along the far wall shows the original floor level.

A conjectural drawing of the interior of the Daubrenet mortuary chapel as it may have once appeared.  Sketch by the author.

In 1938, Reine, the second Madame Daubrenet, was buried with Leon and Leon’s first wife and their various children under the family chapel after she died in Philadelphia at age 92.  The L. T. Christian Funeral Home handled the arrangements, meeting the train and picking up Reine’s body at Broad Street Station on July 13th.   L. T. Christian charged five dollars to hire a man to “clean up vault,” and on the burial contract was a very specific instruction for Reine’s interment: “put in Daubrenet vault beside husband Leon Daubrenet.”  This stipulation seems to indicate that, even in the dark “crypt” below the chapel, the graves must have been clearly and individually marked.

A sidebar to the story of Richmond’s little mortuary chapel is the discovery of a business card taped to the L.T. Christian Funeral Home card for Reine Daubrenet’s funeral arrangements: the card of Henri Marceau, Assistant Director at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Marceau was a museum curator and director of considerable fame, succeeding Fiske Kimball as the Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Marceau’s biographical information notes nothing more specific beyond the fact he was born in Richmond in 1896.  In various census records he is listed as Reine Daubrenet’s son or grandson, although Marceau was actually probably the son of Leon Daubrenet’s daughter Jeanne by his first wife. 

The business card of Henri Gabriel Marceau (1896-1969), found attached to the L.T. Christian funeral home contract in the records of the Library of Virginia.  After she died in 1938, Henri  brought Reine Daubrenet back to Richmond for her burial in the family mortuary chapel.

In 1918, Marceau filled out his draft registration saying his father was French and that his nearest relative was a Jeanne Marceau, who lived at the same address in Washington as Reine Daubrenet.  Despite his tangled patrimony, Marceau apparently accompanied Reine’s body to Richmond (it may have been Marceau who she was visiting in Philadelphia when she died) and made arrangements for the woman regarded as his mother to join the rest of the family under Oakwood Cemetery’s little brick chapel.  Marceau himself, after a long and distinguished career in the art and museum field, chose to be buried after his death in 1969 in Philadelphia, far from the deteriorating Victorian sentimentalities of his Richmond family.

Showing how perilous the condition of the Daubrenet is today, this roof support rests on a thin column of plaster after the supporting brickwork has fallen away.  The collapse of the heavy roof, weighted with slate, will mean the end of this building.

Mausoleums and tombs are generally built of the most impervious material available to shelter the bodies of the dead for all time.  Granite, steel, marble, and iron are usually chosen, not wood and brick and slate.  What explains the choice by Daubrenet for his mortuary chapel of brick, wood trim and a wooden roof covered with slate shingles?  Perhaps an immigrant’s ignorance of the impermanent nature of buildings in Virginia, structures under siege by termites, extremes of weather and occasional hurricanes.  Perhaps it was all the Daubrenets could afford.  Hinting at this, the proud name over the door proclaims “L. DAUBRENET” in large letters, but instead of being engraved in granite, the plaque is made of rusting galvanized tin letters and the “L” has fallen off.  Perhaps the Daubrenets regarded this structure as much a chapel as it was a tomb, and as such would surely be the beneficiary of maintenance, just as you would expect for any building and especially one of such high purpose.

The inscription above the door to the Daubrenet mortuary chapel at Oakwood Cemetery.  The name of the family has been commemorated in galvanized tin instead of granite or marble.

A view of the interior of the building, showing the altar in the foreground and the collapsed floor.  Note also the extremely fragile state of the opposite wall and roof above.

The Daubrenet chapel has been wrecked by vandals, making it necessary at some point to brick up the windows.  The remains of the original door is among the debris inside the chapel on top of the now-collapsed floor, a fragile door which may have demanded the installation of a steel barred door with padlock.  The altar, once so richly adorned with Catholic symbols and imagery, is intact but has slid down the wall from its original position.  The layer of debris and the collapsed floor has made it impossible to identify any grave markers, although the fact the “crypt” walls were once whitewashed indicates there was once standing room below the main floor.

Ironically for a building whose only purpose was the shelter of the bodies of the dead and perpetuating forever the memory of the dead, the Daubrenet mortuary chapel at Oakwood Cemetery is dying.  The roof is literally hanging by a thread, and when the weight of that slate roof finally overcomes the underpinnings underneath, the roof will collapse into the brickwork, destroying both.  The City of Richmond (who apparently has no obligation to maintain a structure that is still in legally in the hands of Daubrenet descendants somewhere) will clear off the debris and demolish the walls and what remains of perhaps the only private mortuary chapel in Richmond will disappear forever.  Now far from the ground level in what had been the “crypt” below, the graves of the Daubrenets  – the little children, the first wife, the abusive husband, and the dutiful Reine - will all be lost along with memory of their entire family.

Regrette de toutes a famille.

- Selden.

Monday, April 23, 2018

“This Frightful Man-Trap” Capitol Collapse Catastrophe

As we watch construction of the new General Assembly Building on Virginia’s Capitol Square, it is important to remember that not every architectural transformation there has occurred under such happy circumstances.

If you want to treat yourself to a fun day trip, head east along 360.  As you pass by gorgeous green fields on the way to Tappahannock, you will go through a place called Aylett. The unincorporated place called Aylett is known for its recreation, rich history, and a day school of the same name.  Because there is often a story behind such names, one can’t help wondering where this one originated. As it happens, it was named for a family called Aylett, William Aylett in particular, who successfully ran mills and warehouses there.  It is also where Patrick Henry Aylett was born in 1825.

Patrick H. Aylett, 1825-1870.

Patrick Henry Aylett traced his roots to the Revolutionary War generation. His grandmother, Elizabeth Henry Aylett, was the youngest daughter of the great orator and first Virginia Governor Patrick Henry. So it was that in that family Patrick Henry became a popular name. Many of you may have met Patrick Henry in modern guise at Richmond’s historic St. John’s Church reenactment of the “Give me liberty or give me death” speech from the 1775 Second Virginia Convention.  The public participates in this passionately patriotic reenactment Sundays from Memorial to Labor Day.  It’s a really Richmond thing to do with family and friends.

Patrick Henry Aylett distinguished himself from his famous ancestor by going by the name of Henry.  Intelligent and articulate, Henry Aylett began his academic pursuits at Washington College, next at the University of Virginia, and finally earned his law degree at Harvard. He embarked on a successful law practice in both King William County and Richmond.  He was so successful in fact that President James Buchanan appointed him to be the United States District Attorney for the Eastern District. He was lured from the law by the literary bug, editing and publishing Richmond’s Examiner and Enquirer. Unlike many of his peers, he managed to avoid what was then the editorial occupational hazard of dueling. He married well and had three beautiful daughters.  It was as a journalist that he found himself covering a contentious trial over a Richmond mayoral race on April 27, 1870 at Virginia’s Capitol.

What set the scene for the trial was a rehash of North versus South all over again. During the first years after the war, federally appointed George Chahoon was mayor of Richmond. He completely reorganized city hall. He hired new policemen to enforce order, and they were grateful to him for their jobs.  He’d cleaned out the city bureaucracy of openly southern sympathizers, and replaced them with politically neutral ones.  Newly enfranchised blacks were among those hired. Consequently, George Chahoon’s recruits were understandably loyal to him.  In January, 1870 when Virginia was readmitted to the Union and localities began electing and appointing their own officials, Richmond City Council chose Henry Ellyson to lead them.  But George Chahoon did not give up his office without a fight.  This initiated the lawsuit that ended up in court on April 27, 1870. The Court of Appeals trial that Henry Aylett was covering for his paper took place on a floor above the old House of Delegates hall in the state Capitol.  By 1870 the Capitol was already an old building, having been completed in 1788.

Many years earlier, when extra space in the Capitol was required, and extra space was and is always required, a floor was inserted above the House chamber.  This created a courtroom and offices. The beams were insecurely rested on a small ledge that ran around the ceiling of the House chamber.  These timbers were also supported by a row of columns in the hall below. At some point, that system was altered, and the columns were removed, setting the stage for the coming disaster.  The courtroom floor was observed to be sagging for some time, but no one addressed it.

Henry Aylett arrived at early to get a good seat, and soon the courtroom was crowded past capacity.  It was later estimated over 300 men were in attendance for a trial which proved to be key to the future trajectory of politics of Richmond, and possibly Virginia as well.  Some were angry with the federal government for interfering with their post war partisan affairs during Reconstruction.  Others just wanted life to get back to normal, whatever that was.  And still others, who had found employment and status after the war in the federal administration felt insecure at the thought of losing all that in a dicey economic era.  Times were tough, and emotions ran high.

"Richmond calamity -- Interior of Hall of Delegates -- Getting out the dead and wounded"- From a sketch by W. L. Sheppard, Harper's Weekly, May 14, 1870.
Just before the proceedings were about to begin, Judge Joseph Christian walked out onto the balcony above the courtroom. There he had a bird’s eye view of what was about to occur. He later wrote what happened next was “the most shocking and appalling calamity that every happened in this country,” To his horror, he witnessed the ensuing carnage.  No warning was given when the floor violently gave way, trapping and crushing its victims. Immediately a giant cloud of dust from plaster and debris covered everything, making locating and rescuing survivors difficult. Volunteers from all classes and races immediately sprang into action to dig out the victims.  Firefighters threw ladders up against the outside walls to assist survivors through windows to safety. Some victims clung to windowsills until they could be rescued, and one poor man was left dangling from the room’s only fireplace mantel for what seemed to him forever.

Richmond calamity -- Removing the dead and wounded from the Capitol From photographs by E. and H. T. Anthony, 501 Broadway, N. Y., Harper's Weekly, May 14, 1870.

The world soon learned of this tragedy through national and international press attention.

…In this frightful man-trap hundreds of people were packed… the bells had just struck the hour of eleven.  The clerk of court had just entered, and placed his books on the table.  One judge was in his seat, his associates being still in the conference-room.  The counsel, the reporters, were in their places, and the spectators were engaged in pleasant conversation.  All at once, without a moment’s warning, the large girder under the partition between the clerk’s office and the court-room snapped in twain, and the floor, yielding to the pressure, began to bend downward, loosening the supports of the crowded gallery, which was wrenched away from the wall and precipitated into the centre of the court-room.  The floor was crushed through as if it had been glass, and, with its mass of human beings, fell into the Hall of delegates, a cloud of dust rising like smoke from the ruin.  The scene was terrible.  Through the cloud of dust and plaster that obscured the atmosphere, the horror-stricken survivors could discern nothing but a confused mass of dead and wounded flung together on the floor, while cries and groans arose that none who heard will ever forget…
-          Harpers Weekly, May 14, 1870.

It had been a generation since Richmonders experienced such a public catastrophe.  Older residents compared it to the Richmond Theatre Fire of 1811 where over 70 Richmonders perished, including Governor George Smith.  The Virginia Capitol Collapse was described in the national news as a pivotal point in the transition from federal to state’s self-rule.  The very trial the spectators were there to witness was a symbol of that struggle.  George Chahoon was perceived as a carpetbagger Reconstructionist, Henry Ellyson as the local elite’s favorite.  When the bloody dust settled, over 100 were wounded, some bearing injuries for life.  And 60 were killed, many outright.  Among them was Henry Aylett.  According to witnesses, he died instantly when a beam fell on him.  

Harper's Weekly, May 14, 1870.

After the disaster, as they looked around Capitol Square, some suspected that all old buildings were unsafe. There was even the suggestion that the Capitol itself should be demolished and a new one built.  But the unfortunate target of the architectural animosity became Richmond City Hall.  It was a beautiful neoclassical edifice that was designed by Robert Mills, the architect of Monumental Church just east on Broad Street.  That remarkable church was erected in 1814 over the tomb of the victims of the 1811 Richmond Theatre Fire.  Mills is best known as the architect of the Washington Monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C.   In the rush to alleviate public anxiety about the stability of old buildings, Richmond City Hall was destroyed.  This is a real pity as it would be a cherished landmark had it survived.  Apparently it was not as unstable as they assumed old buildings to be.  Local lore has it that dynamite was required to take it down when traditional demolition failed.

In the days and weeks that followed the disaster, eyewitness Judge Joseph Christian wrote that it wasn’t just the Capitol building in shambles.  “The Clerks office with all our records are destroyed and more than half the lawyers practicing in our Court are killed and wounded.” 

As for the mayor’s race at the heart of this disaster, Virginia government and judicial offices were relocated in temporary offices as the Capitol was restored.  The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that Henry Ellyson would be Richmond’s mayor.

Few today recall this tragedy on that fateful day in April of 1870.  A plaque describing it was affixed to the wall of what we now call the old House chamber.  Occasionally one can hear mention of it on the tours of the Capitol.   

In a strange twist of fate (and perhaps Mother Nature) Patrick Henry Aylett was once again crushed as his tombstone was toppled by a downed willow oak at Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Photo/ Alyson L. Taylor-White.

As for Patrick Henry Aylett, he is an occupant of Shockoe Hill Cemetery, the city’s 1822 burial ground. A recent windstorm toppled a giant willow oak onto his and several other graves.  His monument and several others were covered from view just as he had been all those years ago in that dreadful Capitol Collapse.  Volunteers are working to repair these markers as well as preserving the stories of Virginians who were known well in their lifetimes, but who might now be all but forgotten.

--- by Allyson Lindsey Taylor-White - who covered state and local government for 25 years, and wrote the recently released Shockoe Hill Cemetery, A Richmond Landmark History.