Thursday, September 15, 2022

“Beautiful Westbourne:” Demolition and Perseverance in a Midcentury Richmond Neighborhood

David Bass, formerly of the website “Modern Richmond,” is quoted as saying, “Richmond has some great examples of Modern residential architecture, but it has only one Midcentury Modern neighborhood.”  He was referring to architect Charles Goodman’s designs in Highland Hills in Bon Air, but there is another neighborhood, on Libbie Avenue north of Broad Street, that could also claim the title of “Midcentury Modern neighborhood.”


An ad from October 1955 for Westbourne
and “The Challenger” home design.

The area is called Westbourne, and despite the typical Richmond faux-Olde World name the subdivision was constructed with the newest mid-1950s styling and conveniences and marketed to young couples.  These were often families of veterans who were anxious to use the financing available to them under the GI Bill, and who subsequently fueled a building boom in the western part of Richmond.  In response, the homes of Westbourne were constructed quickly of prefabricated parts, all on a standard floor plan and reflective of the mass production that fueled America’s war effort in the 1940s.


One of the few homes in Westbourne that still retains the 1950s appearance.

This kind of efficiency of construction was a lesson hard won by American industry during World War II, where goods and tanks, ships, and planes were mass produced by the thousands.  In the housing industry, this meant standardization of parts and almost production line speed as crews moved from lot to lot, performing their specific tasks.  “By purchasing quality materials in tremendous quantities, we obtain much lower prices,” explained one advertisement for the new community. “All materials are assembled and readied to exact requirements right at Westbourne… A trained crew of expert artisans competes a special segment in each home, thus every detail receives efficient, uniform, highly skilled attention.”


Rows of Challenger houses prepared for demolition along Spencer Drive.

The home plan was marketed with a bold name typical of its time: “The Challenger,” This is the same period that brought you names like the Ford Fairlane, the Hydromatic transmission, and Oldsmobile’s Rocket 88, all implying modernity, industry, and all the modern benefits of the post-war world.  Research has failed to find the unnamed designer of the Challenger house, but it was certainly someone with a background in modern, labor-saving materials and techniques as well as home design.


Another ad for “Beautiful Westbourne” from a 1956 Richmond newspaper.

The use of a single plan not only streamlined construction but also simplified the sale and promotion of the new houses since each Challenger home was almost precisely the same for every buyer, the only concession to variety being the four types of decorative exterior trim from which to pick.  During some promotions, a demonstration home in Westbourne would be completely furnished by a local furniture store, or in one case, Sears and Roebuck.  Sears provided a complete suite of furnishings from their “Harmony House” line for one of the model homes and combined with what were then ultra-modern conveniences of the Challenger house, it must have been an impressive display.


An ad for Sears’ “Harmony House” line of furnishings, which were used in a Westbourne model home in 1956.  This affordable and modern furniture may have filled many new homes in the community.

Whoever wrote the ad copy for Westbourne was not afraid to use hyperbole or exclamation points.   One newspaper advertisement screamed at the prospective buyer who might express a degree of doubt about the houses in Westbourne: “The CHALLENGER is not merely a name.  The CHALLENGER is a standard of value.  The CHALLENGER epitomizes the acme in quality and value and livability of a fine, modern home.  The CHALLENGER is a reality, an example of skillful designing, planning, and construction.  Even if you had a million dollars, you couldn’t buy finer building materials than those used in The CHALLENGER!”

One of the design elements common to the Challenger houses was this distinctive balustrade on the stairs, inexpensively made by cutting down alternating boards of a wall of tongue-and-groove paneling.

The designers of the Challenger home did use some innovative features, not the least of which was gas-fueled radiant heat.  This was not unheard of in homes built on a slab, where pipes with warm water circulated and heated the room from the floor up but must have appeared as an unusual method of heating in Richmond, where oil heating hot water radiators is so common.  A separate thermostat controlled heat to the upstairs rooms.  The advertisements listed other modern amenities included in the purchase price: a kitchen equipped with a Westinghouse electric range, and a Westinghouse “Automatic Laundromat,” which was a washing machine.  There was a built-in exhaust fan in the kitchen, Formica countertops, and a maple chopping block.

The wreckage of one of the tiled bathrooms cited as an amenity in early Westbourne sales promotions.


An ad for Sears’ “Harmony House” paint palette.  These colors may have informed the decoration of many of Westbourne’s first buyers in the 1950s.


One of the homes on Spencer Road slated for demolition, as seen in 2012 and today.


Living room, dining room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom with shower completed the first floor of the Challenger home, complemented by an enclosed garage with electric roll-up door.  Upstairs was a third bedroom, another tiled bathroom, and an extra room promoted as a den or spare bedroom. 


The shattered interior of a Challenger house, showing the kitchen and beyond, the living room.

The appeal of the Challenger home was powerful: not only its design, but the location in the West End and proximity to the growing Broad Street corridor.  Perhaps most attractive was the financing offered for veterans through the GI Bill. Houses sold for $11,500, but qualified veterans could buy a home with no money down and approximately $67 per month, which included principal, interest, insurance, and taxes.  


The family has moved from this Challenger home after sixty years of occupation, leaving the clothes pins on the line.  In the distance, Libbie Mill and the Henrico library.

Almost everything needed to live in “beautiful Westbourne” was in that $67 monthly payment except the utilities.  Each promotional advertisement invariably featured the slogan, “Richmond’s Outstanding Community of Good Neighbors,” which may have been late 1950s code for “white and segregated,” and subtle assurance that your investment is sound and your neighbors in Westbourne won’t turn out to be Negroes or Jews or some other equally disquieting minority. 


A Challenger home at 2409 Lehigh Circle, as seen in 2011 and today.




2411 Lehigh Circle, shown in 2011 and today.  It appears the two large pine trees were deliberately cut down to fall on and crush this Challenger house in anticipation of its complete demolition.


To ride through these streets and the dozens of Challenger homes west of Libbie is a study in changing styles and demographics, where SUVs have replaced the road whales of the 1950s and a mixture of races and ethnicities has been added to the once exclusively white neighborhood.


One of the many well-maintained Challenger homes in Westbourne.  This one has had brick siding and dormer windows added at some point.


Many houses have obviously been beautifully cared for the last sixty years, with additions, enclosures, and even second story dormers almost disguising the original Challenger design.  Only a few still look just as they did in when they were new in that very different America of the Eisenhower administration. 



Another modified and well-preserved Challenger home in the western part of the subdivision that has been a home to Westbourne families for sixty years.

The houses of Westbourne east of Libbie Avenue have the appallingly familiar appearance we have grown used to from photographs of the war in Ukraine: row after row of windowless and deserted homes, with holes smashed through the roofs and debris and trash blowing through what were once neatly kept yards.  The apparently random holes cut in so many of the houses may be there to help take the rigidity out of the roof and make the structure easier to demolish. 


Most of the homes to be demolished have already been stripped of their aluminum siding.


These were never the homes of wealthy Richmonders, but instead were starter homes where families were established, first holidays celebrated, young mothers and their first babies brought home from the hospital, probably in a huge, finned car.  The neighborhood was the epitome of the American dream for many in the 1950s and may still be recalled as that first step toward independence for many couples.


The demolition of a house is always kind of sad.  You know, watching it first vacated, then deteriorate, and then disappear entirely that it was the vessel of a lot of memories for the people who lived in it at one time.  Among the qualities we imbue in the concept of “home” is that it is permanent, not only for ourselves but others, so when a building that was obviously once somebody’s home is destroyed, it is instinctively disquieting.  The ranks of the gutted houses between Libbie and Libbie Mill West generate that same twinge of sadness. 


The homes of Westbourne that are east of Libbie Avenue are soon going to vanish, taking their memories with them.  Most of the houses on Spencer Road, Argus Lane, Lehigh Circle, and Westbourne Drive are owned by an entity called GGC Associates, who lists their office as being in Libbie Mill.  It is not hard to see more large-scale development covering the site of these houses up to the eastern side of Libbie Avenue.  The vast majority of Westbourne is on the other side of Libbie, and this street may form a firewall against more demolition of the 1950s neighborhood.  Although many will soon be erased, hopefully, development will not overtake the rest of the little “midcentury modern” houses of Westbourne and destroy the community that calls them home.

- Selden. 









Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Burnette's Drug Store postcard image ca 1918

I saw this on eBay this weekend. It's a real photo postcard showing what looks like World War I era clad soldiers in front of Burnette's Drug Store, 401 W. Broad Street, corner of Monroe and Broad Streets (according to the 1918 city directory - the year the war ended). - Ray.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Christmas, 1870: the Spotswood Hotel Fire

1870 was a hell of a year for Richmond. It began with the recovery of full status under the Federal government as a state, and the city was finally free of the designation, “Military District Number 1” as it had been officially called since the end of the Civil War five years before. That boost in confidence was short-lived. In April, a courtroom in the Capitol collapsed, killing 62 people, creating a disaster of national notice. There was a prolonged summer drought that followed, and then when the clouds finally broke, a torrential rain in the western part of Virginia drove a wall of water into Richmond. “Mayo’s Bridge was washed away once more,” recalled Richmond historian Virginius Dabney, “…and the surging water carried away homes, mills, timbers, furniture, and trees downstream.” Certainly, not everybody in Richmond was devastated by the news of the death of Robert E. Lee in October 1870, but in the golden glow of the Lost Cause and among the many white people and Confederate veterans in Richmond, his demise was considered quite a blow.


The Spotswood Hotel sat on the southeast corner of Eighth and Main streets in Richmond.


During the war, the Spotswood Hotel was considered one of the premier hotels in Richmond and became a hive of activity during the Civil War. It opened just before the outbreak of the war in 1861, and a vast cast of characters roamed the hotel’s halls during the war. Robert E. Lee stayed at the Spotswood, as did Jefferson Davis. Diplomats and Generals, paroled prisoners of war, and members of the Confederate Congress all padded down the hallways and met in the restaurant and the bar. Spies, slave traders, Union sympathizers and war profiteers all rubbed elbows at the Spotswood. Union General George McCall, captured during the war, wrote to his family he was under arrest at the Spotswood Hotel and treated well. The five-story hotel survived the Evacuation Fire at the end of the war and at Eighth and Main was only a few blocks from the edge of the burned district where flames had consumed so much of the city. After order was restored in Richmond, the hotel hosted its first Federal officers in rooms where Confederate politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats once roamed.


1870 still had one more blow to deliver to Richmond in the very last days of that momentous year. Early on a bitterly cold Christmas morning, a fire started at the Spotswood Hotel and rapidly spread through the building. At 2:00 AM, Patrick Boyd, the nightwatchman, detected the smell of smoke near the hotel pantry. The door was locked, but by the time it was broken down the room was full of flames. Someone was sent to sound the fire alarm, but the fire rapidly spread. A strong wind fanned the flames, endangering the adjoining buildings. By 5:00 AM the fire was under control, but the Spotswood Hotel and a building behind it were completely destroyed. Dozens of guests stood on the street in the bitter cold, having lost all their clothes and possessions, and frantic relatives searched their faces for the missing. One hotel guest emerged from the smoke wearing only what he described as a “very short shirt” and a hat. “I put on my hat to keep my hair from burning,” he explained, “but did not have time to put on my pants.” He later found his trunk on the sidewalk and wrote to a friend that in order to conduct his business in Richmond he now had only $200, one shirt, two pairs of pants, a vest, and the hat he was wearing when the fled the burning hotel.  


Early in the morning of Christmas Day in 1870, the Spotswood Hotel was completely destroyed by fire.


The next morning’s edition of the Richmond Dispatch did an admirable job of describing the fire and recounting the lives lost in the blaze. Among them was Samuel Robinson, a cigar salesman, who was spotted at a fifth-floor window. Beds were piled in the street and Robinson was urged to jump, but terrified by the height, he instead died in the flames. Mrs. Emily Kennealy was the housekeeper at the Spotswood, and when spotted amid the confusion inside the building was urged to flee. “But, anxious to save her effects, she heeded not the entreaties of her friend, and perished in the devouring elements.”


H. A. Thomas “seems to have been killed beyond doubt,” reported the Richmond Dispatch. Thomas was traveling through Richmond in his capacity as the agent for the Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress panorama. For Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, these traveling panoramas were high-tech entertainment of the grandest order. Painted in 1850, Pilgrim’s Progress was a canvas painting 8 feet tall and 900 feet long and was slowly reeled past viewers as a sort of animated allegorical tale of the main character, named Christian, on his journey from earth to heaven. In Richmond, it was exhibited at Metropolitan Hall, and seeing it “really affords a most delightful, and at the same time, innocent, way of passing a couple of hours.” When the panorama was packed up for its next venue and left Richmond, it was without its advance man, Mr. Thomas.


Among the most lamented losses in the fire was that of Samuel Hines, who emerged from the hotel trying to get people to go back and help him save his friend E. W. Ross. When nobody would help him, Hines raced back into the burning building. He emerged in a window several floors above the street and cried for help. Again, bedding was piled in the street, but before Hines or his friend Ross could jump, the window where Hines stood was engulfed in flames and minutes later, the floor collapsed. “Generous and charitable to a fault,” said the Dispatch gravely of Hines’ character, “he fell a sacrifice upon the altar of friendship.”


The story of the death of Hines in his effort to save his friend Ross took on a grander significance in that both belonged to the Knights of Pythias, a popular fraternal organization whose tenants of loyalty and self-sacrifice were the essence of Hines’ actions. In the golden age of fraternal organizations, the Knights of Pythias (which still exists) was quite popular, and there were both white and “colored” lodges of the Knights in Richmond. They took their name from the ancient Greek legend of Damon and Pythias. Pythias volunteered as a hostage for Damon, each pledging his life to save the other, and the pair became synonymous with duty and brotherly sacrifice. Hines was termed by his lodge brothers a “Pythian martyr” and the story of Hines, Ross, and the burning of the Spotswood Hotel became legendary.


Richmonders flock to view the ruins of the Spotswood Hotel the morning after the fire. The fire took place on one of the coldest nights of 1870 - note the icicles on the adjoining buildings


Three days later the ruins of the Spotswood Hotel still smoldered, and water was sprayed on the still hot bricks so the remaining towering walls could be pulled down for safety. Bodies were recovered, and in the end eight people were thought to have died although an exact account was impossible because of several travelers who passed through the Spotswood and who could not be accounted for.  The same day, the funeral for Hines’ friend, Erastus Ross, was held at Monumental Church. He was buried in Shockoe Cemetery, and his weathered tombstone with its masonic symbols still describes how Ross died:

In Memory of

Erastus W. Ross

Who lost his life in the fire

that consumed the Spotswood Hotel

On the right is the grave marker of Samuel Hines’ friend Erastus Ross, in Richmond’s Shockoe Cemetery.


Even as poignant as Ross’ tombstone is with its recollection of the destruction of the hotel, there is still in Richmond an even sadder and more pathetic memorial concerning the Spotswood Hotel fire. Just inside the gate of Oakwood Cemetery and not a lot more than 18 inches tall, the visitor sees what looks like the marker for the grave of a child. It recalls the disaster that overtook Richmond on that cold Christmas night and the tiny marker, now broken diagonally, is inscribed, “To The Memory of The Victims of the Spotswood Disaster December 25, 1870.” Several metal pins have been put in the marble to try and hold the pieces together, demonstrating various campaigns to preserve the marker, although few people who now notice the little monument probably know to what “Spotswood” it refers. 


The small, broken marker in Oakwood Cemetery commemorates the loss of life in the Spotswood Hotel fire.


Any remnant of the once grand Spotswood has been erased by several generations of buildings at the desirable southeast corner of Eighth and Main. Today the site is occupied by an undistinguished tall structure built in 1964, known as the “Wytestone Plaza.” The memory of what happened at Eighth and Main one cold Christmas 150 years ago, the terror, the heroism, and the loss of life at the Spotswood Hotel fire has faded from the long history of Richmond.

- Selden.  




Sunday, July 24, 2022

Piggly Wiggly, 12 N. Robinson St., ca 1928 includes image of store manager Wilmer Allan Blankenbaker, Sr.

Another interesting eBay image I downloaded in 2021. Piggly Wiggly's first store in Richmond stood at 116 W. Broad when they opened in 1918. This store seen in this image stood on 12 N. Robinson St. and the image dates ca. 1928.
Piggly Wiggly, according to Wikipedia, was the first self-service grocery store and was founded in 1916 in Arkansas. At the time of its founding, grocery stores did not allow customers to gather their own goods. Instead, a customer would give a list of items to a clerk, who would then go through the store, gathering them. Piggly Wiggly introduced the innovation of allowing customers to go through the store, gathering their goods, thus cutting costs and lowering prices. Soon they issued franchises to hundreds of grocery retailers and by their peak in 1932 they had over 2,000 Piggly Wiggly stores located mostly in the south.
Using and its many records (including Richmond city directories) I learned that this Piggly Wiggly stood at 12 N. Robinson Street from 1922 until 1932. Mr. Blankenbaker in the image is Wilmer Allan Blankenbaker, Sr. (1909-1994). He was first listed in the Richmond city directory in 1928 as manager of Piggly Wiggly. He was 19 years old. It lists his residence at 2521 Stuart Ave. (Just a few blocks from the Piggly Wiggly location on N. Robinson.) In 1929, he is listed in the city directory as an employee of the Richmond News-Leader. So it looks like he was manager for only about a year. He then disappears from the directory until 1938 when he is listed as a pastor at the Oakland Methodist Church here in Richmond. In the 1930 census, he is listed as living with his uncle at 2521 Stuart Ave. In that year he is listed as a bookkeeper. Records show that when he died in 1994 a service was held at Centenary United Methodist Church, 411 East Grace Street, here in Richmond. He was buried in Arlington, Virginia. I wonder who the kid in the picture is? If you follow this link you can learn more about Blankenbaker in this profile of Virginia United Methodist Church pasters.

Here's another Piggly Wiggly in Richmond located on the 100 block of West Broad ca. early 1920s. This image is from Broad Street Old and Historic District, Richmond, Virginia.

- Ray


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Rare early Richmond postcard from April of 1901.

Here is a rare, early postcard showing St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the Jefferson Hotel, and the main building of what was Richmond College (now the University of Richmond). I've never seen this card before. Someone was selling it on eBay and I downloaded the images to share. It is postmarked 1901 - the year the Post Office granted the use of the words "Post Card" to be printed on the "undivided back of privately printed cards." This card still is called a "Souvenir Card" and has an undivided back. Divided backs began to be used in 1907 where you could write the message on one side and the address on the other. Below is the reverse. 

- Ray