Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Steamer Company Number Five building, Jackson Ward - A Brief History

Then and Now - the Steamer Company Number 5 building
in Jackson Ward - click on the images for larger views.

Jackson Ward’s Gallery Five was included in a recent article in The New York Times, “36 Hours in Richmond,” as being among our many attractions for the visitor. The photograph of the gallery that accompanied the article may have prompted re
aders all over the country to wonder what was the history of the ornate double bow Italianate building at 200 West Marshall Street.

There is a tradition of Richmond firehouses at Brook and Marshall since 1849, but the building that presently houses Gallery Five was constructed in 1883. Fortunately, the original drawings survive in the collection of the Library of Virginia. They depict a rather innovative multi-use design, and one that takes advantage of its challenging triangular lot. The structure originally housed the Third police precinct upstairs, while the men and equipment of the Richmond Fire Department’s Steamer Company Number 5 occupied the first floor. Access to the police station was originally up a stair just inside the front door, while fire engines returned to the station through a now closed rear door so they would again be positioned to roar out into Marshall Street.

Another contemporary view of Steamer Company Number 5

This municipal presence meant that for decade
s Steamer Company Number 5 was the one place in Jackson Ward that was alive and manned around the clock, whose windows were always alight and where help could always be found day and night. There would have always been firemen on duty, and until 1898, a continuous police presence upstairs with patrolmen going in and out on their rounds. It was a polling station and a lockup, with four jail cells in the back of the Third Precinct Station. Generations of residents of Jackson Ward would have relied on the services available at Brook and Marshall, reporting crimes and fires and a thousand other smaller problems of city life.

After the Third Precinct police staff eventually moved to (now demolished) quarters a few blocks away on Smith Street, the fire station served Jackson Ward un
til the fire company moved to more modern quarters on Leigh Street in 1968. Toward the end of its service to the city, the Steamer Company Number 5 building served as a food stamp distribution center. As such, it was the scene of shootout with shotgun-wielding robbers in 1971.

Vernon Jarrelle

Richmond Police Patrolman Vernon Jarrelle (a nephew of then Chief Frank Duling
) was killed during the exchange of gunshots, but not before fatally wounding one of the three robbers who collapsed outside on the Marshall Street sidewalk.

Today, amid the changing gallery displays, Steamer Company Number 5 still bears some intimate traces of its history of service to the city of Richmond. The corrugated floor of the main bay still shows hard service under the steel hooves of the Fire Department horses, as do the windowsills that bear the marks of their nibbling. Traces of the stalls that held the horses at the ready to answer a fire call are visible on the walls.

Upstairs, the ghost marks of the jail cells that used to be in the rear of the building can still be seen on the ceiling. Its tall windows look out over a much-transformed Jackson Ward, but even after 126 years Steamer Company Number Five continues to be a commanding presence in the changing streetscape of Marshall Street.

- Selden R.

Check out the National Register of Historic Places
nomination form for Steamer Company Number 5.

Records of the fire station are held in two different manuscript collections
at the Library of Virginia
- click on the links below to learn more about those collections:

A Guide to the Virginia Fire and Police Museum Photographs, ca. 1875-ca. 1985
Library of Virginia

A Guide to the Virginia Fire and Police Museum Collection, 1879-1985
Library of Virginia


A P said...

I heard there was also a gallows there at one point and that there were several executions that took place there. Is that true or just a myth?

Anonymous said...

No, that is not true but was a sensational story made up by the overly-excited owners. They decided that the hose towner (where hoses were suspended and dried as the old canvas hoses would rot if put away wet) was a place of execution. All prisoners in Richmond were executed at the City Jail in Shockoe Valley, and the firemen and policemen would hardly agree to an execution in the building they had to eat and sleep in. This story is one of the many urban legends that have been created to enhance the story of this building.