Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Three Famous Spiral Staircases in Richmond.

This image of the spiral staircase in the clock tower of Old City Hall was taken by Selden Richardson in 1999. Was the cast iron staircase produced by Asa Snyder and Co., the Richmond firm which provided the ironwork for the rest of the building? The building was completed in 1894 and designed by Elijah Myers of Detroit.  

Click on all images twice for a much larger view.

Selden's image of a great looking spiral staircase got us thinking - what other spiral stairs existed in Richmond?

Image of the factory and grounds of the Richmond Architectural Iron Works and Stove Company founded by Asa Snyder (1825-1884). The company was established in 1851 and continued through the early 1920s.  

Postcard image of what is now Old City Hall, postmarked 1909 - 

This image is a recent acquisition from eBay - it shows the staircase in Pratt's Castle, built by William Abbot Pratt in 1853 and demolished in 1956. The image is from a Chicago newspaper's photograph morgue acquired by the eBay seller. Was this iron staircase a product of Asa Snyder and Co. or another Richmond firm?

The reverse side of the staircase image from Pratt's Castle shows the caption by Wide World Photos used in February of 1946 in an undetermined Chicago newspaper.

Postcard image of Pratt's Castle, ca. 1910.
From Rarely Seen Richmond.

What looked like a Gothic fortress was actually an iron-plated house built for William A. Pratt, who ran a daguerreotype gallery on Main Street in the 1850s. This peculiar house had rooms with varying heights, elaborate stained glass, and four towers offering great views of the city - as well as the cast-iron staircase. Pratt sold the house in 1865 seven years after he moved to Charlottesville. The building was purchased and demolished by the Albemarle Paper Manufacturing Company in 1956. Today, the headquarters of Ethyl Corporation are located on this site.

Our final image of a Richmond spiral staircase is from the early 1950s showing a group of Richmond teenagers from the local YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Branch in what was then the Rosa D. Bowser Library, used by Richmond's African Americans (Richmond's Public Libraries were segregated - as was the Richmond YWCA). The library was named for Rosa L. Dixon Bowser (1855-1931), a civic leader who was considered the first African American female school teacher in Richmond.

 Image of the Conway Robinson House
from Old Richmond Neighborhoods.

The building stood at 515 N. 5th Street and was built in 1849 by Conway Robinson (1805-1884), a lawyer and president of the R.F. and P. Railroad. Mary Wingfield Scott (1895-1983) wrote about the house in Old Richmond Neighborhoods, published in 1950.

She wrote:

"In the 'seventies [1870s] the Conway Robinson House, 515 North Seventh, was the home of general T. M. Logan. From 1883 to 1914 it served as the Presbyterian and Methodist Old Ladies' Home, and since then has been the headquarters of the Phyllis Wheatley (Negro) Branch of the Y.W.C.A. The house, probably designed by Henry Exall [a Richmond builder  - more on him below] has been considerably altered by a mansard roof. The most striking feature of the interior is the spiral stair, which runs up to the third floor, and for this reason as well as its rather unattractive newel-post and trim may be contemporary  with the mansard rather than the original construction. At present the stucco of the exterior is painted a staring white that contrasts disagreeably with the bright green woodwork."
- page 270, Old Richmond Neighborhoods (1950) by Mary Wingfield Scott.

Obviously, Miss Scott did not spare words when it came to her descriptions of houses. The Conway Robinson House was torn down in the 1960s [?].

She concluded that Henry Exall, active in Richmond 1845 through 1891, was the builder of the Conway Robinson House. Exall was a prolific builder - his obituary suggested that he had designed "fully one half of the houses built in Richmond prior to the War." He is the architect credited with designing Morson's Row on Governor's Street.

Do you know of any other spiral staircases in Richmond buildings? Let us know.

I know of one other - it was a cast iron spiral staircase and was located in the Scott-Bocock House, now part of VCU's Monroe Park Campus. Unfortunately it was removed from the house by VCU in the early 2000s - I'm going to see if I can track it down. Maybe its in storage at VCU.

- Ray B.


Bryan said...

The much-evolved Gothic Revival mansion at Brook Hill plantation (on Brook Road) has at least two very elaborate cast iron spiral staircases that climb to the house's second and third floors.

Ray B. said...

Thanks Bryan - I'll have to include those in a later post!!

Candie said...

There's something about the iron stairs, the one in the first photo, that's haunting and beautiful at the same time. I love how each step was connected with an intricate design on the sides, and I really dig the twin arches. That gave me an idea for the new outdoor staircase in our house.

I'm sure that metal spiral stairs looked much more magnificent when it was first built and used in the 1890's. Time may have worn it out, but history preserved its essence. I'd like to visit Richmond some day and see if there are other staircases like that.

Paul Barrett said...

I am a researcher in Tarrytown, NY. I have a photo of a staircase from a now demolished Hudson River mansion. The caption reads" The original of this circular hallway is to be found in an old house in Richmond, Va."
Is there an address I can email the image to so that maybe you or your readers might be an assist in identifying the source?
Thank you.

Kate Dunkin said...

Great post! These spiral staircases look amazing and interesting. Thank you for sharing this with us!

Anonymous said...

There's an old house on Franklin St. near VCU where students live. The apartment only has 1 entry door, but it is two floors - the spiral staircase is inside the living room. It is original to the place.