Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Little Mystery - Richmond Goes Electric

We have a guest contributor today. Robert P. Winthrop is an architect and architectural historian. His books and articles include The Architecture of Jackson Ward, Cast and Wrought: The Architectural Metalwork of Downtown Richmond, Virginia, and Architecture in Downtown Richmond. He has given major lecture series for the Monument Avenue Foundation and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He is the coauthor, with Sarah Driggs and Richard Guy Wilson, of Richmond’s Monument Avenue published in 2001. Today he writes about Richmond and Electricity. We thank Robert for this contribution. 

A Little Mystery.

At the turn of the 20th century many Richmond houses had unusual gas-electric light fixtures.  Ceiling light fixtures had gas piping and electric wires.  Typically they had electric bulbs turned down, and the gas fixtures facing up.  While doing electrical work on my house in the 1970s, I discovered the piping was still in place, and was still in service. They had simply capped the fixture, but left the pipes in place and filled with gas.

In spite of the obvious dangers of this combination, there is no indication of fires resulting from the arrangement.  Electric power in Richmond came  from the  Virginia  Railroad and  Power Company.  This was the precursor of VEPCO and  eventual Dominion Power. The Railroad in the company name referred to the city's electric streetcar.

[VCU Libraries' Special Collections and Archives houses the James W. Allison Papers which contain materials related to the building of what is now the VCU President's Office, 901 W. Franklin St.. The building was built 1894-1896 and contained the combination electric/gas light fixtures that Robert discusses in this essay. Many of the original sconces and chandeliers are still in existence in the building.]

I was told the electric company cut off, or reduced electrical service to residential customers during peak hours of streetcar service.  The gas lights were needed during these periods. This makes sense, but I have been unable to document this practice.  When the Historic American Building Survey staff researching Monument  Avenue investigated the subject they were unable to  find  documentation.

It is possible to  attribute the hybrid fixtures to Richmonder’s fabled conservatism. They may have thought electricity was a fad.  The City of Richmond owned the gas system, then as now. It is also possible they required houses have gas lighting.  As of now, the reason for the hybrid  fixtures is unknown. 

- Robert P. Winthrop, architect and architectural historian and guest contributor.


Bryan said...

It was quite common, I believe, for houses at the turn-of-the-century to make use of the hybrid gas/electric light fixtures. As stated, electrical service was new and therefore notoriously unreliable - it was apt to go out at any time. Additionally, some cities (such as Atlanta) only provided electrical power to their residences in the hours from dusk-to-dawn - meaning that the gas lights would need to be used on dark, overcast days or in rooms that required artifical light even when the sun was out. This was especially true of Atlanta in the summer, where rooms were made dim through the necessity of shutters and porches to screen out the heat of the day.

Anonymous said...

There are similar fixtures all over the country. Electricity was notoriously unreliable but brighter and safer when available.