Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ginter House - An Architectural History

[I wrote this some years ago for a VCU site but they no longer have it online -- so, I'm putting it here. - Ray]

Ginter House is one of Richmond's most architecturally significant structures and is considered the finest example of Richardsonian architecture in Virginia. It briefly served as Richmond's first public library (1925-1930) and has been the main administrative building on the Monroe Park campus of VCU for over 40 years.

Ginter House, 1890s.

Located at the corner of Shafer and W. Franklin Streets, Ginter House was built 1888-1892 for cigarette magnate and philanthropist Major Lewis Ginter (1824-1897). Ginter's impact on Richmond included development of the city's north side, including the Ginter Park neighborhood, and commissioning the Jefferson Hotel (1893-1895), still one of the most elegant hotels in the nation. 

In the mid-1880s, Ginter acquired a country house called "Westbrook" in Henrico. Just before work on his house on W. Franklin was begun, "Westbrook," originally a large farm house, was turned in a Queen Anne mansion by Richmond architect Edgerton Rogers (1861-1901) known to most as the architect of Maymont the grand house of Major James H. Dooley and his wife "Sallie May Dooley. "Westbrook" and its property were converted to use as a psychiatric hospital in 1911. The house was demolished in 1975.

Ginter chose Washington, D.C. based architects Harvey L. Page (1859-1934) and William Winthrop Kent (1860-1955) to design his suburban mansion on West Franklin Street. Page was the principle architect while Kent served as the chief ornamentalist. Both Page and Kent had experience working on residences designed by H. H. Richardson (1838-1886) and they brought their expertise to this important Richmond commission. Money was apparently not a limiting factor making the interior and exterior details rival other similarly designed buildings found in Washington, D.C., New York City, and elsewhere. 

Ginter House has many architectural features found in Richardsonian style buildings. The exterior has been best described by Kerri Culhane in her 1992 master's thesis "The Fifth Avenue of Richmond": The Development of the 800 and 900 Blocks of West Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia, 1855-1925." 

Culhane wrote:

"It would take nearly four years to complete the massive mansion. As completed by 1892, the house alone assessed at $60,000.00, nearly eight times the value of the average townhouse on the street, and three times as much as the largest houses to date. The main block of Ginter House is three-and-one-half stories in height, and was built on a center-hall plan. The wide living hall is flanked by parlors. The east parlor is articulated on the exterior as a square projecting bay. The west parlor is partially comprised in the polygonal three-story tower. The stone and brick work is executed in a hierarchy of materials. The basement is clad in rock-faced brownstone. The first floor is finished in pecked brownstone. Upper floors are pressed brick executed in both stretcher courses and basket weave patterns. Molded brick and drilled stone panels are inset into the exterior. The east elevation contains a Syrian arch over a recessed entrance and a two-story bowed bay. The roof is clad in Spanish tiles."
 Interior of Ginter House, 1902.

The lavish interior of the house is described here by Dale Wheary in her 1993 graduate seminar paper, "The Sense of Truth and Beauty: Harvey L. Page Builds a House for Ginter." Wheary writes that the interior of Ginter House:
". projects a wonderfully integrated character which seems quite in harmony with the styling of the exterior.

".The comfortably sized principal rooms are arranged around two spacious halls intersecting to form a T. From the Franklin Street side: the front door opens into the entrance hall paneled in quarter-sawn oak with a richly stenciled frieze, presently in colors said to be based on the original wall cover still intact in the foyer. The fireplace surround in this hall is carved stone in a typical Romanesque foliate design. . The parquet border in the all is intact.

Ginter House when it served as the Richmond Public Library, ca. 1925.
Wheary goes on to describe the library, the mahogany book cases and mantel, the original brass lighting fixtures, the bay windows, the dining room doors, the staircase designed by R. B. Van Buren, a Richmond wood maker, and other adornments in rooms throughout in the house.

One of the most important features of the house is the iron work. Records from the Baltimore ironwork firm of G. Krug and Sons collection housed at the Maryland Historical Society document that the iron work at Ginter House was provided in 1890 by the Krug and Sons firm. The records show drawings for individual iron pieces for Ginter House and mentions who in the firm designed them. The iron work design was probably selected by William Winthrop Kent who would publish his book Architectural Wrought-Iron, Ancient and Modern in 1888, the year work on Ginter House began. Kent's book is illustrated with examples of the Krug firm's work in Richardson buildings in Washington, D.C. Kent had also worked with Richardson in the selection of other ornamental details on several of Richardson's buildings. 

In a 2008 research paper on the ironwork of West Franklin Street, Gabriel Craig, then a graduate student at VCU, wrote that records at the Maryland Historical Society note that the G. Krug and Sons firm provided Ginter House "24 wrought iron basement window grilles, 3 wrought iron door grilles, 6 wrought iron sidelight grilles, 6 wrought iron window grilles, 6 wrought iron window grilles on the east side of the house, 8 wrought iron door straps and hinges, and wrought iron door handles, escutcheons, knobs, and bells throughout the house." Some of this ironwork at Ginter House can still be seen today. Craig also writes that "George W. Parson, the [local Richmond contractor and builder] of Ginter House, ordered 3 ornamental forged bell escutcheons with electric pushes and screws. This is significant because it indicates that Ginter House, rather than the Jefferson Hotel [as some have suggested] was the first building in Richmond to have electricity."

The date of 1888, when work on the house was first begun, can be seen carved into the brick on the chimney fa├žade on the Shafer Street side of the building. An article dated March 13, 1888 in the Richmond State announced the beginning of the building's construction. It noted that Hutcheson and Donald were to be the stone contractors and Bailey Davis was to be the brick mason.  While most work was completed by the end of 1891, an article in the February 10, 1892 issue of the Richmond Dispatch reported that "a magnificent entertainment" celebrating what was probably the completion of Ginter's mansion. It was reported that "fully 500 persons" were present including Gov. Phillip W. McKinney of Virginia and J. Taylor Ellyson, the mayor of Richmond.

Ginter House from the Shafer Street side when the building was known as the Administration Building of Richmond Professional Institute, 1940s.
Ginter never married. His grand mansion was home to both him and his niece, Grace Arents (1848-1926). Ginter died on October 2, 1897. Newspaper accounts of the time wrote that he was worth over $10 million. His resting place is in Hollywood Cemetery in a mausoleum with windows designed by Tiffany and Co. Most of his fortune, including Ginter House, was left to Arents who continued his philanthropy work in Richmond. She moved to Bloemendaal Farm north of Richmond in the 1910s. That property eventually became the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Illustrations of Ginter House were widely published in souvenir and booster publications of Richmond. The style of the house influenced many later buildings in the city - though none were as large or grand in their design as Ginter House.

From 1924 through 1930, Ginter House served as home to the City of Richmond's first public library. This library was segregated - African American Richmonders could not use its facilities. In 1925 the city opened the Rosa D. Bowser Library for African Americans. Named for Rosa L. Dixon Bowser (1855-1931), a civic leader who was considered the first African American female school teacher in Richmond, the library was located in the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the YWCA at 515 N. 5th Street. 

The library in Ginter House also served the students of the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health which had moved in 1925 to a building across the street from the former mansion in what is now called Founder's Hall. This same school purchased Ginter House in 1930 and the adjoining property in the back. Ginter House became a multi function building for the school - it housed a small library, classrooms, and offices. As the school grew, it became exclusively an administrative building for the offices of the provost, vice presidents, and other school officials. An east wing was added as part of a WPA project in 1939 and a west wing was added at the back of the building in 1949.

In 1930 the school became Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), which would in 1968 merge with the Medical College of Virginia to become Virginia Commonwealth University.
Today, Ginter House houses the Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and other administrative departments. But the building is more than an office building - it is the principle jewel of the many historic houses along the 800 and 900 blocks of W. Franklin St. - in what has been described as VCU's "open air architectural museum."

- Ray Bonis


Brian Burns, Lewis Ginter: Richmond's Gilded Age Icon, 2011.

Ray Bonis, and Jodi Koste, and Curtis Lyons. Virginia Commonwealth University. Charleston, SC : Arcadia, 2006.

Kerri Culhane, Master's thesis: "The Fifth Avenue of Richmond": The Development of the 800 and 900 Blocks of West Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia, 1855-1925." Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1992.

Gabriel Craig "William Winthrop Kent's Architectural Wrought Iron on the 800 and 900 Blocks of West Franklin Street, Richmond, VA: 1885-1895." Seminar paper prepared for Dr. 

Charles Brownell (VCU Dept. of Art History) -- Spring, 2008. Housed in Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries

Linda George, "Richardsoinan Architecture in Washington D.C. and Richmond, Virginia Seminar paper prepared for Dr. Charles Brownell (VCU Dept. of Art History) -- Fall, 2004. Housed in Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries. 

Linda George, "Decorative Arts on VCU's West Franklin Street: A tour for the Society of Architectural Historians", April 21, 2002. Richmond, Va. : Dept. Of Art History, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2002.

Lewis Ginter: A Quiet Contribution, produced by Henrico County Public Relations and Media Services, 2008. Internet Access

Paul. N. Herbert, The Jefferson Hotel: The History of a Richmond Landmark, 2012.

Mary H. Mitchell and Robert S. Hebb. A History of Bloemendaal Richmond, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Inc., 1986.

Samuel J. Moore, The Jefferson Hotel, a Southern Landmark. Richmond, 1940.

Pierce, Don. One Hundred Years at the Jefferson: Richmond's Grand Hotel, a History. Richmond, Page One Inc., 1995.

David D. Ryan and Wayland W. Rennie.  Lewis Ginter's Richmond : [Bellevue, Bloemendaal, Ginter Park, "Laburnum," Laburnum Park, Sherwood Park, the Jefferson Hotel, "Westbrook," post Civil War to present.] Richmond, Va. :Whittet & Shepperson, 1991.

Douglas E. Taylor, Suburban Reflections: A Review of the Attractive Suburban Property Belonging to the Estate of the late Major Lewis Ginter. Presented by Douglas E. Taylor, real estate agent. Richmond, I. N. Jones & Son, ca. 1900.

Dale Wheary, "The Sense of Truth and Beauty: Harvey L. Page Builds a House for Lewis Ginter" from The Architecture of Virginia: Abstracts of the 1994 Architectural History Symposium, Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1994.

- Ray Bonis

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