Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Last Gasp of Blue Shingles

A view of Blue Shingles, circa 1948.  Note the arches of the CSX railroad bridge across the James River, visible on the left through the trees, and the formal “auto court” in the foreground, part of the extensive Charles Gillette-designed gardens around Blue Shingles.
When Lorenzo Sibert Evans and his wife, Alma, built a new home on a dramatic bluff overlooking the James River in the early 1920s, they lavished a lot of money and attention on the project.  It was a beautiful home with a breath-taking view across the James River valley; a jewel whose naturally beautiful setting was further enhanced by the designs of Charles Gillette, the premier Virginia landscape architect of the day.  The Evans could have hardly imagined their lovely home and its surrounding gardens would, within fifty years, be erased from the earth.  They could not have dreamed the last trace of all their expense and aspirations would be eliminated by something as mundane as a change in shipping specifications for American railroads.

The Evans purchased the property that would become known as Blue Shingles (named for the distinctive color of the roof) in 1922, and popular Richmond architect Otis Asbury was commissioned to design a five-bedroom three-story home.  Richmond historian Harry Kollatz has researched Blue Shingles extensively and has written about the house for Richmond Magazine.  He found another Asbury-designed home from 1913 at 2502 Monument and termed it an architectural cousin of Blue Shingles.

Asbury designed a dozen homes along Monument Avenue, but few were in the  Mediterranean style found at Blue Shingles and the house at 2502 Monument.  No matter what the design, Richmond’s grand boulevard must have been the premier venue for a Richmond architect to display his craft. Asbury’s designs were a popular contribution to the Monument Avenue streetscape for more than a decade, beginning around 1910.

No doubt his work for Richmond’s elites on Monument informed the modernity, style, and conveniences of the mansion that Asbury designed for Mr. and Mrs. Evans.  The house charmed one visitor in 1948, even 25 years after the construction of Blue Shingles:
This magnificent completely modern residence has on the first floor, hall, drawing room, dining room and den all with exceptionally handsome walnut paneling.  The tile kitchen and butler’s pantry is complete.  On the second floor there are five bedrooms and four baths; also dressing rooms and large closets.  And the third floor is plastered, with cedar room, storage space, servants’ room and bath.  The full basement contains recreation room, large storage space, laundry room, also a finished room and bath most convenient for yardman and chauffeur.  There is a three-car garage.  All little conveniences have been thought of, such as clothes chutes, incinerator and outside water system.  The copper roof is of the best quality and all gutters and downspouts are first quality.
Asbury’s architectural drawings for Blue Shingles (preserved in Gillette’s papers at the Library of Virginia) are dated March 1922.  Charles Gillette began his portion of the project in October of the same year, starting with a grading plan to shape the Blue Shingles hilltop to accommodate his vision and that of the Evans.  That fall, as the house was being constructed, Gillette’s office produced drawings that included gardens and courts, terrace walls, entrance gates, a teahouse, a formal garden, a vegetable garden, a dovecote, a pergola, and a pool.  Almost exactly a year later, Gillette produced what he titled a “Plan of Final Arrangement of Grounds” for the Evans, completing his role in lavishing many of his signature design elements around their new home.  For passengers on trains crossing the James below the mansion, looking up at Blue Shingles must have been a visual delight as the house and gardens on their dramatic hilltop were silhouetted against the sky.

This arial view of the area around Blue Shingles was made in 1937.
Despite the charming setting and all the money lavished in Blue Shingles by the Evans and their architects, the estate and its manicured setting seemed ill-fated.  The Evans’ son, Lorenzo Jr., shot himself in a car parked in the courtyard of Blue Shingles in 1955.  The senior Evans died three years later.  In 1966 the Evans’ daughter sold the property to C. Merle Luck, owner of the extensive quarry business that still bears his name.  Luck, wrote Harry Kollatz, envisioned the developmental potential of the property and cared little for the house and landscape.

This street sign is now the sole remaining trace of the extensive estate and gardens that once occupied a hilltop site west of the Carillon neighborhood.
Vandals, who partied in the weedy ruins of the once-grand Gillette gardens, literally tore the lavish house to pieces, damaging it extensively, looting the interior and placing Blue Shingles beyond the hope of restoration.  In July 1967, a Richmond newspaper described fifty to seventy-five thousand dollars worth of damage having been done to the house since the previous December:
A breeze now comes through the broken windows of an English style drawing room paneled in black walnut.  In fact, every window in the house is broken.  Words are scrawled on the walls.  The paneling has holes punched in it or is torn from the walls, and hand-carved mantels have been ripped off or chopped up.  The wrought iron bannister on the main staircase is gone, and several sections of the wrought iron balcony railing are missing.  French doors bare of panels stare down a gentle slope to the river, and huge holes have been dug for no apparent reason in the now overgrown formal gardens, where large boxwoods line brick walls.
Like the estate itself, the cast concrete bridge that once led to Blue Shingles has been utterly erased and a new guard rail is the only hint it ever existed.  Note the double CSX tracks below.

The following year the entire site was demolished and the once-grand house, its gardens, and the hilltop it occupied were scraped clean.  Ambitious development plans calling for two apartment towers on the site languished in the face of neighborhood opposition and were mired in red tape.  The years passed and the woods returned and covered the scarred earth on the hilltop.
A view of the Blue Shingles bridge before its demolition by the CSX Railroad.

This now-demolished bridge across the CSX railroad tracks was the last
gasp of the vanished estate, Blue Shingles.
For fifty years, “Blue Shingles Lane” has been no more than an oddly named alley on the western edge of the Carillon neighborhood.  The lane quickly became an overgrown path leading to that aging concrete bridge to nowhere.  For decades, the bridge (which was perhaps the first thing the Evans had to build in order to access the site) was the only surviving structure of the entire Blue Shingles complex of house, gardens, and entry road.  The construction of the Powhite Parkway in the early 1970s further isolated the site, and turned it into a triangular urban mesa between the highway, the river, and the railroad tracks. Unfortunately, the Blue Shingles bridge, designed for the height specifications of  the1920s, could not accommodate today’s taller rail cars and double-stacked shipping containers.  CSX Transportation, the owner of the tracks and the bridge above them, recently demolished the structure to comply with industry standards.
This overgrown lane was once the approach to Blue Shingles.

It is always remarkable and sad when the scene of such style and pride, craftsmanship and design as the Blue Shingles estate is utterly destroyed.  It is just as disquieting to think the extensive gardens, the modern and beautiful house, and all the money and talent that were poured into the home and gardens  have now completely vanished as though they never existed.  Today, only unidentifiable lumps of brick and cement protrude from the scrubby woods that cover the site of the mansion and its once-grand surroundings. 

Today, only scattered lumps of unidentifiable masonry mark the place where Blue Shingles once stood and it is impossible to tell if this was part of the house itself or the extensive formal gardens that surrounded it.

The bridge to the estate, the last gasp of Blue Shingles, has fallen to the wrecking ball and joined the high-style house and gardens, the paneling and the wrought iron, the pergola, the tea house, the clothes chutes and the dove cote in a landfill somewhere.  Only the rock and the river remain.  They wait for lights on the hilltop again, there where the Evans’ guests once wandered the graceful but doomed gardens and swept out through the French doors of Blue Shingles to watch the sun go down.

-- Selden Richardson, September, 2015.


john m said...

I found that bridge out riding my bike a few years ago - maybe 2 or 3? When I went back later to explore across it, the bridge was gone. Thanks for the extensive backstory, I had no idea.

vanfelvey said...

I grew up across the tracks from Blue shingles...1527 sunset lane.as a kid i enjoyed coffee ice cream with the two elderly women residing there.I was broken-hearted to hear of the destruction of the beautiful mansion and grounds.

Unknown said...
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dmac0521 said...

Who owns the property now? CSX, Luck Quarry, or a third party?

Iggy O said...

I come to this post late, but I'll add my two cents. I recall seeing Blue Shingles in decrepitude before the demolition. It was very sad. In the early 70s, not long before the Powhite Parkway opened, a friend and I biked over the bridge and found the house gone. But we explored the surviving basements.

There was a period of time before the basements were filled that you could ramble around there. There were brick stairways and floors. 20 years later, my wife and I visited to find the earth leveled and only a few bricks scattered here and there.

I brought home a brick. Like so much about Blue Shingles, it seemed cursed. It vanished during a move and I'm half glad to be rid of it.

dmac0521 said...


Very interesting the recent assessments ($2.46 million), and the other parcel owned by Jamesite Company that is behind Carrolton Street. They could definitely do something interesting back there.

And probably will at some point in the future. A bunch of brush was recently cleared on the part of a connecting parcel that fronts Douglasdale. That would probably be the private driveway to the Blue Shingles parcel.

Elizabeth said...

I am Almas great great grandchild, I wish I could have seen the house with my own eyes. My mother ( Almas granddaughter) just told me the whole story of Blue shingles.