Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Lost Twin of Shockoe Valley

Side by side view showing the 1886 drawing of the entrance of the school
and how that entrance looks today at what was the Stonewall Jackson School
(now the Stonewall Jackson Professional Center), 1520 W. Main Street.
The thoroughly chilled members of the Richmond School Board may have been unwilling to surrender their overcoats even when they arrived at their office.  It was January 15, 1886, and Richmond had been buffeted for days by howling winds and temperatures near 0 degrees. The same storm that rattled the windows at the cheaply constructed temporary City Hall had halted construction of the new City Hall a block away.  Before roaring into Richmond, the blizzard had killed dozens across the United States and was already called the Blizzard of 1886.  The School Board members who gratefully warmed themselves by the stove probably looked up and at each other, knowing it was time to go to work when they heard the distinctive pace of the one-legged City Engineer, Wilfred Cutshaw (1838-1907), thumping down the hall outside toward them.

This Richmond insurance map shows what was then called the Marshall School at the corner of 19th and Marshall Streets.  In the next block is Trinity Methodist Church, now known as the New Light Baptist Church.  Across Marshall Street, where the number 26 is, is the hillside under which is the Church Hill train tunnel.
The City Engineer was not at the School Board meeting to solicit comment on the drawings he spread on the table, nor was he concerned about the opinion of the board members.  Col. Cutshaw (he had been an officer in the Confederate artillery) was there to tell them precisely what their two new schools would look like, and no one dreamed of proposing anything other than what was presented.  What Cutshaw said, went, and he drove the architectural program of all municipal buildings during his tenure as City Engineer.  The minutes of that meeting recorded flatly that “Colonel Cutshaw exhibited plans for a building on the corner of Lombardy and Main and 19th and Marshall.” These plans, for what were to become Marshall (later Jefferson) School and West End (later Stonewall Jackson) School, still exist in the archives of The Library of Virginia.

This is the original drawing for the two Richmond schools that was shown to the School Board by Wilfred Cutshaw, City Engineer, in 1886.  The two schools were built the following year.

Originally known as West End School from its location at 1520 West Main Street in what were then the western suburbs of the city, the school was also called Lombardy School after the street beside it.  It was renamed Stonewall Jackson School in 1909, supposedly after a visit from the famous general’s widow.  The condition of the Stonewall Jackson School (the surviving building of the two identical schools, now known as the Stonewall Jackson Professional Center) is such that it allows a real appreciation for the design and details of the building.   

The gleaming halls of what is today the Stonewall Jackson Professional Center look like they could revert to its designed purpose as a Richmond school at any moment.

The interior of the old school must look a lot like it did when it first opened to 566 Richmond school children in September 1887.  The floors gleam and many of the original fixtures and woodwork are still in place.  The pressed tin ceiling is perfectly preserved, and the visitor expects the doors to burst open and the hallways to be flooded with kids at any moment.

This unique central staircase looks much as it was designed in the office of City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw in 1886.  Note the silvered windows to distribute light and air into the center of the building.

The design of the school shows the particular care taken for the admittance of both air and light, important to Victorian sensibilities and standards of health.  A double staircase rises from the angle where the  “L” of the main corridor meets, and the stair hall has been designed with interior windows to admit air and light.  The windows are mirrored, so that in their closed position they contribute to the distribution of winter light in the center hall.  A central ventilation system in the school drew fresh air into the building.

         An early view of Stonewall Jackson School, still located here on the corner of Lombardy and Main.

The building had a long and honorable history of service to the citizens of Richmond until 1975, when its coal-fired furnace was condemned under the Clean Air Act of 1970.  In September 1976, after 89 years as a school, the building was sold and renovated as offices and a restaurant space on the first floor. 
 The building as it looks today - 1520 W. Main St.

Stonewall Jackson School was carefully restored after a devastating fire in 1990 that largely destroyed the roof and perseveres to add a graceful Italianate presence to Main Street.

An east view from the corner of Marshall and College streets, showing Church Hill rising in the distance. Just below the white wall of Trinity Methodist Church the low-roofed side of Marshall School is visible, tucked just beside the viaduct.

Stonewall Jackson School’s twin in Shockoe Valley, however, did not have such a fortunate life, nor was it allowed to ease into such a gracefully renovated second life.  Named for its Marshall Street location, Marshall School must have served a far larger area of the city as it accommodated 714 kids the year it opened in 1887.  There were a high number of Jewish students who lived on the Shockoe Valley floor at the time in a community built around the their synagogue and community house a block away on 19th Street.  So many attended Marshall School that its principal (according to a history of Richmond schools) was known locally as “The Rabbi.”  Albert H. Hill (who has a Richmond school named for him) became The Rabbi when he was principal at Marshall School from 1890-1905.  The school was renamed Jefferson (probably for the nearby Jefferson Park) in 1909 to prevent confusion with John Marshall High School which opened that year.

In 1911, Jefferson School received an unwelcome neighbor in the form of the Marshall Street Viaduct.  It was a peculiarity of the city map that Marshall Street not only crossed most of the valley floor, but also ran ninety feet overhead, from what is now the Massey Cancer Center straight to the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and 21st Street at Jefferson Park.

In the same way the Richmond City Jail huddled beside the Marshall Street Viaduct on the western side of Shockoe Valley, Jefferson School stood on the same side of Marshall Street below the Viaduct on the eastern slope.  The jail was a miserable place, and as with the school, made even worse by the Marshall Street Viaduct above it.  An inspection of the jail noted one of the principal problems was the proximity of the jail to the bridge, making circumstances worse by the dirt and debris that blew down into the jail. “This makes it practically impossible,” they noted, “to keep the windows open even during the hot spring and summer months.”  It must have been precisely the same for the hapless students inside Jefferson School, and even outdoors they played in a schoolyard shaded by the dirty skyway above them.

The collapsed hillside above the train trapped in the Church Hill tunnel was where rescue shafts were sunk in an attempt to reach the train.  All this activity was outside the windows of the children who attended Jefferson School, located on the other side of the Marshall Street Viaduct.

Generations of Richmonders had already shared the experience of Jefferson School by 1925.  That year, however, was very special.  The first to notice something amazingly bad was going on must have been those kids looking idly out the window at the traffic going by on Marshall Street.  Even inside the closed, streaked windows of the Jefferson School, a few muffled shouts must have been heard, and then men seen running in the street, automobiles arriving with men spilling from the doors, and in the distance, the sound of an alarm bell.  Few of those children ever forgot Friday, October 2, 1925, the day that the Church Hill train tunnel caved in, on, and the hillside across the street from their school slumped as though the ground had thrown a pall over the tunnel and a train and the men trapped inside.  No doubt it became a story they told their entire lives.

The student body of what was then called Marshall School spill out into the back yard for a photograph, 1902.

        A view of the same entrance, only a couple of miles to the west, at Stonewall Jackson School.

Richmond moved west, and enrollment at Jefferson School dropped to 310 children by 1929.  That year the City closed Jefferson School and sent the student body to Bellevue School on Grace Street, which opened in 1913.  Jefferson was still owned by the City of Richmond, who leased it to Goodwill Industries for fifty years before selling the old school in1971.  The purchaser was Richmond’s own Howard H. Hughes, the owner of the magically-named “Mad Man Dapper Dan” used car business.  Mad Man’s famous slogan, which was outlined in neon on his car lot sign, pledged, “I’d Give Them Away But My Wife Won’t Let Me.”  Hughes had one of his used car lots nearby on the eastern side of Trinity Methodist Church in the block to the east of Jefferson School.  In addition to his memorable tag line, Hughes was also very much a modernist, and as an example, hired Richmond architect Haig Jamgochian to design an avant-garde crescent-shaped house for the car dealer on the James River.  He was clearly not the man to either appreciate or preserve tired and sooty old Jefferson School, and the building was demolished in early 1972.  The school barely outlived its old nemesis, the Marshall Street Viaduct, which closed permanently in 1970 and was demolished soon thereafter.

This photo from the Richmond newspaper shows
Shockoe Valley’s Jefferson School under demolition in 1972.

Today there is nothing other than a neatly mowed vacant lot where the Marshall School once stood.  Looking down on the site from Jefferson Park, you can almost imagine there is a ghost mark of the foundation, outlining the precincts where generations of Richmond school kids learned and played.  The train that so enthralled the children of Jefferson School in 1925 remains where it braked to a stop ninety years ago, still in the hillside beside Marshall Street. 

This central hall shows how the old Stonewall School, with its generous windows, is engineered to distribute light and air.

To the west, on Main Street, the sun shines brightly on the polished floors of the former Stonewall Jackson School and the wide double stairs seem well braced to receive a flood of juvenile feet at day’s end.  The low murmur of office voices has replaced the excited chatter of elementary kids.

Marshall School and Stonewall Jackson School: twin Richmond facilities, built and opened at the same time, but with very different fates. 
- Selden.


The Progressive said...

This is an incredible history. Thanks so much Ray for posting this. I work in the current Stonewall building now. My office is on the first floor. It's a special place to work and not a day goes by when I don't appreciate the architectural brilliance of the building.

Now that I know this history it has an even more special significance.

Fantastic job of research.

Eric Futterman
EAF Custom Communication

Ray Bonis -- Selden Richardson. said...

Eric - thank YOU and thanks really go to Selden for researching and writing this item on the blog. It is a neat story. It's a great building.

HEK said...

Thanks for this slice of history. One other aspect, in the 1970s, a group of artists were squiring to purchase Stonewall Jackson School for studios.