Monday, January 2, 2017

The Emily Winfree Cottage

Looking toward downtown Richmond from the hilltop where she is buried, Emily Winfree would certainly be astounded.  The comparatively low skyline she knew in her later years has been replaced by a variety of buildings, some twice as tall as the ones she saw constructed around World War I.  In the distance, cars rush up and down Maury Street at an incredible rate, compared to the Model T Ford vehicles she knew.  The world has certainly changed in a hundred years, but no less astonishing to Ms. Winfree would have been the fate of her humble home and the lot where it once stood at the South RIchmond intersection of Porter Street and Commerce Road.

 Emily Winfree’s grave in South Richmond.

The two-room house was the last surviving structure of a once-thriving community of African Americans that revolved around First African Church, founded in 1820 in what was then the separate city of Manchester.  Ms. Winfree was one of the thousands of black Richmonders who made the transition from bondage to freedom, and made a life in Reconstruction Richmond in the center of her extended family and neighbors.  Her last resting place in that hilltop plot in Olivet Cemetery (now a part of Richmond’s Maury Cemetery), speaks to the high regard in which Emily Winfree was held by her family and contemporaries.

 Emily Winfree.

Architecturally, what is now known as the Winfree Cottage is unremarkable and it was probably like a thousand other working-class houses built in Richmond during Reconstruction.  What is important about this structure is the accomplishment and perseverance of Winfree and many like her, for decades.   Contrary to stereotype, the story of Ms. Winfree and her family and community is one of complicated cross-racial relationships.  Research has demonstrated that throughout those years, family members that might have come through Ms. Winfree’s door could have been of a variety of colors and social stations, reflecting a segregated city’s attempts to function under an unreasonable and, in the end, unsustainable system of racial division.

1876 map of Manchester, showing
Ms. Winfree’s house near her church on the same block.

The lines of division between races, a basic tenant of every Southern city in this country during Reconstruction, were frequently blurred on these Manchester streets simply out of necessity.  This blurring of those lines, laws, customs, and even skin tones, and how Ms. Winfree and her family and friends all navigated the segregated city is a facet of Richmond’s story that has yet to be fully explored. 

The original site of Ms. Winfree’s home at
 the corner of Commerce Road and Porter Street.

In early 2002, the now-defunct preservation group, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, persuaded Expert House Movers to save the Winfree Cottage and it was dutifully placed on a supporting armature of I beams and made its trek across the river.  For many years, it was parked on the City property where the old Seabrook Warehouse once stood, behind the Exxon station on Broad Street in Shockoe Valley.  Ms. Winfree’s house stood for a decade behind that gas station, slowly deteriorating and the porch roof falling off.

The Winfree Cottage passing the now-demolished
William Byrd Press building on 14th Street on the morning of March 8, 2003.

Richmond has to watch its historic resources very carefully, because we only need look around us to see the consequences of both utilizing and ignoring these structures.  The Leigh Street Armory was left for ten years as a roofless ruin by the City of Richmond, ensuring its deterioration to the point of collapse.  Happily, the Armory has undergone an astonishing transformation into the Black History Museum and has become an amazing exercise in reclamation, reuse, and rebirth.  

The Winfree Cottage carefully makes its way through the
Market in Shockoe Valley, headed toward temporary storage.

Not so fortunate is the historic Westham Station, a small, 1900s train depot that was once held in such high regard it served as the Richmond Visitor’s Center.  It is literally rotting down near The Diamond, with no apparent plan by the City to save it. 

The Westham Train Station, another City-owned property,
abandoned and deteriorating on a lot north of The Diamond.

The City of Richmond’s taxpayers have paid a quarter of a million dollars just to untangle the title to the 1910 Richmond Blues Armory and regain ownership of what had been a City-owned building. The Blues Armory stands in a part of Richmond rich with potential, but just as vacant and unappreciated today as it has been for ten years. A torn awning flapping from the wreckage of a food court attached to the Blues Armory still bears the faded and grimly ironic slogan left over from the Sixth Street Marketplace which was demolished fourteen years ago: “Building A Better Future.”

The Richmond Blues Armory, one of the great, undeveloped buildings
of downtown Richmond, left empty by its negligent owner, the City of Richmond.

The Winfree Cottage has been sitting on Trailer 40 in the Shockoe Valley a long time.  So long, in fact, that a Richmond photo book published in 2016 termed the building “excavated,” as if it emerged during an architectural dig.  Richmond, Virginia - A Photographic Portrait continues, firmly identifying the South Richmond cottage as part of infamous Lumpkin’s Jail historical site (“This was part of the original structure”) even though the house actually first stood entirely in another part of the city on the other side of the river.  Ironically, it seems that Ms. Winfree’s story and the preservation of her house is endangered both historically and physically, with the fabric of the house in danger and a new and false history being spun from thin air and then codified in print.

The Winfree Cottage as it has sat for several years,
waiting a new purpose in illuminating Richmond’s history.

Hopefully, there will soon be a coherent plan for the Winfree Cottage and it can find a permanent home that will interpret the site for visitors and Richmonders alike. Far more subtle than elections and disasters, rearing horses and marching soldiers, the history of Ms. Winfree’s tiny section of South Richmond is one of coping and enduring on a personal, family, and community level.  To explore this story would finally realize the real potential of the Winfree Cottage: to help illuminate a small but significant part of Richmond’s often difficult, sometimes triumphant, but always interesting past.

- Selden Richardson.


arlosworld said...

Thank you for your story about the Winfree Cottage. I passed the house at the foot of the Manchester Bridge for years and wondered what the story was. It seems it is fated to become the next "Poe Shrine" in that Poe had no relationship with the little stone house.

Thank you for this blog. It's always a joy to receive.

Ray Bonis -- Selden Richardson. said...

And thank you.