Thursday, March 31, 2022

Henry Was Here: The Secret Signature of Mr. Baskervill

The drawings are undated, so Henry Baskervill may have still been working in a poorly-lit drafting room in the low, temporary City Hall fronting on Capitol Square. It was built to house municipal offices while Richmond’s grand new building was being completed. Or perhaps the winter of 1893-1894 found Henry in the drafting room on the south side of that new City Hall that opened that February, with a pale winter light coming through and a vista into the smoke-filled James River valley. We don’t know if Henry felt bored, or rebellious, or just mischievous, but evidence of whatever his frame of mind was on that long afternoon are still with us today.


Henry Baskervill was 27 years old and a graduate of Cornell who had returned to his native Richmond to practice architecture. The 1997 book, The Virginia Architects, 1835-1955, said Henry Baskervill “became Richmond city engineer ca. 1895,” but this is far from the truth. In fact, Henry was very much the junior to Wilfred Cutshaw, who had an iron hand on the office of Richmond City Engineer from 1873 until his death in 1907. The old Confederate artilleryman who lost a leg at Appomattox ran things in military-style with a chain of command. There was no descension in the ranks in Colonel Cutshaw’s office.


It was a busy time for municipal projects in Richmond, and Cutshaw’s men were turning out designs for buildings with remarkable speed, unimpeded by meddlesome committees, bureaucrats, or members of the public. Discussion about public works was neither solicited nor needed. Typical was the account of an 1894 City Council meeting as reported in the Richmond Dispatch: “Plans for the proposed new Howitzer Armory were submitted, and without a word of discussion the City Engineer was directed to advertise for bids for the structure.” 


The 1895 Richmond Howitzers Armory building when completed in 1895. Note the two medallions on either side of the entrance on the right. (Library of Virginia)


Armories, markets, parks, and schools sprang up in the city in the 1890s, all of which were dictated by Cutshaw’s personal decorative style and taste for the Italianate. Henry Baskervill was part of this production process, serving as draftsman producing plans for a new armory for the Richmond Howitzers.



A detail of the full-scale drawing for the terracotta medallions on the front of Richmond’s Howitzer Armory. (Library of Virginia)


The surviving drawings from Cutshaw’s City Engineer’s Office were transferred from the City of Richmond to The Library of Virginia in 1993, thanks largely to the good works of one of the founders of the Shockoe Examiner, Tyler Potterfield. 

Unfortunately, only one sheet of the pages of plans for the new armory that Cutshaw showed City Council still exists. This is the drawing from which were made two large terracotta medallions that were mounted on either side of the main entrance of the building. They bear the traditional crossed-cannon emblem of the artillery, the date the Battalion was founded, and the Latin motto, CITA MORS AUT VICTORIA LAETA (“Swift Death or Glorious Victory”).


The surviving terracotta medallion was salvaged from the demolition of the Howitzer’s Armory in the early 1970s. It is shown as it was on display at Richmond’s Dove Street Armory in the 1990s.


The drawing of the medallion was unusual in that it was full scale, that is, the same size as the object it depicts. This makes for a very large architectural drawing, and the one for the armory has the blunt instruction: “Medallion for Armory Building. Full Size. Make Two.” 



Detail of the Howitzers Armory medallion drawing. (Library of Virginia)


For the university-educated Baskervill and his professional aspirations, working as a draftsman in the City Engineer’s office must have been less than ideal. Certainly being tasked with putting in the stippling effect for the background of the medallion inscriptions mat have been a tiresome task on such a large drawing. 


A close-up of the brush strokes on the medallion drawing, shows how the stippled surface was conveyed for fabricating the final terracotta product. (Library of Virginia)


These brushstrokes were supposed to signal to the fabricator this was a rough surface against which the words, cannon, and date would be raised. Perhaps Henry resented the task as being below his capability and training, or perhaps he just wanted to put one over on “the old man,” Cutshaw. Or maybe he wanted to memorialize his role in the otherwise unsigned surviving armory drawing. All these municipal buildings were understood to be products of Cutshaw’s office and were rarely signed by an individual. Despite that, Henry managed to weave his signature into the drawing. Looking closely at the sheet, at about the 4:00 position on the medallion, the word, “Baskervill” can be seen, worked into the surrounding apparently random brush strokes.


Henry Baskervill's signature, hidden among the brushstrokes on the medallion drawing.

Henry Baskervill must have had a pretty good idea of what would happen if he got caught doing this. Surely this would have appeared as gross insubordination to the City Engineer and defiling a symbol so close to the old artillerist’s heart would only make it worse. Nevertheless, Henry Baskervill’s sly attempt to memorialize himself succeeded, his signature survived the destruction of the other drawings, and eventually even the building itself.



A pamphlet issued by the Richmond Howitzers, touting their “Historic Home” at 600 North Eighth Street. (Library of Virginia)


Henry Baskerville left the City Engineer’s office and founded his own architectural firm two years after the Howitzers Armory was completed in 1895. Partnering with first William C. Noland and later, Alfred Garey Lambert, Baskervill had many important commissions in the early 1900s and into the 1930s. His son, H. Coleman Baskerville, added an “e” to the family name and established the modern architectural firm of Baskervill, but the spelling of the name of the firm still honors its founder, Henry Baskervill.


Richmond Howitzer Armory, Corner of North Eighth and East Jackson streets, shown before its demolition in the early 1970s. Note the crenelated tower in the distance of the Cavalry Armory, also constructed in 1895. (Library of Virginia)


The Howitzer Armory facility grew during two world wars, eventually incorporating the Cavalry Armory on the western end of the same block with a large drill hall that connected the two armories. In 1957 there were plans for converting the complex into the Richmond City Jail, but that did not materialize and the block-long facility was demolished. 


Only one of the two terracotta medallions was salvaged during the demolition of the Howitzers armory, although the base of the building’s front walls was left in place when the downtown campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College was built on the site. The bottom of the wall that once held proudly held the cross cannon medallions is still there to be seen on the eastern side of the Reynolds building. The Shockoe Examiner’s exploration of this odd Richmond architectural tidbit is here: 

The evidence of Baskervill’s memorializing himself in one of Col. Cutshaw’s architectural drawings was consigned to storage for decades. The surviving medallion, along with other artifacts from the Howitzer's long record, was once on display at a museum in the new National Guard armory that was built in 1966 on Dove Street, in the south end of Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood. 

The facility on Dove Street was poorly maintained, and one General in the National Guard described the building as “looted” before it finally closed in 2009. The building is as now a community center for the newly rejuvenated Dove Street neighborhood. Hopefully, the National Guard still has those important artifacts and that they are properly stored somewhere. 


Ironically, one of the few relics of this once important building and certainly what seemed like the most unlikely thing to survive is the drawing now safely stored in the collection of the Library of Virginia, and with it, Henry Baskervill’s covert signature. Before his death in 1946 and in the twilight of a distinguished architectural career, maybe Henry smiled when he thought about his time working at City Hall, those interminable drafting assignments, and that one, solitary occasion he finally put one over on the Old Man.







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