Thursday, September 15, 2022

“Beautiful Westbourne:” Demolition and Perseverance in a Midcentury Richmond Neighborhood

David Bass, formerly of the website “Modern Richmond,” is quoted as saying, “Richmond has some great examples of Modern residential architecture, but it has only one Midcentury Modern neighborhood.”  He was referring to architect Charles Goodman’s designs in Highland Hills in Bon Air, but there is another neighborhood, on Libbie Avenue north of Broad Street, that could also claim the title of “Midcentury Modern neighborhood.”


An ad from October 1955 for Westbourne
and “The Challenger” home design.

The area is called Westbourne, and despite the typical Richmond faux-Olde World name the subdivision was constructed with the newest mid-1950s styling and conveniences and marketed to young couples.  These were often families of veterans who were anxious to use the financing available to them under the GI Bill, and who subsequently fueled a building boom in the western part of Richmond.  In response, the homes of Westbourne were constructed quickly of prefabricated parts, all on a standard floor plan and reflective of the mass production that fueled America’s war effort in the 1940s.


One of the few homes in Westbourne that still retains the 1950s appearance.

This kind of efficiency of construction was a lesson hard won by American industry during World War II, where goods and tanks, ships, and planes were mass produced by the thousands.  In the housing industry, this meant standardization of parts and almost production line speed as crews moved from lot to lot, performing their specific tasks.  “By purchasing quality materials in tremendous quantities, we obtain much lower prices,” explained one advertisement for the new community. “All materials are assembled and readied to exact requirements right at Westbourne… A trained crew of expert artisans competes a special segment in each home, thus every detail receives efficient, uniform, highly skilled attention.”


Rows of Challenger houses prepared for demolition along Spencer Drive.

The home plan was marketed with a bold name typical of its time: “The Challenger,” This is the same period that brought you names like the Ford Fairlane, the Hydromatic transmission, and Oldsmobile’s Rocket 88, all implying modernity, industry, and all the modern benefits of the post-war world.  Research has failed to find the unnamed designer of the Challenger house, but it was certainly someone with a background in modern, labor-saving materials and techniques as well as home design.


Another ad for “Beautiful Westbourne” from a 1956 Richmond newspaper.

The use of a single plan not only streamlined construction but also simplified the sale and promotion of the new houses since each Challenger home was almost precisely the same for every buyer, the only concession to variety being the four types of decorative exterior trim from which to pick.  During some promotions, a demonstration home in Westbourne would be completely furnished by a local furniture store, or in one case, Sears and Roebuck.  Sears provided a complete suite of furnishings from their “Harmony House” line for one of the model homes and combined with what were then ultra-modern conveniences of the Challenger house, it must have been an impressive display.


An ad for Sears’ “Harmony House” line of furnishings, which were used in a Westbourne model home in 1956.  This affordable and modern furniture may have filled many new homes in the community.

Whoever wrote the ad copy for Westbourne was not afraid to use hyperbole or exclamation points.   One newspaper advertisement screamed at the prospective buyer who might express a degree of doubt about the houses in Westbourne: “The CHALLENGER is not merely a name.  The CHALLENGER is a standard of value.  The CHALLENGER epitomizes the acme in quality and value and livability of a fine, modern home.  The CHALLENGER is a reality, an example of skillful designing, planning, and construction.  Even if you had a million dollars, you couldn’t buy finer building materials than those used in The CHALLENGER!”

One of the design elements common to the Challenger houses was this distinctive balustrade on the stairs, inexpensively made by cutting down alternating boards of a wall of tongue-and-groove paneling.

The designers of the Challenger home did use some innovative features, not the least of which was gas-fueled radiant heat.  This was not unheard of in homes built on a slab, where pipes with warm water circulated and heated the room from the floor up but must have appeared as an unusual method of heating in Richmond, where oil heating hot water radiators is so common.  A separate thermostat controlled heat to the upstairs rooms.  The advertisements listed other modern amenities included in the purchase price: a kitchen equipped with a Westinghouse electric range, and a Westinghouse “Automatic Laundromat,” which was a washing machine.  There was a built-in exhaust fan in the kitchen, Formica countertops, and a maple chopping block.

The wreckage of one of the tiled bathrooms cited as an amenity in early Westbourne sales promotions.


An ad for Sears’ “Harmony House” paint palette.  These colors may have informed the decoration of many of Westbourne’s first buyers in the 1950s.


One of the homes on Spencer Road slated for demolition, as seen in 2012 and today.


Living room, dining room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom with shower completed the first floor of the Challenger home, complemented by an enclosed garage with electric roll-up door.  Upstairs was a third bedroom, another tiled bathroom, and an extra room promoted as a den or spare bedroom. 


The shattered interior of a Challenger house, showing the kitchen and beyond, the living room.

The appeal of the Challenger home was powerful: not only its design, but the location in the West End and proximity to the growing Broad Street corridor.  Perhaps most attractive was the financing offered for veterans through the GI Bill. Houses sold for $11,500, but qualified veterans could buy a home with no money down and approximately $67 per month, which included principal, interest, insurance, and taxes.  


The family has moved from this Challenger home after sixty years of occupation, leaving the clothes pins on the line.  In the distance, Libbie Mill and the Henrico library.

Almost everything needed to live in “beautiful Westbourne” was in that $67 monthly payment except the utilities.  Each promotional advertisement invariably featured the slogan, “Richmond’s Outstanding Community of Good Neighbors,” which may have been late 1950s code for “white and segregated,” and subtle assurance that your investment is sound and your neighbors in Westbourne won’t turn out to be Negroes or Jews or some other equally disquieting minority. 


A Challenger home at 2409 Lehigh Circle, as seen in 2011 and today.




2411 Lehigh Circle, shown in 2011 and today.  It appears the two large pine trees were deliberately cut down to fall on and crush this Challenger house in anticipation of its complete demolition.


To ride through these streets and the dozens of Challenger homes west of Libbie is a study in changing styles and demographics, where SUVs have replaced the road whales of the 1950s and a mixture of races and ethnicities has been added to the once exclusively white neighborhood.


One of the many well-maintained Challenger homes in Westbourne.  This one has had brick siding and dormer windows added at some point.


Many houses have obviously been beautifully cared for the last sixty years, with additions, enclosures, and even second story dormers almost disguising the original Challenger design.  Only a few still look just as they did in when they were new in that very different America of the Eisenhower administration. 



Another modified and well-preserved Challenger home in the western part of the subdivision that has been a home to Westbourne families for sixty years.

The houses of Westbourne east of Libbie Avenue have the appallingly familiar appearance we have grown used to from photographs of the war in Ukraine: row after row of windowless and deserted homes, with holes smashed through the roofs and debris and trash blowing through what were once neatly kept yards.  The apparently random holes cut in so many of the houses may be there to help take the rigidity out of the roof and make the structure easier to demolish. 


Most of the homes to be demolished have already been stripped of their aluminum siding.


These were never the homes of wealthy Richmonders, but instead were starter homes where families were established, first holidays celebrated, young mothers and their first babies brought home from the hospital, probably in a huge, finned car.  The neighborhood was the epitome of the American dream for many in the 1950s and may still be recalled as that first step toward independence for many couples.


The demolition of a house is always kind of sad.  You know, watching it first vacated, then deteriorate, and then disappear entirely that it was the vessel of a lot of memories for the people who lived in it at one time.  Among the qualities we imbue in the concept of “home” is that it is permanent, not only for ourselves but others, so when a building that was obviously once somebody’s home is destroyed, it is instinctively disquieting.  The ranks of the gutted houses between Libbie and Libbie Mill West generate that same twinge of sadness. 


The homes of Westbourne that are east of Libbie Avenue are soon going to vanish, taking their memories with them.  Most of the houses on Spencer Road, Argus Lane, Lehigh Circle, and Westbourne Drive are owned by an entity called GGC Associates, who lists their office as being in Libbie Mill.  It is not hard to see more large-scale development covering the site of these houses up to the eastern side of Libbie Avenue.  The vast majority of Westbourne is on the other side of Libbie, and this street may form a firewall against more demolition of the 1950s neighborhood.  Although many will soon be erased, hopefully, development will not overtake the rest of the little “midcentury modern” houses of Westbourne and destroy the community that calls them home.

- Selden. 










AC said...

So sad - as you say - to see this neighborhood being demolished. I imagine when it was built, it was "out in the country", pastoral and pleasant. Lacking the business corridor that is now Broad Street. But, please. The comments about racism and anti-Semitism? I grew up as a small child in the 1950s. But in other states like Alabama and Georgia. I can tell you from experience that families who bought starter homes like ours - like those in Westbourne - did NOT have either race or ethnicity on their minds. Civil rights had not begun. Judaism was not a thought one way or another on peoples minds. As a matter of fact, a Jewish family lived across the street from us, and no-one complained or was ugly to them. People like my parents just wanted to forget about having lived through and fighting a war and foregoing food when they were hungry. They just wanted to live a peaceful life to start a family. Your comment about racism and anti-Judaism is a contemporary one - born of experiences in today's world. Or wealthy worlds, which this neighborhood and mine were not. Except for that one out-of-place comment, I enjoyed finding out about this neighborhood history. I've driven through there from time to time, and wondered about it.

Shockoe Examiner Staff - see bottom of blog entry for the specific author. said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the article about Westbourne and I'm also happy that you grew up in such egalitarian circumstances. My comment about racism is not a "contemporary," opinion as you term it, but is based on my memories of Richmond in the 1960s and 1970s, an era where the phrase "the wrong [north, black] side of Broad Street" was still a commonly used geographical reference. Even that late, in my Richmond race and racial discontent colored much of life in this city.
I believe the new home buyers in Westborne were not looking for a multicultural experience and were, in fact, counting on not having one.
I'm not sure Richmond was ever a free-thinking kind of place like where you grew up, and in the city we have been paying a heavy price for the missteps and injustices in the past ever since. On the other hand, to drive through Westborne west of Libbie these days is a pleasant reminder that even old Richmond can change for the better.

Anonymous said...

1950s Virginia: still segregated. (Schools finally after 3 Supreme Court decisions the 60s). Real estate: red-lined while newly built interstate highways dispersed folks to newer developments outside city limits.

Anonymous said...

The holes in the roof were from the local fire department doing practice drills.

Anonymous said...

My mom and dad purchased their first home on Westbourne Drive in 1959. I was a year old when we moved in and called Westbourne home until my early twenties. I still call Richmond home 64 years later. My mom eventually sold the house in the late nineties after my dad had passed and she could no longer keep it up. Not having a multicultural experience was not a driver for the friends and neighbors I came in contact with during my 20 year stay in the neighborhood. That included the Jewish triplets i grew up playing with as well as the Asian kids who lived directly behind me. Your drive through Westbourne is about 50 years late if you are looking for a pleasant reminder that even old Richmond can change for the better.