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A Monumental Avenue

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001
Richmond’s Monument Avenue By Sarah Shields Driggs, Richard Guy Wilson, and Robert P. Winthrop. Original photography by John O. Peters. University of North Carolina Press. $39.95.

Henry James viewed the Lee Monument of Richmond, “the capital of the Confederacy,” in 1905, 15 years after its dedication, and described it as a “stranded bereft image [on a was] the mere vague center of two or three crossways, without form and void, with a circle half sketched by three or four groups of small, new, mean houses.” Almost a century later, in 1998, this “stranded bereft image” and its “crossways” became a National Historic Landmark which an architectural writer has described recently as “. . .an avenue of grand spaces, opulent architecture, and heroic statues. . . .” To quote a popular tobacco slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

The authors of Richmond’s Monument Avenue seek to tell the story of how such an ugly duckling became a swan, to tell the story of one of the “streets of power [which] transformed many American cities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” They seek to explain the forces and controversies which created this great street and which continue to transform it. Most importantly, they seek to describe and explain the changing character of Monument Avenue from its origin with a monument honoring Robert E. Lee to its newest monument honoring Arthur Ashe.

The story is told through the eyes of architectural historians. Sarah Shields Driggs is an architectural historian who was on the staff of the Valentine Museum, the excellent museum of the history of the city of Richmond. Richard Guy Wilson is chair and Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History at the University of Virginia and, among other published work, contributed a chapter to The Grand American Avenue: 1850—1920 by Jay Cigliano and Sarah Bradford Landau. Robert P. Winthrop is an architect with a special interest in restoration of historic buildings and is a popular lecturer on the architecture of Richmond.

Joining with these authors is the photographer John O. Peters, a Richmond attorney and photographer who has previously published a volume of photographs of the courthouses of Virginia. His photography of Monument Avenue is spectacular. It is a wonderful demonstration of how a skilled photographer can create fresh, stunning images of a much photographed subject when he has the time to find the best angle, the best time of day, and the best season to take his pictures. Some of his most memorable photos have wonderful fall colors and others feature sunsets that remind us how boulevards open to the sky like no other city street. Surely, Peters’ color photos took several years to produce, but they are the product of a lifetime in Richmond.

A careful selection of archival photographs is also included.

The authors begin the story with an introduction to the personalities and conditions in the late 19th century which influenced the site selection and planning of the Lee Monument and Monument Avenue. They explain how the numerous disputes about this decision ultimately required an act of the General Assembly merging the two leading disputants—an organization of male Confederate veterans and the Ladies’ Lee Monument Association!

They follow this introduction with a splendid discussion of monumental statuary structured around the story of each of the monuments from concept through dedication. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to propose a monument or just to better appreciate monumental statuary. A lesson it teaches very clearly: “if you want to propose a public monument, you had better be prepared for a fight.”

The authors weave into this discussion the important story of how Monument Avenue reflects the reconciliation of the issues which divided a nation in civil war. They tell how opinions were divided at the time of the erection of the Lee Monument as to whether it was the symbol of the Lost Cause, or a reminder of a “legacy of treason and blood,” or a tribute to “. . .a man whose example . . .teaches all the world how duty may win love and admiration, though it may fail.” Then they explain how the Stuart and Davis monuments “. . .helped shift the focus of the narrative of Monument Avenue to a more explicit celebration of the Lost Cause.” They observe that by the dedication of the Jackson monument in 1919, “. . .fading memories had mellowed most Americans’ view of the Civil War . . .[and] . . .a tentative reconciliation had been reached. . . .” Then, in 1929, the Maury monument departed “. . .from the overt celebration of the Lost Cause and martial glory of the previous four monuments.” Finally, the authors suggest that the Ashe monument “. . .challenged and changed the narrative of Monument Avenue. It suggested a reconciliation of the Old South personified in the various Confederate statues with the achievements of African Americans in the late twentieth century.”

If there is any thought that this is just another coffee table book, the discussion of the important role of real estate speculation, and the business ambitions of builders in the development of the neighborhood of Monument Avenue should dispel it. We are introduced to the leading landowning families and learn how their different approaches to developing their property shaped the neighborhood. We learn how mansions and apartments became neighbors and we begin to meet the architects and to become familiar with the many architectural features displayed on the Avenue. This chapter also describes the houses of religion located on the Avenue and how they drew leading citizens as residents such as the important Jewish families who attended Temple Beth Ahabah.

The authors’ knowledge and appreciation of domestic architecture is evident in their discussion of the houses, styles, and architects of the Avenue. This is richly illustrated with housing plans, both interior and exterior photographs and anecdotes.(This is the single chapter where better identification in the text of the illustration referenced would be helpful.) We meet the cosmopolitan New Yorker, William Lawrence Bottomley, the favorite architect of the Virginia elite with nearly 50 commissions in the state between 1916 and 1940—seven on Monument Avenue; and we learn a source of many of these commissions was a good friend who was “. . .a power in the Virginia Garden Club.” We also learn that Dr. Stuart McGuire replied to his architect’s query about the type of house he would prefer that he never asked his patients’ for medical opinions and “. . .he had hired his architect to make architectural decisions.” His house is one of the most elegant on Monument Avenue.

The authors round out the Avenue’s story with a description of the influence, decline, and rebirth of the Avenue. By 1960 you could buy a 6000 square foot house for only $35,000 to $45,000. Its mansions were white elephants which were turning into nursing homes, boarding houses, and offices. Then a combination of preservationists, civic groups, and residents (and the well-known Richmonder’s love of a bargain?) began to become active to save this landmark. Young people who had grown up in the suburbs were attracted to city living. When on Easter Sunday afternoon in 1973, Richmond’s first modern street fair was held on Monument Avenue, thousands came to stroll the Avenue and inaugurate the first of many parades, house tours, and other urban events which re-established the Avenue as a vital part of the community.

Today Monument Avenue is once more at the top of its game. Only a few of the old families and the old trees are left, but the new families have restored impressively—see for example number 2032 (pages 184—85) which had become uninhabitable before a marvelous restoration—and values have increased more than tenfold. The Ashe monument appears to mark a new chapter. As the authors conclude,

“The Ashe debate confirmed the fact that Monument Avenue is still healthy, still growing, still evolving. Monument Avenue has not just maintained itself: its long-standing role as a residential neighborhood, as a site for civic celebrations, as a tribute to the great, and as a symbol of Richmond has not diminished—and will continue throughout its second century.”

This fine study of Monument Avenue is a splendid illustration of how such solid scholarship on a narrow subject can yield important understanding of much larger topics. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of the New South and the American city.


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