The Church Hill Old & Historic Districts captures the people and buildings that tell the stories of Richmond’s oldest neighborhoods. The book was conceived in 2008 when Mary Jane Hogue, executive director of Historic Richmond Foundation, approached Jack Zehmer to update the original book on Church Hill published in 1991, Church Hill: The St. John’s Church Historic District. He enthusiastically embraced the project and decided to expand the scope to not only include the original book but also Chimborazo Park, Church Hill North and Shockoe Valley. The rest of the story is history! Jack’s passion for historic preservation and love for Church Hill is the foundation of this extensive documentation of these four significant neighborhoods, the beginnings of Richmond.
As you travel through the districts, the varied characteristics of the architecture and the history of its residents create the individuality of each community. Shockoe is one of Richmond’s earliest colonial settlements. It is referred to as the “valley where Richmond began.” St. John’s Church District takes it name from its most dominant architectural feature — St. John’s Episcopal Church. It is the church on the hill where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” The development of the trolley line was largely responsible for the population expansion to Chimborazo Park. Impressive homes were built around Libby Park in St. John’s District and Chimborazo Park with sweeping views of the James River. The economic expansion and population growth created the working class neighborhood of Church Hill North by the end of the nineteenth century. The neighborhoods reflect a wonderful collection of Federal, Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival and Colonial Revival buildings.
Jack Zehmer captures much of the building stock of the four old and historic districts with his black & white photography. From time to time, he weaves ownership history in the architectural text. The interesting tidbits of information give the reader insight into the people that created these distinctive neighborhoods. Richard Cheek, a phenomenal photographer, highlights the beauty of the architectural details of the building stock with his color photography that nearly jumps off the page. Richard, originally from Richmond, was the perfect partner with his deep love for the architectural heritage of the City. The Church Hill Old & Historic Districts documents the past but more importantly celebrates the revitalization of the oldest neighborhoods of Richmond. Jack’s lifelong dedication to the ideals of preservation is imparted to the reader and challenges the next generation.
Recent Book Review by Calder Loth, Virginia’s Senior Architectural Historian
The Church Hill Old & Historic Districts, John G. Zehmer, Historic Richmond Foundation, Richmond, Virginia, 2011; 275 pp.
John G. (‘Jack’) Zehmer’s newest book offers us a comprehensive and visually enticing visit to Richmond’s East End, an assemblage of historic neighborhoods that collectively forms one of America’s most extensive yet least known historic quarters. The work incorporates much of Zehmer’s 1991 publication: Church Hill: The St. John’s Church Historic District, but is expanded with the inclusion of histories and surveys of the three adjacent Old and Historic Districts since designated by the city. These additional districts are Church Hill North, Chimborazo Park, and Shockoe Valley. The four districts collectively encompass some seventy blocks of historic buildings along with three city parks. Almost completely devoid of inappropriate intrusions, this densely packed urban area is an amazing survival, one that merits investigation and celebration, both of which Zehmer’s book helps us to do.
The focal point of the districts is the 1741 St. John’s Episcopal Church, the scene of Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech, the famous call for revolution against the tyranny of the British crown. A National Historic Landmark and Richmond’s oldest building, the church is set within a picturesque burial ground on one of the city’s highest points. It was the physical decline of the residential blocks around St. John’s that spurred of some of Richmond’s leading citizens to begin the purchase of important at-risk houses to secure the historic character of the neighborhood. This activity led to the establishment in 1957 of the St. John’s Church Old and Historic District, the city’s first neighborhood to receive protective historic zoning. The story of this early preservation effort is documented in an informative essay by the late Louise F. Catterall, included in book’s appendix. Along with Mary Wingfield Scott, Mrs. Catterall was one of the city’s preservation pioneers. Much of the documentation of the properties featured in the book was gleaned from the exhaustive research undertaken by Miss Scott and Mrs. Catterall, many years ago.
The book is divided into four sections, covering the four districts. Each section begins with an essay describing the district’s history and architecture, and noting special structures and landscape features. Following each essay is a street-by-street catalogue of the district’s buildings. Although the book doesn’t examine every single building in the four districts, it covers 90% of them. Thankfully, Zehmer provides photographs of all the buildings discussed, and unlike most architectural catalogues and guides, the photos are large enough to enable you to relate them to the narrative with little difficulty. The black-and-white photographs were all taken by Zehmer and serve to emphasize the remarkable cohesion yet diversity of Church Hill’s architecture. Church Hill developed over two centuries as a largely middle-class neighborhood. Its dwellings are mostly moderate-size, side-hall-plan townhouses, but the stylistic variety achieved within that format is striking. Restrained Federal and Greek Revival dwellings intermingle with the more assertive Italianate and Queen Anne styles. We have attached rows, semi-detached houses and free-standing ones, all squeezed together. Common to nearly all houses are front porches, the city’s summertime living rooms. We have porches of every description. Many sport Richmond’s famous lacy ironwork while others are decked out with wooden sawn and turned decorations in infinite patterns. Church Hill’s blocks are anything but monotonous.
Contrasting with the houses on the hill are the industrial buildings and a sprinkling of historic houses in the Shockoe Valley Old and Historic District. Here are factory buildings that served as Civil War hospitals. Nestled among them is the Adam Craig house, an 18th-century farmhouse that was the home of Jane Stith Stanard, subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “To Helen.” A block away on Broad Street is the Branch Public Baths building which, in 1913, served sixty-thousand bathers! (Few houses in that period had indoor plumbing.)
Zehmer’s nearly 380 black-and-white photographs of buildings and details are supplemented with Richard Cheek’s some ninety stunning color photographs spread through the book. One of the country’s foremost architectural photographers, Cheek, a Richmond native, uses his eye and artistry to show off Church Hill’s cheerful color palette and ornamentation. Lending perspective to Zehmer’s and Cheek’s photos is an assortment of ere Here
historic images of panoramic views, prominent individuals, and lost buildings.
In addition to his lucid but concise architectural descriptions, Zehmer’s catalogue narratives include information on the buildings’ various owners and occupants. It reminds us that Church Hill is not just architectural fabric, but has been home to many people of all walks of life, individuals who have been part of the texture of their neighborhoods and have served their community in numerous ways. In one block of East Marshall Street we learn that its houses were lived in by a bookkeeper, a cabinetmaker, a policeman, a dairyman, a conductor, and an engineer. We also learn that Church Hill has long been a mixed-race neighborhood. Gentrification has indeed occurred, but the process has been a temperate one, occurring over the course of fifty years to the benefit of both blacks and whites.
Church Hill goes to the very core of Richmond’s being. The view of the James River from Libby Terrace inspired the city’s name; Patrick Henry’s speech in St. John’s Church helped change the course of history; Chimborazo Hill is the site of the hospital that served 76,000 Confederate sick and wounded and that later offered shelter to emancipated African-American families. And we must not forget that Church Hill was the catalyst for Richmond’s historic preservation movement, one that now encompasses the entire city. For anyone who loves Richmond’s architecture and history, Jack’s book is a must.
Senior Architectural Historian
Virginia Department of Historic Resources