A Grand Tour of Richmond's Monument Avenue
The Prettiest Street in America
It has been described as the 'prettiest street in America' by numerous visitors (the American Planning Association listed it as one of the '10 Great Streets in the Country)'. It has imposing monuments interspersed among a tree lined central mall. It has gorgeous houses from a forgotten Beaux-Arts era popular in the 19th century which emphasized order, symmetry, linear lines and hierarchy. It is basically unchanged since the three decades after the turn of the last century - beginning with construction in what were then cornfields following the civil war.
I am talking about Monument Avenue in the antebellum capital of Virginia - Richmond. Its cobblestoned thoroughfare is the only street in America declared a National Historic Landmark (1997) and runs through Richmond's historic 'Fan District' ('Fan' referring to the way the streets in this part of the city fan out from east to west). Part of the area was owned by Otway Allen (in the late 19th century) who pushed for the Lee Monument to be located on the edge of his property with the forethought of extending a grand boulevard, modeled upon a boulevard of Paris, westward. The final choice for the monuments' placement was decided by Governor Fitzhugh Lee, the general's nephew, in 1887.
Since Monument is a busy street the best way to see the monuments and appreciate their grandeur is to park and walk.
I had the chance to join Jeanne Allen of the Valentine Museum (Richmond's richest source for the history of the River City) on a walking tour to some of the more historically significant mansions lining Monument Avenue. Jeanne is a very knowledgeable guide and moves quickly - one of my companions noted, "This is actually a 4 hour tour but Jeanne gets it done in 2!"
The cobblestones that pave Monument Avenue are made of asphalt. The city of Richmond made the decision to completely pave over Monument Avenue with macadam in 1968 until Richmond resident Helen Marie Taylor literily stood in front of the paving machines, stopping their progress, and convincing the city to reconsider its plan.
The Monument Avenue Historic District runs from Birch to Roseneath Street. The historic district encompases 263 residences, churches, as well as a few offices and was originally laid out in 1887. Most of the structures were built between the late 1800's to about 1930. As I mentioned before, the area was ripe for development directly after the Lee Monument was erected, but due to the financial panic of 1893 and the depression that followed, most construction was put on hold for a period of ten years.
Domenick Casuccio, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Valentine Museum, supplied me a copy of the original Monument Avenue Historic District Application (MAHDA). This document has many fascinating facts - among the best are, "The first houses were stylistically cautious, relying on Queen Anne and Victorian massing ... but as the first three blocks began to fill up quickly ... the sizes and styles of the houses became more assertive very soon." Today as you stroll westward you begin to observe the houses acquiring more ornamentation, larger windows and a more opulent composition.
The images accompanying this article will describe in further detail the stories behind some of the more historically significant structures.
Starting from East to West:
- J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart - unveiled May 30, 1907 along with the Davis monument to a crowd of 18,000 Civil War Veterans, crossroad of Lombardy. The MAHDA declares, "Stuart and his horse are caught in a moment of drama, and his dashing uniform and plumed hat add ... to the composition."
- Robert E. Lee - unveiled May 29, 1890 to a crowd that included 50 Confederate generals, in what were then empty cow fields at the far edge of the city, crossroad of Allen. According to the MAHDA, "Both the sheer size and the artistic presence of the sculpture command attention, and the stillness of the sculpture actually transmits a sense of calm that fits the grand architectural setting of the monument."
- Jefferson Davis - dedicated June 3, 1907, the monument is topped by the allegorical goddess of the South - Vindicatrix, crossroad of Davis. President Davis faces east towards the Lee Monument - Jeanne Allen related that, "In 1907 when the monument was unveiled the consensus is this would be where Monument Avenue would end" (today it continues on for many more blocks).
- Stonewall Jackson - unveiled in 1919, retired Confederate soldiers then living in the Old Soldiers home (the building still exists in the Museum district) lobbied to have the statue face north towards the Northern foe, crossroad of Boulevard.
- Matthew Fontaine Maury - unveiled 1929, inventor of the torpedo, crossroad of Belmont.
- Arthur Ashe - unveiled July 10, 1996, Richmond native and tennis great, crossroad of Roseneath. There are only two blocks left before Monument Avenue becomes less urban, so the sculpture seems to greet visitors to the city.
Best Historical Tidbits
Many of the structures have garages located behind the houses on access alleys - so very southern!
The first house built on Monument Avenue was number 1601 which was demolished, in 1978, to make room for a parking garage.
The lots west of the city were originally divided into 100 acre lots according to William Byrd III's lottery in 1769.
The Lee sculpture arrived by train to Richmond in four huge crates in May of 1890 with a spontaneous crowd of twenty thousand gathering to pull the boxes by hand across the city.
John Mitchell, Jr., the editor of Richmond's Planet, writing carefully about all the exuberance surrounding the arrival of the Lee sculpture , "We are aware of the legacy of treason and blood that honoring the Confederacy would pass down."
The 2600 block of Monument Avenue has dense, tall buildings on the north side whereas the south side has stately mansions. This is due to original owner John P. Branch selling the north side first without deed restrictions and later selling the south side with major deed and usage restrictions.
On the west side of the 2700 block sits the First Baptist Church, built in 1929. The lot was known to be severely 'boggy' and not developed until much later. A church-bell in the garden running along Monument avenue is of some significance. According to Jeanne Allen, "This bell is one of only two bells that survived being melted down by the Confederacy during the last days of the war."
- The Monument Avenue 10K Race
- Confederate History events at various times throughout the year
- Easter on Parade
Easter on Parade
I am choosing to highlight the last event listed above. Easter on Parade is an idiosyncratic, eccentric and an oh so Richmond event. Taking place on Easter Sunday each year the event started in the 1970's.
Today the Monument Avenue mall is sparsely lined with street vendors selling all types of food from frozen Oreos, to corn dogs, to gourmet coffee. The thoughtful way in which the organizers restrict the vendors gives the 'parade' a calm atmosphere allowing you to direct your attention where it belongs - to the many colorful people dressed up in their homemade hats and garments, and most interesting of all, the many dogs that are costumed by their owners.
The atmosphere allows room for some strange street performers to entertain the crowd. During our walk we had privilege to see a very entertaining unicyclist juggling flaming torches while joking with the crowd.
A few stages are set up by the city for professional vocal groups - but the real treat is the impromptu stages on private porches along the parade route which steal the show - banjo groups, violin and guitar groups, Irish dancers, and Southern singing groups are a real treat.
The culmination of the day's festivities are the Pet Bonnet and People Bonnet showcases taking place on the main event stage.
Best Places to Eat
Monument Avenue is mostly residential without eating establishments. But a short walk down any side street will bring you to a hidden treasure - two of my favorites located at either of the extreme ends of Monument:
- Kuba Kuba (1601 Park Avenue): reminiscent of a Havana city sidewalk cafe. My favorite dishes are any of the 'emparedados' which are Panini like sandwiches. The fillings range from mushroom or turkey to chicken and pineapple. Start off with the black bean soup!
- Banditos Burrito Lounge (2905 Patterson Avenue): just west of Monuments' First Baptist Church. Without fail I wind up ordering the 'Blue Moon Burrito' with shredded chicken, black beans, grilled red peppers and onions. Beware - these burritos are huge!