The renovation of the historic Leigh Street Armory as the new home of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia already has produced a ripple effect in Jackson Ward, a national historic district.
Historic Richmond Foundation acquired and restored two nearby properties — the Meredith House at 133 W. Jackson St. and an Italianate house at 617 St. Peter St. — with the museum project in mind.
An armory building once so fragile with decay that it was in danger of collapse now is viewed as a potential anchor in the ongoing renaissance of Jackson Ward.
“From the very beginning, I thought of the project as community redevelopment and neighborhood revitalization and tourism, trying to get tourists who come to town to come a little farther west than they normally would,” said Stacy Burrs, a former president, CEO and board chair of the museum.
“We thought of it as restoration of a really iconic building, and then lastly, a new home for the Black History Museum.”
“There’s a whole lot of excitement in Jackson Ward, in particular, around the project,” said Burrs, now deputy director of Venture Richmond.
According to Historic Richmond Foundation’s website, Meredith House is the second-oldest home still standing in Jackson Ward.
Built in 1813, it was named after coach maker William Meredith and later would be the home of James and Virginia Forrester, members of a family of influential African-American community leaders; and Doris C. Ford, secretary of the Association of Black Beauticians in Virginia in the 1940s and 1950s.
In 2012, the foundation’s staff worked with the city of Richmond to acquire Meredith House, a deteriorated property that had been damaged by fire. In tandem with Ark Construction & Development, the house was renovated into two-bedroom apartments by the following year.
The restoration of the St. Peter Street house, which dates to 1900, followed in 2014.
“At the time of these projects, Historic Richmond was thinking very strategically about revitalizing this gateway entrance block into Jackson Ward, and we were very vocal cheerleaders for the Black History Museum project and its sensitive adaptive reuse of the Leigh Street Armory,” said Cyane B. Crump, the foundation’s executive director.
“This armory building, as one of only two remaining in the city and one of the only armories anywhere in the country built for a black militia group, is one of the most culturally, historically and architecturally significant buildings in Richmond.
“Any neighborhood revitalization project requires multiple partners for success. At the time we began our nearby projects, we saw the Black History Museum and the armory building as a key partner in revitalizing that gateway block of Jackson Ward. And I think our collective efforts — as well as the efforts of the nearby homeowners and neighborhood institutions — have made great strides in strengthening the community fabric of this important historic neighborhood.”
Burrs said the impact of the museum as a linchpin of neighborhood revitalization is ongoing. “I feel like it helped prompt whatever is going to happen in Abner Clay Park,” he said.
The park — which sits on 4 acres bounded by Brook Road and Clay, Leigh and Adams streets — shares a block with the Adult Career Development Center, the home of Armstrong High School from 1923 to 1952. It sits across Leigh Street from the armory/museum and historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The park has not received a substantial upgrade in 25 years. The city’s Capital Improvement Plan for 2016-20 calls for a renovation.
A conceptual plan by Timmons Group submitted last July to the Commission of Architectural Review includes a Historic Jackson Ward gateway at Brook and Leigh; a “historic walk” in partnership with the museum; a central plaza and water feature; and a terraced lawn and pavilion featuring a steel and wood pergola.
The park also would include new landscaping and trees; period lighting; a dog park and a splash pad; and upgrades to existing recreational fields and courts.
Public art and sculpture also would be pursued, although the planned Maggie L. Walker statue — originally proposed for Abner Clay — was relocated to a plaza at Broad and Adams streets.
So far, $450,000 has been allocated for the project. “The construction start date depends entirely on obtaining project funding, but it can be assumed that the best-case scenario for a construction start date will being in Spring of 2017,” the Timmons Group document states.
But Burrs is undaunted.
He notes that in late May, the Richmond Symphony will bring its “Big Tent” to Abner Clay for “Celebrate Jackson Ward: Past, Present and Future” — three days of performances showcasing the history of the neighborhood featuring Virginia Repertory Theater, Richmond Jazz Society and Elegba Folklore Society.
He called Abner Clay Park “a destination location for families and tourists and young people — a sort of North Side Brown’s Island without the water.” To reach that potential will require investment, “but it would also yield a pretty good reward for the city, for the neighborhood.”
The new museum site “positions the neighborhood for some really robust, high-impact collaboration with nearby Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University,” he said.
Museum board chairwoman Marilyn West concurs.
“I think it’ll be a great catalyst,” said West, chair and CEO of M.H. West & Co. “We’re surrounded by history.
“There are a lot of pieces. And sometimes I feel you get that one key piece and it creates a synergy and everything starts to happen.”
The museum, she said, will garner more attention to the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue a block and a half to the east on Leigh Street. “Really, it is an asset that we can leverage to do more.”
Mike Hopkins, the project’s developer, says the museum is projected to attract about 15,000 visitors annually, compared with 3,000 at the museum’s former location at 00 Clay St. Poetry readings, jazz concerts, book signings and lectures will attract visitors.
West and Burrs, meanwhile, are excited at the interest in the museum from a diverse, multicultural, multigenerational audience. “People are really excited about this project,” Burrs said.
Local historian Selden Richardson, who crusaded for years to preserve the building, contrasted this chapter of restoration with the previous chapter of Jackson Ward destruction.
“The presence of the Black History Museum sets a high standard for architectural style and design, while clearly signaling this part of Jackson Ward is about to again undergo change,” he said.
“Unlike the late 1960s, when change arrived as entire blocks of homes and businesses of the neighborhood were atomized, this transformation will see renovation both architectural and cultural, using the Black History Museum as a stabilizing anchor as well as a dynamic engine.”
He noted that there already has been infill development near an area of the museum cleared by Interstate 95 construction, “helping heal the neighborhood’s lost blocks.”
“As a cultural destination, the BHM will invite visitors to explore Jackson Ward’s past, but they also will sense the excitement of new stores and restaurants and people again living on streets uninhabited for decades,” Richardson said.
“The research and insights that the BHM provides visitors and researchers will demonstrate that our city is as interesting architecturally as it is culturally diverse.
“In the 1890s, blacks in Jackson Ward saw the construction of the Leigh Street Armory as the same promise, here written in brick and granite, that had been penned in oceans of blood by the Civil War: that theirs was a society and people of equal value as any other.
“Today, the rebirth of that same building as the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia reminds all Richmonders that their city is unique and storied.”