By the 1880s, construction on West Franklin Street, Richmond’s most fashionable residential street in the 19th century, had reached the 900 block, and it was a runway, of sorts, for the city’s architectural aspirations.
Among the most prominent new homes was Lewis Ginter’s residence at 901 West Franklin Street. Commissioned by one of the South’s wealthiest residents, the home marked the rise of the Richardsonian Romanesque style in Richmond.
Named for Henry Hobson Richardson, a Boston-based architect, the style typically features asymmetrical, rock-faced brownstone façades, as well as corner towers with conical roofs and arches over windows and doors.
Work on Ginter’s home was complete by the spring of 1891. Soon, construction crews were building other prominent houses in the style around it.
Just two years after Ginter held a reception to celebrate his home’s completion, though, work began on a new house across the street that would soon herald a new style for the city – one that would dominate the architectural landscape for more than a half-century.
James W. Allison, a businessman who had made his fortune in the seed and fertilizer business, commissioned a New York firm to design a home for the lot he had bought at 910 West Franklin Street.
The firm’s principals, Percy Griffin and T. Henry Randall, were academically trained – a rarity for architects in the 19th century – and they had worked in Richardson’s office before opening their own firm.
“They would go on to build houses for some of the wealthiest men in America,” said Ray Bonis, senior research associate for the Special Collections and Archives department at VCU Libraries.
Griffin and Randall dissolved their firm in 1895, while the Allison house was still under construction, and Randall – who had taken a lead design role – finished the project, Bonis says.
The Allison house was Griffin and Randall’s only Richmond project, but Griffin continued to take an interest in the city’s architecture. He won a design competition in 1896 for a Jefferson Davis monument planned for Monroe Park, as well as winning the commission for what became Memorial Hospital at the corner of Broad and Governor streets, Bonis says. Neither design was built, though.
If Ginter’s house marked the introduction of the Richardsonian Revival on a grand scale for the city, Allison’s house represented an early appearance of the Colonial Revival style, which had just begun to resonate on a national level, thanks in part to the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Most of the buildings for the Expo, which took place in Chicago in 1893, were neoclassical, and it played a key role in launching the Colonial Revival as a national architectural fashion, says Chris Novelli, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
White-columned porches and symmetrical red-brick façades are among the Colonial Revival’s hallmarks, along with dormers, Palladian windows and classical detailing around front entrances.
Griffin and Randall began working on the Allison project the same year as the Expo, and construction was complete by 1896.
“A Colonial Revival house would have been avant-garde in Richmond in the mid-1890s,” Novelli said. =“It predates by almost a decade the first Colonial Revival houses on Monument Avenue. But you have to consider that Griffin and Randall were New York architects, and New York was years ahead of the rest of the country when it came to architectural fashions.”
The Allison house, which features a center gable, an elliptical portico crowned by a balustrade and Ionic pilasters that divide the house’s three bays, isn’t noteworthy merely for being an early example of the Colonial Revival in the city, though.
“It’s not only one of the first but one of Richmond’s best,” Novelli said. “It’s in the same league as William Lawrence Bottomley’s work.”
Bottomley, a New York-based architect who worked in Richmond from the 1910s through the 1930s, designed prominent houses in and around the city, including seven on Monument Avenue.
Allison didn’t live in the West Franklin Street house for long. He died in 1898, and in 1938 his son sold the property to Richmond Professional Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University’s forerunner.
“A large portion of the house was set aside for administrative, academic and classroom space,” Bonis said. “The front and main part of the house became the official residence of Dean and Mrs. Henry H. Hibbs Jr. and became known as the Dean’s House.”
Since 1969, the house has served as the main administrative offices of VCU’s presidents. (VCU was created in 1968.)
A fire destroyed the main hallway’s scenic French wallpaper in 1971, but the house has otherwise survived close to what it would have looked like when it was first built.
“It contains much of the original woodwork and light fixtures, and the rooms are mostly in the same size and shape as when the house was originally constructed,” Bonis said. “It has one of the nicest interiors of any of VCU’s historic houses.”
The house’s carved decorative detailing is especially noteworthy.
“It exudes an aesthetic richness in keeping with the tastes of the 1890s,” Novelli said.
Want to learn more? The James W. Allison Papers, which include Griffin and Randall’s original correspondence with Allison, are housed in VCU’s Special Collections and Archives in the James Branch Cabell Library. The material is also accessible online at http://go.vcu.edu/presidentshousepapers
If your home is architecturally significant and merits coverage in a Great Homes of Richmond story, let us know. Space is limited, but if your home meets our criteria, we’ll contact you. Send an Email to: GreatHomes@timesdispatch.com.