These days, American homeowners typically live in a house for 10 years before selling. The Bolling Haxall House at 211 East Franklin Street is a little different. Since its construction in 1858, it has had just three owners.
For most of the building’s life, though, no one has lived there.
The present owner, The Woman’s Club, purchased the property in 1900, after the club, which hosts educational and cultural events for its members, outgrew its rented venues. And while Richmond has radically changed around it over the course of 161 years, the nonprofit organization has preserved the house as perhaps the city’s finest example of residential architecture from the 1850s.
Many of the house’s furnishings are 19th century antiques, donated by club members.
“It’s one of the best examples of the Italian Villa style in Virginia – or anywhere, for that matter,” said Chris Novelli, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Houses in the Italian Villa style, an early sub-style of the broader Italianate style, often feature cubic proportions and a square cupola on the roof.
The Bolling Haxall House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
The first and second owners
As Richmond expanded westward in the 1830s and 1840s, the sections of Grace and Franklin streets west of Capitol Square emerged as the site of the city’s most prestigious residential real estate. The parallel streets attracted some of Richmond’s wealthiest residents, and their houses were among the city’s grandest and most fashionable.
The city got its first Italianate-style house, the James Thomas House, in 1853 at the northwest corner of East Grace and Second streets, for example, and the house at 211 East Franklin Street followed five years later. The Franklin Street owner, Bolling Walker Haxall, had admired an Italianate mansion in New York, and he had local builders duplicate it.
“Richmonders often looked to New York for leadership,” Novelli said. “This would be an early example.”
Hallmarks of the Italianate style, popular in Richmond from the 1850s to 1900, include round arches, heavy cornices with large, decorative brackets and classical columns at the main entrance. This is also the period when you begin to see cast iron extensively used for architectural features on buildings.
The arches on the Bolling Haxall House are especially prominent, showing up on the doorways, windows and fireplaces, as well as its front portico.
“Round arches were so trendy in the 1850s that the designer even put a large one on the front of the house, where you would typically see a triangular pediment,” Novelli said.
Other significant features in the Bolling Haxall House include a walnut spiral staircase with a stained-glass skylight, richly carved marble fireplace mantels and an octagonal library or morning room with exceptional trompe l’oeil, as well as sliding pocket shutters on the parlors’ windows – a rarity.
In addition, the cast-iron rinceau-style fence set in granite along the front of the property is attributed to George Lownes. Lownes cast and signed a similar fence in Hollywood Cemetery.
Haxall was involved in two of Richmond’s three most lucrative enterprises – flour and iron (the third: tobacco) – but he faced financial setbacks after the evacuation fire set by retreating Confederate soldiers in April 1865 spread and destroyed Haxall Flour Mills, his primary business.
In 1869 Haxall sold the house at 211 East Franklin Street to Francis Thomas Willis, a successful physician, for $28,000. Perhaps the most significant change to the house during Willis’s ownership was his replacing the original spiral staircase with one made of solid walnut.
Willis lived in the house until his death in 1898. Two years later, his grandson sold the house to The Woman’s Club for $20,000.
The Woman’s Club years
Buying a large property wasn’t easy for women in 1900, and The Woman’s Club, which had been founded in 1894, couldn’t find a Richmond bank willing to lend it money for the Bolling Haxall House.
Mary Munford, a Richmond educational reformer who cofounded the club and served as its president in 1900, raised $7,000 in donations from members, and eventually a member’s son “arranged for a $13,000 loan out of Baltimore,” said Diane M. Beirne, executive director of The Woman’s Club.
The purchase proved to be worth the effort. Club membership grew significantly, and in 1915, Richmond-based Carneal & Johnston designed an elaborate, Greek-inspired auditorium for the back of the building. (Later expansions of the auditorium brought the size of the house to approximately 20,000 square feet.)
Today, the club, which is the second oldest of its kind in the United States, has nearly 1,500 members, and it hosts an ongoing lecture series as well as performances by the Concert Ballet of Virginia. The club also leads local, national and international trips.
Guest speakers from the club’s first century included Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright, John F. Kennedy and George Herbert Walker Bush. Recent speakers included J. D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy”; Martha Raddatz, co-anchor of “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” and chief global affairs correspondent for ABC News; and Robin Wright, a contributing writer to The New Yorker.
The club also rents the house out for special events. “At this time of year, we do one to three non-club events per week,” Beirne said.
Of course, caring for a house that is now 161 years old can get expensive. In 1985, the club drew up a master plan, and in the course of four years, it raised $1 million for wide-ranging improvements, including structural repairs and fresh paint and wallpaper on the interior.
In 2009, it raised $2 million for improvements in the house’s drainage and HVAC systems, as well as installing stucco exterior walls on the auditorium and replacing its roof.
More recently, the club installed Wilton carpets and wallpaper from Farrow & Ball. Taken together, the expenditures are signs of the club’s commitment to staying in the city and preserving the Bolling Haxall House for future generations.
“Famously, several women’s organizations have taken care of these buildings in the city,” Beirne said. “It’s important.”
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.