By 1890, the year construction began on the Jones-Williams House at 800 West Franklin Street, its architect, Marion J. Dimmock, was at the peak of his career. After opening a Richmond firm in 1870, he had steadily attracted commissions for a variety of projects throughout the city, and in 1888, he had become the second Virginian to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
The Jones-Williams House wasn’t the only prominent Dimmock project in the works at the time, either.
“Dimmock’s Chamber of Commerce building, a six-story high-rise on Main Street, was built between 1891 and 1892,” said Chris Novelli, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “It was a landmark building, considered the largest and finest office building in Richmond at the time.”
In the course of a career that ran from 1870 to 1908, Dimmock designed at least 19 houses in Richmond, many of them for wealthy and fashionable clients. But the Jones-Williams House, designed for William Henry Jones, a successful tobacco merchant, represents a high-water mark for his residential work. It’s a subtly detailed, progressive design, showing how current Dimmock’s firm could be.
The house is in the style commonly known as Richardsonian Romanesque, named for Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson. It was popular in the United States from about 1880 to 1910.
Hallmarks of the style which appear in Dimmock’s design for the Jones-Williams House include the use of rough-cut stone for exterior walls, windows with round arches and a round corner tower, in this case with a bell-shaped roof. Dimmock also used elaborate wrought ironwork, another Richardsonian element, to great effect, particularly on the arched opening on the western side of the porch.
The house originally had a carriage entrance on the east side, facing Laurel Street, with a large, arched entryway – another feature often seen on Richardsonian houses. It was later covered up by a small conservatory.
Likewise, the James River granite that Dimmock chose for the exterior gives the house a sense of strength, solidity and permanence, all of which are associated with the Richardsonian Romanesque. Architects and builders often used brownstone, a type of sandstone, for Richardsonian houses, but they also sometimes used granite and other types of stone, as well.
The living hall: the ancestor
of the ‘open concept’
The Jones-Williams House was part of a wave of Richardsonian-style construction in Richmond during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Most of the houses in this style were concentrated on West Franklin Street, Richmond’s most fashionable residential street.
“Some of the city’s most prominent people were building its most significant houses around Monroe Park,” said Tom H. Ray, who retired as collection manager coordinator at the Library of Virginia in 2016. (West Franklin Street is the northern boundary of the park.)
Perhaps the most prominent of these houses was the one being built for Lewis Ginter, Richmond’s most successful businessman, at 901 West Franklin Street. Construction on the house began in 1888 and wrapped up in the spring of 1891.It was one of the largest Richardsonian houses built in Virginia.
But the Jones-Williams House had something many other prominent West Franklin Street houses didn’t: a living hall.
A living hall was basically an enlarged stair hall with a fireplace and places to sit.
“The most modern and sophisticated houses of the time were being built with living halls,” Novelli said. “It was considered less formal than a parlor or drawing room because it was a pass-through area for family and servants as well as an area you could lounge in.”
Think of it as the late-19th century ancestor of today’s living room and great room.
“The idea of the living hall as an architectural fashion actually came from Victorian England, where there had been a revival of interest in a type of room called the great hall earlier in the 19th century,” Novelli said. “The living hall was a more casual version of the great hall.”
True living halls were fairly rare on West Franklin Street, in part because of the relatively narrow lots, but the Anderson-Davenport House across the street from the Jones-Williams House had one, Novelli said. Built in 1883 and demolished in 1968, it was also designed by Dimmock.
Standout features in the Jones-Williams House’s living hall include the magnificent oak staircase that partially encircles the space, the original fireplace and four arched, stained-glass windows in the stairwell behind the fireplace, as well as the original gold ceiling wallpaper, oak wainscoting and oak parquet flooring. (Each formal room has a parquet floor with a different style of decorative inlaid border.)
“The carved top of the stair newel post echoes the design of the cushion capitals on the front porch columns,” Novelli said.
The house today
In 1899, Jones, who had lived in the house with his wife and daughter, sold it to Adolph and Wilkins Williams, wealthy newlyweds with ties to tobacco.
The Williamses, who collected art and displayed it in the house, made some alterations, including redesigning and expanding the dining room in the 1920s, Ray said. Among the changes was a new Tudor-style plaster ceiling that closely resembles the ceiling of the dining room in Agecroft Hall, the Tudor house that Adolph Williams’s brother, T. C. Williams Jr., was constructing at the time in the Windsor Farms subdivision in the city’s West End.
They also added a conservatory on the Laurel Street side of the house, probably soon after purchasing the property, Ray said.
The Williamses lived in the house until their deaths. (Adolph Williams died in 1949, and Wilkins Williams died in 1952.)
“Virginia Commonwealth University, then Richmond Professional Institute, purchased the house in June of 1952,” said Ray Bonis, senior research associate for the Special Collections and Archives department at VCU Libraries. “It was the first RPI building acquired with state funding.”
The building is one of five historic buildings on West Franklin Street used by VCU’s psychology department for faculty, staff and graduate student offices.
Although some of the Jones-Williams House has been altered, enough of the living hall survives intact to give a sense of how the space appeared during the late 19th century. The house’s exterior also appears much as it did in the late 1800s.
“It’s one of the treasures on the 800 and 900 blocks of West Franklin Street,” Bonis said. “VCU is lucky to have it and the other historic houses on those two blocks.”