Sometimes, a building is more than a building.
Maybe every house has a story. When a house was built, and why, tells us something about not just the people who lived there but the broader history of its times. It tells us about the way we live, and have lived. Most houses tend to tell just one story, though. The Robinson House stands out because it spans so much of Richmond’s history and because its purpose has changed so dramatically.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in America. The Robinson House, which stands on the northern end of the campus of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is beginning its fourth act – or maybe its fifth or sixth.
‘A summer home’
The Robinson House started life circa 1828 as a modest, one-story property built by Anthony Robinson Jr., a banker and gentleman farmer who had been buying up parcels of land in the area we know today as the city’s Fan and Museum districts.
The land was relatively cheap after the Panic of 1819, and by the time Robinson built the house, he had acquired 109 acres, according to Elizabeth O’Leary, former VMFA associate curator of American art and the author of “Across Time: The History of the Grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.”
Back then, the area had a rural character, with forests and meadows. “It was in the wilds of Henrico County,” O’Leary said. “Mulberry Street was there, but there was no Clover Road,” which later became the Boulevard.
The house that Robinson built was suitably rustic. “His granddaughter referred to it as a summer home,” O’Leary said.
Because the property had a grove of oak trees, Robinson named the property The Grove, from which present-day Grove Avenue takes its name. Robinson continued to expand The Grove, and it eventually covered an area bounded today by West Cary Street and Monument, Davis and Belmont avenues.
An Italianate mansion
The Robinson House underwent its first transformation in the 1850s, when Robinson expanded and remodeled it into an Italianate-style mansion.
Chalk it up to political ambition.
“In 1855 Robinson wanted to run as county clerk in Henrico, and opponents pointed out that he didn’t live in Henrico,” O’Leary said.
Robinson and his wife, Rebecca, had 10 children who lived to be adults, and their summer home wasn’t large enough or impressive enough to house the aspiring politician’s large family. So Robinson hired an architect – now unknown – to turn it into something appropriately grand.
It wasn’t the first Italianate home in Richmond – that would be the James Thomas House (1853) at the northwest corner of East Grace and Second streets. But it was still fairly early.
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.
Robinson likely drew inspiration for his house’s design from the Ritter-Hickok House at 821 West Franklin Street (1855).
“Robinson would be heading out from his city residence to The Grove, and he’d ride by the Ritter-Hickok House,” O’Leary said. “He was clearly smitten.”
(A remodeling of the Ritter-Hickok House in the 1890s erased the similarities between the two houses.)
Work began on the Robinson House in 1856, with the house gaining a second floor as well as additional square footage on its south side. The family moved in in 1861. (By then, Robinson had lost his race for county clerk.)
Robinson didn’t live in the expanded house for long. He died on June 28, 1861, two months after the Civil War began. In his will, he left 48 acres of The Grove to his wife, including the house and its outbuildings. The rest of the property, more than 100 acres, went to the couple’s children.
A soldiers’ home
Robinson’s widow faced hardships during the war and in the years following. When she died in 1879, she left the property to her youngest son, Channing Robinson, “because he had spent his inheritance keeping it up,” O’Leary said.
Channing Robinson sold the property in 1884, including 36 acres to the R. E. Lee Camp No. 1, Confederate Veterans. The group’s main purpose was to provide housing for Southern veterans who were indigent and disabled.
Some of the property purchased for the new R. E. Lee Confederate Soldiers’ Home was soon sold again, leaving a 22- to 24-acre parcel bounded by the present-day Arthur Ashe Boulevard, North Sheppard Street and Grove and Kensington avenues.
“For the first couple years, the Robinson House was the soldiers’ home,” O’Leary said. “It was the commandant’s office and the medical dispensary, as well as providing housing for the first residents.”
Over the next half-century, the building remained the facility’s headquarters.
In 1886, the architect Robert I. Fleming expanded the Robinson House with plans that included a third story. That year also saw the establishment of Virginia’s first Civil War museum, housed in the mansion’s double parlors. Its most famous artifact was Little Sorrel, the stuffed warhorse of General Stonewall Jackson (now at the Virginia Military Institute).
As the soldier’s home population grew, buildings were added. Between 1885 and 1892, Marion Dimmock, a popular Richmond architect, designed the Confederate Memorial Chapel, a 100-bed hospital, a mess hall and several of the 10 cottages that would eventually house the veterans.
At its peak, the compound had more than 30 buildings and was home to 300 men.
“Just over 3,000 ultimately called the place home,” O’Leary said. “It was the most successful, longest running soldiers’ home in the country.”
By the 1930s, though, the population had dwindled, and many of the aging veterans were living in the camp’s hospital. The abandoned cottages began to be torn down. The home’s last veteran died in 1941, and the Commonwealth of Virginia assumed ownership of the property.
Today, the Robinson House and the chapel are the only two buildings that survive from the soldiers’ home era.
The Robinson House today
From 1941 to 1948, the house’s war museum remained open. Then the building was repurposed as the Virginia Institute for Scientific Research, a prolific Cold War-era laboratory. In 1964, VMFA became the next leaseholder and converted the old mansion into an art annex with a studio school, according to O’Leary.
It served that function until 1993, when the commonwealth gave the Robinson House and the chapel, as well as the surrounding land, to VMFA. A state museum association then leased the Robinson House, but only for a couple years.
“The building was in bad shape, so they shuttered it around 1996,” O’Leary said.
The house remained closed for more than 20 years.
It wasn’t an entirely fallow period, though. O’Leary wrote the successful nomination to get the house listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historical Places. And VMFA developed plans with Richmond-based Glavé & Holmes Architecture to refurbish and expand the house.
With funding from a state bond issue, construction began in 2016.
The Robinson House opened to the public in March. The upper floors house museum offices, and the first floor features a visitor center operated by Richmond Region Tourism. In addition, the building’s original parlors house a 600-square-foot exhibition that explores the history of the house, as well as its land and people since the 17th century.
The free exhibition is open daily.