At a glance, Laburnum Court looks similar to other fashionable North Side developments from the 1910s. Its 24 homes, designed by Virginia architect Charles M. Robinson, display several of the revival styles that were popular in the 1910s and 1920s, including the Mediterranean Revival, Dutch Colonial and Craftsman. Charles Freeman Gillette, a much-sought-after landscape architect, designed the individual lots as well as the common areas.
However, Laburnum Court, which occupies the block bounded by Palmyra, Gloucester, Westwood and Chatham avenues, differs from other developments of the period in a key way. It was developed as a cooperative community – a forerunner of condominium living – that offered a form of homeownership that diverged from the traditional model.
For example, a hot-water heating plant located in the development’s courtyard supplied heat to the homes. (Before 1930, many Richmond homes were heated by coal furnaces, which were fairly labor-intensive to operate.)
In addition, a central electrical distribution system allowed residents to purchase electricity at about half the usual rate, according to a promotional brochure published in 1919, the year Laburnum Court was built.
In another break from conventional developments, Laburnum Court homeowners jointly owned the community’s common areas, which included a playground, garages and space over the heating plant that could be used as servants’ quarters or a clubroom.
It was a revolutionary – and rare – concept, and while Richmond soon had another cooperative development – English Village (1926) – it didn’t catch on in the city, said Sarah Driggs, an architectural historian who has lived in Laburnum Court for 31 years.
So who was the radical developer behind Laburnum Court? You might be surprised.
The land for Laburnum Court, and the adjacent Laburnum Park community, was subdivided from an estate that had belonged to Joseph Bryan, a lawyer and the founding publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (He died in 1908.) His sons, John Stewart Bryan and Jonathan Bryan, developed both the neighborhoods.
Unlike Laburnum Court, Laburnum Park was a traditional subdivision, and it’s not clear why the brothers decided to take a different route with Laburnum Court.
“Nothing I know in the Bryan family history suggests they were looking to be progressive,” Driggs said. “Laburnum Court was built to jump-start sales, and a real estate agent might have suggested the cooperative-living idea.”
The community evolves
Over the course of a century, Laburnum Court has changed in some ways. The hot-water heating plant was replaced by individual home furnaces in 1979, Driggs said.
Today, Joseph H. Seipel, a former dean of the VCU School of the Arts and a Laburnum Court homeowner with his wife Suzanne since 1990, uses the 900-square-foot space formerly occupied by the heating plant as an art studio.
“We made a deal that if I took the boilers out, we’d work out a long-term lease,” Seipel said. “I also have a studio on Main and Lombardy, but this is convenient and gives me the chance to work whenever I want.”
The community’s electricity is no longer bought at a communal rate, and the houses themselves have evolved, too. Originally, the floor plans were identical, but over time, homeowners have undertaken renovations that distinguish them.
“Some people have taken out walls and modernized the houses with more open floor plans,” Driggs said. “Others have undertaken renovations that are more traditional. My husband and I have stored the original windows from a house that got replacement windows, so anyone who needs an original window can have one.”
Despite losing its distinctive heating and electricity features, Laburnum Court remains a cooperative.
“We maintain the alley, and we do a lot of the work ourselves, including tree trimming and spreading mulch and gravel,” Driggs said.
The development’s strong sense of community continues, too, and it’s especially popular with families.
“There are a lot of families here with children,” Seipel said. “It’s the perfect place to raise a child. My wife and I love to sit outside and listen to 20 or so kids running around and having a good time.”
It’s a sound the community’s playground has made for decades.
“I remember at one point some of my children’s friends proposed that every mother have dinner at the same time, so they could play together longer,” said Sue Moffett, who moved to Laburnum Court with her family in 1963. “That didn’t work.”
The community, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this month with a private event, still attracts younger families.
“That’s how a neighborhood keeps growing,” Moffett said.
But it’s also attracting empty nesters looking to trade in the suburbs for an urban lifestyle.
“We’re empty nesters who moved back into the city,” said Trina Lee, who recently moved with her husband, Hugh, from Midlothian to Laburnum Court. “We wanted to be close to activities downtown. Now we’ve found the best of both worlds – we’re near Scott’s Addition and the Fan, but we’re also nestled in a real community environment.”
Originally, the houses in Laburnum Court offered roughly 2,000 square feet of living space, but additions have enlarged some of the houses to as much as 3,150 square feet, said Joan Peaslee, a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices PenFed Realty.
“More than three-fourths of the homes have been expanded up or out over the years,” Peaslee said.
Homebuyers hoping to find a home in Laburnum Court might have to be patient. In the last 12 months, only two homes in the community have come on the market. One sold for $334,500 and the other for $345,000.
“They were both fixer-uppers,” Peaslee said. “A house with the original floor plan that is in really good condition would probably sell for $500,000, depending on the level of finishes.”
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