Sometimes, a building is more than a building.
In the years following the Civil War, Richmond set out to rebuild itself as the first city of the New South, just as it had been the first city of the Old South. Architects played a central role in the effort. Today, we might think of it as a rebranding campaign, of sorts, albeit one advanced with bricks and mortar.
That’s not to say there were a lot of architects in the city, though.
In the 1880s, city directories listed eight architects in Richmond, said Tom H. Ray, who retired as collection manager coordinator at the Library of Virginia in 2016. Among those architects was Marion J. Dimmock, who was beginning to attract significant commissions.
By 1891, there were 12 architects listed in the city directory. And Dimmock enjoyed a place of prominence among them, landing big projects and even garnering attention in national publications.
“Dimmock was the first Virginia architect to make a point of getting published nationally,” said Charles E. Brownell, an emeritus professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. “His designs appeared again and again in the first enduring journal of the profession, ‘The American Architect and Building News,’ and elsewhere.”
Dimmock’s reputation continued to grow. A 1901 article called him the dean of the city’s architects. By the time he died in 1908, his firm had produced designs for approximately 90 projects, including private residences, churches and public and commercial buildings.
“He touched every aspect of city life during the last quarter of the 19th century and into the 20th,” Ray said.
Of course, architects’ reputations tend to fade over time, and Dimmock’s was no exception. While he played a prominent role in the city’s architectural output during a critical part of its history, he’s virtually unknown today.
“Dimmock really is a forgotten treasure,” Ray said.
Building a career
Dimmock was born in Portsmouth in 1842, but his family moved to Richmond when he was young. His father, Charles Dimmock, was an engineer and a former Army officer, and he trained his teenage son in a unit called the Metropolitan Guard, which the younger Dimmock cofounded and led.
Soon after the Civil War broke out, Dimmock enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army. By the war’s end, he was a first lieutenant in charge of a company. (A recommended promotion to captain never went through, but he was popularly known after the war as Captain Dimmock.)
In 1871, Dimmock launched an architectural firm in Richmond with his brother, Charles Dimmock.
Charles Dimmock also “served as Richmond’s city engineer in the 1870s,” said Ray Bonis, senior research associate for the Special Collections and Archives department at VCU Libraries.
Dimmock almost certainly received his architectural education informally.
“There were no academic programs in architecture until 1868” – when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened one – “and it’s doubtful Dimmock went there,” Ray said.
Dimmock undertook his earliest known building project – the Leigh Street School at 21 East Leigh Street – by 1873, and two years later, he designed the original St. Andrew’s Church (demolished) in Oregon Hill, Ray said.
By the early 1880s, Dimmock’s office was running in high gear. His projects in that decade included houses at 12 South 3rd Street (circa 1880), 207 West Franklin Street (1886), 209 West Franklin Street (1886) and the Confederate Memorial Chapel (1887) at 2900 Grove Avenue.
Several of his residential designs were for clients who lived on Grace and Franklin streets, the city’s two most prestigious streets of the late 1800s.
“Without question, the dwellings of the well-to-do were a major constituent of Dimmock’s work,” Brownell said. “He had a specialty in providing designs for the rich and fashionable.”
Professional journals began publishing his architectural plans, as well, and in 1888, he became the second Virginian to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
“He was often consulted by other architects and local officials when planning and designing buildings,” Bonis said. “He was a fixture in Richmond newspapers.”
Styles and standouts
Dimmock’s success wasn’t focused narrowly. Among his firm’s work were plans for at least 16 churches, seven public buildings, eight commercial buildings and 19 houses, according to Ray’s research.
“One of his most prominent commissions was the six-story, Richardsonian-style Chamber of Commerce building (1891-92), located in the heart of downtown Richmond at the corner of 9th and Main streets,” said Chris Novelli, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Dimmock also designed the base for the J.E.B. Stuart statue at the eastern terminus of Monument Avenue.
The majority of his buildings are in Richmond, although he worked throughout Virginia.
“During a quarter of a century, Dimmock provided designs in most of the nationally fashionable manners: in the High Victorian styles (High Victorian Italianate or ‘Modern Italian,’ ‘Second Empire’ or ‘Modern French,’ and something close to High Victorian Gothic); in two Late Victorian Free Styles (‘Queen Anne’ and Richardsonian Romanesque); and in varieties of academic classicism at the turn of the century,” Brownell said.
In addition to the Confederate Memorial Chapel, his extant churches include St. Mary’s Church (1878) on River Road in Goochland County and the Grove Avenue Baptist Church (1890 and 1901) at Grove Avenue and Harrison Street (now a part of the VCU Monroe Park campus).
Among his residential standouts is the Whitehurst-Nixon House (1893) at 932 West Franklin Street.
“The facade embodies the characteristic suavity of the Dimmock office variety of the Richardsonian, not rough and rugged, despite the stonework, but aiming at graceful contours,” Brownell said.
Other Richardsonian standouts include the Powers House (1888) at 1205 West Franklin Street and the Jones-Williams House (1890) at 800 West Franklin Street.
“The Jones-Williams House incorporates Petersburg granite and fairly elaborate but factory-made inlaid flooring,” Ray said. “Dimmock would have been in step with his times using factory-made materials like this.”
Dimmock hired several talented, young architects who went on to become some of Richmond’s most revered. One of them, William C. Noland, later became Virginia’s first licensed architect. Another, W. Duncan Lee, became a fashionable society architect a generation later. Lee collaborated on Dimmock’s last residential project, the Classical Revival-style Jenkins House (1908) at 1839 Monument Avenue.
“Dimmock’s career almost completely encompassed the entire Gilded Age, starting during Reconstruction and ending during the Edwardian era,” Novelli said. “Besides his buildings and published designs, a large part of his legacy would probably be his role in mentoring and training rising young architects of the next generation.”
Next week: A closer look at the Jones-Williams House
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