While one’s typical James River daydreams may revolve around snatching up a prime picnic spot, there's a much more dramatic option for your next romantic outing than your favorite patch of grass. That place is Richmond's Pump House, and Ralph White is largely responsible for ensuring that it still stands in all its faded Victorian glory.
As James River Park System manager, White has supervised the Gothic Revival castle for the past 32 years. And considering that White is scheduled to retire in January 20131525595, his final spring on the job seems like the appropriate time to reflect upon his years spent preserving one of Richmond's most hidden treasures.
To meet White is to meet a local legend. He has often been credited as the man who changed the public perception of the river from one of disdain to one of reverence.
Before anything else, White commands your attention with a voice built for radio. Then, of course, there is his evident knowledge and passion for his subject flaring in his eyes. The 67-year-old's inspired monologues equally engage audiences in person or on the phone. During face-to-face and telephone conversations with White at different points in the summer and fall of 2011, he imparted the following about the Pump House's history and his love affair with it:
Built in 1882 under the supervision of city engineer Colonel Wilfred E. Cutshaw, the gray granite Pump House provided water for the City of Richmond for more than 40 years. Water was channeled there from the pumping station -- located along the Kanawha Canal, close to the point where the James passes Williams Island – which transported water to a 26-foot-deep reservoir in Byrd Park. This water went untreated directly to Richmond businesses and residences until 1909.
But the Pump House also had a more glamorous side. Cutshaw had designed an elegant open-air dance hall on its sweeping balcony. The space became a bustling dance hall, in use from the ballroom to the swing eras.
“The Pump House united public utility through the pumping station and public recreation facility through the dance floor in a period before there was a Parks & Rec Department,” explained White. “It was pitched to upper-class clientele, to the economic and social leaders of the community.”
These prominent guests would come by waterway from 7thand Canal streets, though coming by carriage through Byrd Park's new roads eventually became a more popular choice with wealthy Fan residents. As the decades passed, however, the dance hall's clientele declined in societal status and income. The dance hall became decidedly blue collar, often deterring the kind of crowd it had originally attracted.
By 1924, the Pump House no longer functioned as a pumping station. After World War II, its heyday as a dance hall quickly deteriorated. In the name of the war effort, the city had sold the building's machinery for scrap metal. In the 1950s, just as the city was poised to demolish the Pump House, First Presbyterian Church bought it for $1.
The city eventually regained possession of the Pump House, but put it to little use. In the mid-1980s, the city officially established Pump House Park as separate from Byrd Park, further removing the gem from the public's gaze.
Around that time, White became involved with the Pump House and quickly became enamored. He felt compelled to save the Pump House and re-introduce it to Richmonders.
But preserving the Pump House has been a slow-going and laborious process, given limited funding, strict building regulations and the building's age. Because of the Pump House's state of disrepair, the inside is not currently open to the general public and can only be toured by appointment.
February 2011 marked a major milestone in White's mission for the building. The city finally put electricity in the building, after White advocated for it for years. However, the Pump House still needs drinking water, an ABC permit, and, most unexpectedly, a composting toilet. Given the building's historic status, installing the pipes necessary for operating a regular toilet is not an option, but no toilet means no occupancy permit.
Hence the need for a composting toilet that would cost $10,000, including purchase and installation compliant with building commissioner standards, according to White. One of his hopes before retiring from his post is that the Pump House perform a ceremonial flush for a grand opening event in May 2012.
On that note, White harbors many hopes for the Pump House's future. Two of the biggest? Putting a boat in the canal to replicate the feel of bygone days and renting out the space for small, “controlled” events on the “demure” site.
Yet whoever ascends the James River Park System throne after White will have more say in that than White himself. He's abdicating as King of Richmond's Pump House at last, though he'd prefer to be remembered as a humble steward of its period beauty.
One of the reasons White feels comfortable ending his career now is because he believes the James River Park System is finally on its way to paying tribute to the European practice of stabilizing and honoring historic structures.
“With gothic gray stone and a steeply pitched roof, [the Pump House] looks like a church or cathedral,” said White. “That's what makes it distinctive—the architecture. It stands the test of time. It's the most impressive and most beautiful piece of public architecture in Richmond. It's not only aesthetically pleasing from the outside but emotionally powerful from the inside.”
And that, explained White, is why we must insist on its preservation.
For more information, call the City of Richmond Parks and Recreation at (804) 646-5733.