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RICHMOND

Monroe Park Historic District
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart


Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart Cathedral
Richmond City Watch

 

Monroe Park Historic District is an outstanding collection of monumental religious, institutional, and apartment buildings surrounding one of the oldest municipal parks in the United States. The neighborhood includes significant streetscapes and an important and unique urban park. The district marks the beginning of the Fan neighborhood and the diverging street patterns that inspired the name of this area. Franklin Street, running southeast to northwest, follows the axis of streets in downtown Richmond laid out in 1780, and the streets south and west of Monroe Park follow the east-west axis of the historic Sidney subdivision planned in 1817. These diverging street patterns created the unusual shape of Monroe Park, a five-sided polygon.

Monroe Park, originally known as Western Square, was in 1851 the first property the city acquired for a system of municipal public squares. The Trust for Public Land lists Monroe Park, the oldest municipal park in Richmond, as one of the 100 oldest city parks in the United States. After serving as the state fairgrounds in the 1850s and a military encampment during the Civil War, the City of Richmond developed Monroe Park as a landscaped public square in the 1870s. The formal plan of the park, with its radial arrangement of walks, dates to 1877, and was the design of the Richmond City Engineer’s Office under the direction of Wilfred Emory Cutshaw. The paths connect the seven park entrances to each other and the central fountain plaza, the focal point of the park. A master plan is at present being prepared to encourage a greater diversity of uses of the park and preserve its historic character.

With the extensive planting of trees along the perimeter and all of the walks, the park had 26 species and nearly 320 individual trees by 1904. The walks and trees effectively framed vistas of the landmarks within and surrounding the park. The current cast iron fountain by the J.W. Fiske Company of New York replaced the original granite rockwork fountain around 1900. The 1938 park house replaced a wooden Victorian park house from around 1890. Four monuments in the park honor Richmond notables William Wickham and Joseph Bryan, the Spanish American War, and World War II veterans.

After the city's annexation of the area west of Belvidere Street in 1867, the Monroe Park neighborhood became one of the most fashionable residential enclaves in Richmond. Surviving late 19th and early 20th-century dwellings reflect the high-quality residences in Richmond’s west end. Remaining residential enclaves sit along South Cathedral Place, at the northwest corner of Laurel Street and Cathedral Place, and at Belvidere and West Franklin Streets. One of most interesting groups of buildings is the Second Empire style row in the 800 Block of South Cathedral Place. In the early 20th century, religious, institutional, and high-rise buildings would literally overshadow the earlier residential architecture of the district.

Monroe Terrace

Monroe Terrace from Monroe Park
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

The Monroe Park neighborhood has two good examples of early steel frame high-rise apartment buildings from the first decades of the 20th century. The Monroe Terrace Apartments building (now Virginia Commonwealth University’s Johnson Hall) is at 26 North Laurel Street. Alfred Bossom designed this Jacobean Revival high-rise apartment building overlooking Monroe Park, which dates from 1923. Prestwould, another Bossom high-rise built in 1923, is at 610 W. Franklin Street. This dark brick castellated courtyard building has slate gable roofs.

The attractive setting prompted construction of some of the finest religious architecture in Richmond. The oldest house of worship, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church at 8 North Laurel Street, is an 1870 building expanded in 1895. Its façade of random ashlar granite from a local quarry has three lancet windows set in a gable flanked by a tower reduced in size by a tornado in the 1950’s.

Constructed between 1903 and 1906, the individually listed Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is another monumental building in Monroe Park. The Richmond Catholic diocese acquired the triangular site of the cathedral in 1867, but it stood vacant until the commissioning of a new cathedral. Virginia-born Wall Street financier Thomas Fortune Ryan provided the funds to build the Italian Renaissance design of architect Joseph H. McGuire. The hexastyle Corinthian portico of the building faces Monroe Park. Two bell towers with tent form roofs with cross finials flank the portico. The plan of the cathedral is a Latin cross topped by a lantern dome. The transepts have large ornamental rose windows. A majestic interior corresponds to the dramatic exterior. The former Bishop’s House and Priest’s House, an attachment to the rear of the building, now serve as offices and meeting spaces for the cathedral. The cathedral is completing a major restoration in recognition of its centennial.

Mosque Landmark Theatre detail

Monroe Park Mosque Landmark Theater detail
City of Richmond Department of Community Development

The Landmark Theater at 4 North Laurel Street is the lone monumental public building in the district. Designed by Marcellus Wright Sr. and Charles M. Robinson in 1926 and originally known as the Acca Shrine Mosque, the building is a whimsical example of Moorish Revival architecture, with a large Saracenic arch and tiled faux minarets. The interior is arguably even more lavish than the exterior in its Moorish decoration with extensive tile and polychrome ornaments. The building contains meeting rooms, an Egyptian Revival ballroom in the basement, and a large auditorium. The building served as the headquarters for Virginia’s Shriners, and since its acquisition by the city in 1940 functions as Richmond’s municipal auditorium.

Monroe Park Historic District includes some of the finest examples of apartment and religious architecture in the City of Richmond. Virginia Commonwealth University adaptively reuses many of its residential buildings. The architecture in the district is even more impressive against the backdrop of Monroe Park.

Plan your visit

 Monroe Park Historic District is roughly bounded by North Belvidere, W. Main, Cherry, Park, Laurel and Franklin Sts.  The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is on a triangular plot at the intersection of Laurel, South Cathedral Place (Floyd Ave.) and Cathedral Place. The neighborhood is located at the eastern edge of the Fan District abutting downtown Richmond. Consult the Monroe Park website for additional information about the park.  Landmark Theater hosts a variety of events: Broadway, symphony, ballet, children’s theater, lectures, concerts, school commencements, fashion shows and the Richmond Forum. See the Landmark Theater website for a schedule of events.  For information and a schedule for services, consult the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart website.  The Virginia Commonwealth University Monroe Park Campus website has photographs and the addresses of historic buildings in the district the university uses. The park is free and open to the public.

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