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Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District

Shockoe Vallye Synagogue

Shockoe Valley Synagogue
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District lies between Shockoe Hill and Church Hill at the southern end of Shockoe Valley. The district is the site of the earliest settlement of Richmond and the first residential, commercial, and manufacturing development. Richmond architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott proclaimed this area the “Valley Where Richmond Began.” The district takes its name from Shockoe Creek, once the western boundary of the original settlement. The now enclosed creek ran up the valley from the James River more or less along the line of present-day 15th Street. Shockoe is the Native American term for flat rock, in this case referring to the large flat rock where Shockoe Creek entered the James River.

A trading post was in this vicinity in the late 17th century. In the 1730s, William Byrd III founded the town of Richmond and commissioned William Mayo to survey the new town. Mayo’s plan of 1737 covered the area bounded by Shockoe Creek on the west, present-day Broad Street on the north, present-day 25th St. to the east, and a town commons along the James River to the south. The right-angled streets of the Mayo Plan provided the plan axis (orientation) for the future expansion of Richmond, and the squares (city blocks) of four ½-acre lots became a module used in future expansions of Richmond.

The oldest building in Richmond, the Old Stone House (now the Poe Museum), may date from this period. The Ege family, pioneering Richmond settlers, constructed this vernacular stone building. In the 1750s, Henrico County built the first of three courthouses at the corner of 22nd and Main Streets. The third jail and courthouse, at 2117 and 2127 East Main Street, is a Romanesque building, which architect Carl Ruhermund designed in 1892. Another important early building in the neighborhood is Mason’s Hall, a Palladian Masonic lodge dating from 1785-87. This handsome building at 1805-1807 East Franklin Street is the oldest Masonic lodge in the United States, and one of the oldest continuously used Masonic lodges in the world.

historic Shockoe Valley

Shockoe Valley Main Street
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Main Street served as the route for travelers passing east and west through Richmond, and early on taverns, inns, and shops grew up along this street. The construction of a public market building in 1796 at 17th and Main Streets boosted the commercial vitality of the area. The present market building is the fourth on the site where farmers and food vendors have sold their wares on market days for more than 200 years. The district around the market and Main Street developed as Richmond’s first major commercial area in the 18th and 19th centuries and contains a wide variety of antebellum to late 19th and 20th-century commercial buildings. They are located on the 00 and 100 blocks of North 17th and 18th Streets and the 1700 and 1800 blocks of East Main and Franklin Streets. These two and three-story brick buildings have granite, wood, and iron storefronts, and often pressed metal cornices.

Franklin and Grace became important residential streets early in the history of the neighborhood. One of the oldest houses in Richmond is the Adam Craig House at 1812 East Grace Street. Built in 1785, this large frame house has an 1822 brick kitchen and slave quarter and is situated on an original ½-acre lot. The neighborhood around the Craig House includes the best examples of early residential buildings in the neighborhood. Across Grace Street from the Craig House are brick and frame double houses from the first decades of the 19th century. At 19th and Broad Streets is Elmtree Row, a fine example of a Greek Revival row dating to 1853-1854. The Pace-King House at 205 North 19th Street is an outstanding Italianate mansion with an ornate bracketed cornice and cast iron porch. The house is noteworthy because of the large slave quarters in the rear of the property. It marks the end of residential development in the neighborhood. The Greek Revival and Italianate buildings at 202-208 North 19th Street date from the 1840s to the 1870s. Once threatened with demolition, the front portions of these buildings became part of the recording studio on the site in 1996.

The tobacco industry began in the district in the 18th century with the establishment of tobacco inspection warehouses, where farmers bought their hogsheads of tobacco for storage and inspection. Certificates from the warehouses were a medium of exchange with local tobacco merchants. In the early 19th century, the nature of the tobacco business changed from exporting cured tobacco to the North or Europe as a raw product to manufacturing chewing tobacco in Richmond factories. In tobacco factories such as the William Grant Factory, at 1900 East Franklin Street, slave workers stemmed tobacco leaves and pressed them into cakes of chewing tobacco. The tobacco industry continued to grow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tobacco factories and warehouse from the 1880-1930 periods are throughout the district. The finest grouping of these is “Tobacco Row” on the north side of Cary Street from the 1800 to the 2600 blocks. These buildings range from traditional brick and wood frame construction of the 19th century to the sleek steel and concrete buildings that date from after 1910. None of the Tobacco Row buildings is an operating factory today. Like most of the industrial buildings in the area, they have been or are being converted to office or residential use.


Tobacco Row

Tobacco Row
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

Improvements in transportation made possible the industrial development of the neighborhood. The Richmond Navigation or Ship Canal was the earliest of the improvements. The canal allowed sailing vessels to come up into the center of Richmond and, with the Tidewater Connection, provided access to canal boats from the canal turning basin. At one time, many warehouses were along the canal where the Richmond Flood Wall now stands. Starting in the 1860s with the Virginia Central Railroad and continued by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad after the Civil War, railroads began to shape the character and economy of the neighborhood. Elevated railroad tracks were a part of the improvements to the railroad network. The confluence of so many railroads prompted construction of Main Street Station in 1902 at 1520 East Main Street. The elevated railroad tracks along the western and southern boundaries of the district date from the same time period as Main Street Station.

The railroad boom in the area prompted construction of buildings to serve the transient population of the city. The Railroad YMCA of 1902, at 1552 East Main Street, served railroad workers. Baltimore architects Archer and Allen designed another building from this era, the Branch Public Baths from 1909 at 1801 East Broad Street. The Kenneseth Israel Synagogue at 209 North 19th by D. Wiley Anderson and the Jewish Settlement House at 215 North 19th Street from the same period were for Richmond’s Jewish immigrants. All of these buildings have been adaptively reused for commercial and residential purposes.

historic Shockoe Valley2

Historic Lucky Strike Cigarette Plant
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Richmond’s transportation network further helped to develop Shockoe Valley as a warehouse and distribution area early in the 20th century. Two freight depots in the district: the Chesapeake and Ohio at 18th and Marshall Streets from around 1880, and the Seaboard Airline Depot from around 1919 at 15th and Franklin Streets. The Richmond Cold Storage complex in the 200 Block of North 18th, c. 1910, and the Virginia Bonded Warehouses Scarborough and Howell designed at 17th and Cary Streets of 1911 were a part of the specialized warehousing developed during this period. Other warehouse buildings from this period are on Oliver Hill Way and North 18th Streets.

The Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District is Richmond’s oldest neighborhood, dating back to the very founding of the city. The many layers of the neighborhood’s history and the varied styles and types of buildings make it one of the most interesting historic districts in Richmond.

Plan your visit
Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District is roughly bounded by 15th St. to the west, Broad and Franklin Sts. to the north, Pear St. to the east, and Dock St. to the south. The district is an urban neighborhood that is accessible for viewing at any time. Many of the buildings are open to the public. For information on when the farmers’ market is open, visit the 17th Street Farmers Market website. The Poe Museum website has its hours of operation. A number of buildings in the district have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.
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