Tobacco and Trolleys: Industry and Transportation
Antebellum Architecture
Richmond's African American Heritage
The Continuing legacy of Historic Preservation
Discover Our Heritage Travel Itinerary

The Continuing Legacy of Historic Preservation

Richmond’s long and rich history has an equally compelling counterpart in the many efforts to preserve its past.  From canals to banks, parks to cemeteries, Richmond’s built environment spans nearly 300 years of American history, and Richmonders have long been aware of their city’s historical legacy.  As Richmond has grown and evolved, its residents have worked in a variety of ways to celebrate the city’s past and preserve its heritage for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Any history of the historic preservation movement in Richmond must undoubtedly begin with the establishment of the Virginia Historical Society in 1831.  To this day a private organization that obtains nearly all of its support through membership and endowment, the historical society counts as its first honorary member former United States President James Madison.  The society elected Chief Justice John Marshall, whose home in downtown Richmond still stands as a designated National Historic Landmark, as its first president.  During its first 30 years, even before it had a permanent home, the society began to amass a collection of valuable books, manuscripts, museum objects, and natural history specimens, occasionally publishing the texts of historic documents and addresses delivered at its annual meetings.

State Library
Interior of the State Library
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

This studied approach to history was in step with other organizations of that era and set the tone for centuries to come regarding efforts to preserve Virginia and Richmond’s past.  Local historian Samuel Mordecai’s 1856 book Richmond in By-gone Days surveyed over 150 years of Richmond’s history.  Though an invaluable resource for Richmond’s history, its subtitle, “with a glance at the present: being reminiscences and last words of an old citizen,” gives some suggestion of the antiquarian bent that marked the era.

The General Assembly created the Library of Virginia in 1823 to “organize, care for, and manage the state's growing collection of books and official records - many of which date back to the early colonial period.”  The library originally occupied rooms on the third floor of the Virginia State Capitol until 1895, when the state built a new library and office building on the eastern side of Capitol Square.  Since then, there have been two successor buildings.  In 1997, the library shifted its collections once again to a modern six-story building on Broad Street.  Today, the library houses the most comprehensive collection of materials on Virginia government, history, and culture available anywhere. Its printed, manuscript, map, and photographic collections attract researchers from across around the world, while the library's website opens many resources to those at great distances who are not able to travel to Richmond.  In addition to managing and preserving its collections, the library provides research and reference assistance to state officials, as well as consulting services to state and local government agencies and to Virginia's public libraries.  It also administers numerous federal, state, and local grant programs; publishes award-winning books on Virginia history; and offers the public a wide array of exhibitions, lectures, book-signings, and other educational programs.”

Founded in 1889, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) is “dedicated to preserving and promoting the state's irreplaceable historic structures, landscapes, collections, communities and archaeological sites” (APVA Mission Statement).  From the outset, the organization divided itself into branches to encourage communities to identify and save historic landmarks.  Its various arms continue to advocate for preservation in their respective cities, counties, or regions. The Richmond-based William Byrd Branch of the APVA merged with the Historic Richmond Foundation in 2006, and continues to work toward the larger Association’s goals at the local and regional level.

The Museum of the Confederacy has an equally long history of preservation. In late 1889, the city announced plans to demolish the former White House of the Confederacy. That year, Isobel Stewart Bryan suggested that the mansion not only be saved but that the building should be utilized as a museum for preservation of records or relics of the Confederacy. On February 22, 1896, the mansion opened its doors as The Confederate Museum. Today, the Museum of the Confederacy's goals of preserving the objects and history of the Confederacy for the public have not changed. Facing a growing Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Sytem, the museum announced plans in the fall of 2007 to expand to a statewide museum system that will expand on the mission of the original founders of the organization.

The effort to memorialize Richmond’s history took a new direction in 1890 with the unveiling of Jean Antoine Mercie’s monumental equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, a 12-ton, 21-foot high bronze statue sitting on a 40-foot granite pedestal in the center of a large intersection on Monument Avenue. The introduction of this major element sealed the fate of this unique memorial street.  While the Lee Monument is the largest and grandest of the statues on the avenue, five more suitably impressive monuments followed: three to Civil War heroes Jeb Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson; one to scientist and inventor Matthew Fontaine Maury; and the sixth, and last, to Richmond’s native humanitarian, scholar, and athlete Arthur Ashe.  Located on the last block of the Monument Avenue Historic District, the statue was dedicated in 1996 on Ashe’s birthday, July 10, drawing thousands of spectators.

Valentine Museum
Valentine Museum and Garden
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

The elegant 1812 Wickham-Valentine House is home to part of the Valentine Richmond History Center.  For over a century, the center’s focus has been the collection, preservation, and interpretation of life and history in Richmond.  It began with the personal collection of Mann Valentine Jr., and in 1898 became the first private museum in Richmond.  Today, the mission of the Valentine Museum and Richmond History Center is “to engage, educate, and challenge a diverse audience by collecting, preserving, and interpreting Richmond's history.”  The center has its own historic archives that are open for research by appointment.  In 1941, the Valentine Museum published Houses of Old Richmond, a book that surveyed Richmond houses from 1737 to 1860.  Its author was Mary Wingfield Scott, one of the city’s early staunch preservation advocates and the leader behind the saving of Linden Row, an important row of attached Greek Revival houses from the mid-19th century.  Scott also wrote the 1950 book Old Richmond Neighborhoods, which documents the evolution of Richmond’s early residential areas.

In 1956, a group of Richmond preservationists established Historic Richmond Foundation (HRF) to buy a number of neglected buildings in the neighborhood around historic St. John’s Church.  The revitalization of this area, building by building, was part of a larger plan for the revival of downtown.   Since then, the organization – which recently merged with the William Byrd Branch of the APVA - has saved over 300 buildings important to Richmond’s history, including the magnificent Old City Hall.  HRF has published books on Richmond architecture and history, and was recently instrumental in saving the Patteson-Schutte House, a mid 18th-century farmhouse identified as one of Richmond’s oldest buildings.

The Church Hill neighborhood became the center of Richmond’s historic preservation movement in the 1950s.  In 1957, the City of Richmond created a Commission of Architectural Review and designated its first Old and Historic District, St. John’s Church Historic District.  This district is now one of the best-preserved 19th century neighborhoods in the United States.   Since that time, the city has designated 14 additional local historic districts regulating alterations to properties and encouraging compatible design for new construction.  The city designated Church Hill North Historic District, a neighborhood with a number of antebellum buildings adjacent to St. John’s Church, in 2007, coinciding with the 50-year anniversary of the commission and the establishment of the St. John’s Church Historic District.

Following years of abandonment and neglect in the post-World War II decades, downtown Richmond is coming into its own again with an array of ongoing revitalization endeavors.  The city’s wealth of historic buildings and neighborhoods are regaining their vitality. The state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credit programs, which have been responsible for $1.4 billion of investment statewide in the last 10 years, and the city’s tax abatement program are providing incentives for entrepreneurial property owners, fueling a booming demand for living and working spaces in downtown Richmond’s historic buildings.

Richmond is home to the headquarters for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR), the agency responsible for carrying out federal and state preservation mandates in Virginia, including placement of historic resources on the Virginia Landmarks Register, making nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, and administering tax credit incentives, historic preservation grants, and easements.  For over 40 years, the Department of Historic Resources has partnered with private property owners to ensure the preservation of Virginia's historic landmarks through historic preservation easements. The easement, a perpetual, legal agreement between the property owner and the DNR protects the historic and character-defining features of a property, while allowing for sensitive changes according to the needs of a property owner. The DNR's portfolio of easement properties represents the rich array of architectural, archeological, and cultural landscape resources found in Virginia. In recognition of the strength of Richmond’s local historic preservation program, DHR designated the City of Richmond as a Virginia certified local government, or CLG.  Beginning in the 1990s, funding through CLG grants made it possible for the state and city to oversee the survey and designation of additional historic districts in Richmond on the National Register of Historic Places.  The majority of these neighborhoods are in areas of Richmond targeted for federal assistance to promote their revitalization.  Today, due in part to this city-state partnership with the federal government, Richmond has well over 40 historic districts of varying size throughout the city. Many districts and individual properties are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Incorporated in December 1999, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (A.C.O.R.N.) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the revitalization of Richmond’s older neighborhoods.  A.C.O.R.N. encourages and helps individuals to purchase vacant and abandoned properties, and advocates for “the preservation of the cultural and historic assets that give the city’s old neighborhoods their unique character.”   Also formed in 1999, the Capitol Square Preservation Council develops recommendations for the preservation of the historical and architectural integrity of Capitol Square, a verdant open space in the heart of downtown encircled by governmental historic properties.  The council’s office is on the top floor of the Bell Tower, whose first floor houses the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s visitor center.

Old City Hall
Old City Hall
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Preservation of iconographic buildings such as the Old Stone House, St. John’s Church, Old City Hall, Main Street Station, and the Virginia State Capitol has also helped to galvanize Richmond’s preservation advocates and foster an appreciation for historic architecture.  2004 saw the beginning of the Capitol Restoration Project, a major three-year interior and exterior restoration of Thomas Jefferson’s capitol building.  This $83 million project was finished in time for the arrival of the Queen of England as part of the nation’s 400th anniversary celebration in 2007.  Other recent and ongoing renovations of landmark buildings in downtown Richmond include the 2001 restoration of the 1814 Monumental Church, now owned by Historic Richmond Foundation; the former First Baptist Church from 1841 now Hunton Hall on the Medical College of Virginia campus; and the First Battalion Armory, an African American armory from 1895 that the City of Richmond currently owns.

Richmond has a diverse and active preservation community, which functions at many levels from local and state government officials to citizens buying and restoring their own homes in the city’s many historic neighborhoods.  A number of archival and photographic resources are available to help educate and guide residents and visitors alike. Many of them are listed in the Learn More section of the itinerary.