On Tuesday of this week, I was very fortunate to meet with Mr. Walter Harrow from the Virginia Baptist Mission Board who was so incredibly kind to give me a tour of 819 South Cathedral Place, the westernmost unit of our row. This is also the unit that appears to be the first sale and deed transfer from developer John C. Shafer to George Stevens in 1892.
It is understandable why this home was so desirable. George Stevens was already residing on the row two houses down at 815 Floyd Avenue and evidently liked the location. He was married and probably living with a few small children as well as an in-law, according to the Richmond Directories of that time. 819 was built with a slightly wider footprint, and of course being on the end offered more windows for added light and circulation, which couldn’t hurt the full household. And, Stevens was headed up the ladder towards distinguished success at Chesapeake & Ohio Rail. He was in the position to make the purchase of a comfortable residence for his family.
The extra space, windows and perhaps elevated perceived grandeur established this particular address as the most valuable on the row. During their construction, Shafer took out insurance policies on all five dwellings, at $4,500 on each unit except for 819, which was valued at $5,500. Stevens paid $12,500 for the property, and it will be interesting to see if I can determine what the property was assessed at around the time of the sale to see how competitive the offer was. According to Kerri Culhane’s 1997 masters thesis for VCU, two blocks away on “The Fifth Avenue of Richmond” 916 West Franklin Street – a mansion in comparison to this speculative rowhouse – was assessed at $18,000 in 1894. Considering that was two years after the transaction and property values had most likely increased due to the “building boom” happening in that part of the Fan, Stevens had probably made Shafer an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Inside the original Stevens residence there is a lot going on as the Virginia Baptist Mission Board renovates to disconnect the property from the neighboring units. This task is almost complete. The remaining renovation involves reinstalling and matching a flight of stairs to lead from the second floor landing to the third floor. Standing in the foyer of the home offered a sense of grandeur in the added width of the space and a possibly gentler-sloping and more open staircase. The original sliding doors had been removed and openings between the front parlors and the hall had been enlarged in a previous renovation. I did not detect any original millwork throughout the property along with the absence of any corner blocks at the window and door frames. An interesting layout at the foyer explains the sunken-in front door. A narrow coat closet was designed at either side of the entry. None of the newel posts on the staircase appeared to be original due to the plain – if any – detailing, in comparison to the ornately carved posts in the other units. The balusters along the rail, however, could be original. They matched the style of the turned balusters in the other units, so perhaps only the newel posts were replaced at some point.
As with the lost sliding doors and millwork, most of our other vernacular interests have been casualities of time as well: the fireplace surrounds and mantels, ceiling centre-pieces, and original door hardware. According to Gottfried & Jennings’ American Vernacular, the faceted pressed glass doorknobs seen throughout 819 today were most common with the Colonial Revival aethestic, which is out of character for all elements of style we have seen across the row thus far, indicating they are all replacements.
Although most of the original finishes have been lost, the property still boasts the distinctiveness of it’s unique composition and spaciousness. There is no doubt that the Stevens family enjoyed this residence, a fact demonstrated in 819 staying in the family for many years. In 1907, George Stevens transferred ownership of the property to his daughter Helen who owned the home for almost the next 40 years.