South Cathedral Place, Richmond, Virginia (1889):
Up From the Ashes
Jessica Marie Bankston
A Research Project Prepared
Under the Direction of Dr. Charles Brownell
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
Historic Preservation and Architectural History
Department of Art History
Virginia Commonwealth University
I endeavour in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my
readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt
their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it! --Charles Dickens, December, 18431
What would Charles Dickens say about the brick row of houses at South Cathedral Place?
Perhaps he would summon the ghosts of place and time to unveil the importance of these buildings. Why
were they built, and by whom? What happened here over the years? A number of spirits could answer
these questions. But like Ebenezer Scrooge’s well-known night, we will be visited by three to take us back
and reveal the circumstances, trends, and individuals that brought the row to be.
The first visitor, the Spirit of Neighborhoods Past, will take us on a tour of the site where our
row now stands, and bring to life events from its acquisition by the developer, to it’s place in the Monroe
Park neighborhood heyday of the early 1900s. We will understand why the row was built and what it was
for. Second, we will be visited by the Spirit of Styles Past, who will reveal how this row was put together,
from the overall exterior assemblage to the interior vernacular elements. Thirdly, we will summon the
Spirit of Builders Past who reveal the clues left behind for us to interpret. For ease of reference,
throughout the course of this work, the row of focus at 811-819 South Cathedral Place (formerly Floyd
Avenue) may occasionally be referred to as “Shafer’s row.”
PART I: The Spirit of Neighborhoods Past
Prior to the Civil War, the area where Shafer’s row stands became known as Sydney and was
mostly rural landscape spotted by a few pastoral residences. One of the most notable was the
four-acre estate of John C. Shafer (fig.1), the old Mansfield Watkin’s house, built in 1817, and located on
the north line of Park Avenue and extending north of Franklin Street. Shafer sensed the promise of
future development in this area, and began to buy up neighboring parcels of land as they became
Preface to A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
available.2 As destiny unfolded, on March 2, 1858 Shafer acquired the land on which the row would
sprout thirty years later, from Richard D. Mitchell.
During the recovery years following the Civil War, the land -- then part of Henrico county --
remained undeveloped, until after several failed attempts, the City of Richmond successfully annexed the
Sydney vicinity in 1867. City councilman Colonel Albert Ordway at the time lobbied heavily for a new
park at the location of the existing Monroe Square fairgrounds, which had been cleared for a field hospital
during the war. In 1869, a $1,000 appropriation allowed for the planting of trees throughout the square,
to “…revive the original vision of an ornamental green space that would attract fashionable residential
With this public amenity taking shape and the growing availability of public transportation, and
water and sewer lines, the area became increasingly more attractive to residents and developers. Through
the 1870s and 1880s Richmond experienced a new period of commercial and financial progress, which
resulted in the construction of many fine houses along Franklin Street, and Park, Grove and Floyd
Avenues, fulfilling the original vision for the area.
At this point, Shafer was in a good position to profit from selling the many acres he held (fig. 2),
including the land destined for Lewis Ginter’s famed residence. Between 1887 and 1889, he sold several
parcels to building contractors including Gilbert J. Hunt and Trexler and Elmore, however, Shafer held on
to the parcel that would be home to our row, and developed the project as residential investment
properties to lease. This is John C. Shafer’s only known residential venture, while others included
commercial buildings, such as the Shafer Building on Main Street (fig. 3). The buildings were in the
course of construction by July 1889,4 and ready for occupants within a few months.
During the last quarter of the 19th century, the few blocks stretching west of Monroe Park were
recognized as the “desirable west end,” just as Short Pump is called today. We see a familiar pattern of
residents to the new row who resemble many occupants of modern day west end Richmond; young,
Mutual Assurance Society Policies
successful professionals seeking new, upscale developments. All, except for the Parrishes at 819, moved
from easterly downtown residences on Grace or Franklin Streets.5 These first residents of the row
became patrons in the idyllic and exuberant resplendence of suburban Richmond life at the turn of the
century. It is this period that is buoyantly illustrated in David Clinger’s The Ghosts and Glories of
The park during the day was popular with nurses and their well-attired wards, who were joined later in
the day by older promenaders. On the porch of the park house, the band of the Richmond Light Infantry
Blues played weekly summer-evening concerts […] Richmond’s James Branch Cabell, the distinguished
novelist, wrote that “in no part of Richmond were mammies infrequent, but it was in Monroe Park that
you noted them in full panoply. To every bench there would be two or three mammies; alongside most of
the benches sprawled a baby carriage…none dared to assail the authority of the mammies of Richmond
within the borders of their several kingdoms….”6
For the first fifteen years, the residents of Shafer’s row enjoyed a view across the street to the
triangular lot fostering the Toler flower garden and greenhouse on land that was leased from Bishop
Keane of the Catholic Church. On June 4, 1903, the residents of the Monroe Park area observed the
beginning of a significant change in the landscape when the cornerstone for the future Cathedral of the
Sacred Heart was laid on that lot. This event cemented the distinctive character of the neighborhood, and
made it a special place to live. The planned, picturesque vicinity, specifically the Cathedral and Monroe
Park, was quite prestigious, and just as structural architecture attracted attention via newspapers, letters
and diaries, monumental or landscape design was also cause for celebration because “Americans often
looked to their cultural output as an index of their productivity and well-being.”7 Accordingly, this setting
was depicted through a number of postcards at the time (fig. 4).
Through this tour we have revived the spirit of a man who helped shape the development of the
Chataigne’s Directory of Richmond, 1889.
lower Fan in late 19th century, and that the spirit of the neighborhood was once alive and rich in this
picturesque, close-knit community. Children of all ages enjoyed the park or played throughout the alleys
and yards; residents anticipated who they might see strolling from block to block as evenings fell, and
Shafer’s row was erected to offer a few rising Richmonders a place in this blossoming scene.
PART II: The Spirit of Style Past
Try summoning the Spirit of Styles Past at Shafer’s row, and we are inundated with a profusion
of exotic flavors and motifs. Is this a mishmash or an intentional blend? The leading handbook for
understanding American architecture, A Field Guide To American Houses, is helpful in instances of
stylistic cohesion, but it doesn’t do us any good in identifying the fusion happening here. The Spirit of
Styles Past will show us that in Richmond’s Fan District, from the late 19th century through well into the
20th century, production builders followed a new industry model of deliberate blending of style to fashion
a “cohesive contradiction” in middle class house patterns.
Arguably the most prominent feature of the row is the Modern French or Second Empire
mansard roofline, housing a third story on the front portion of the dwellings, a technique ideal for urban
town house designs. But, is it a surprise to see this element applied in 1889 Richmond? A Field Guide to
American Houses identifies the span of popularity of this style from 1860-1880, “with late examples not
uncommon in the 1880s.”8 But here we are pushing 1890, with the replication of this element far from
being finished in the Fan District of Richmond. A near duplication of the mansard-roofed row was
executed in 1895 by an unknown architect at 1206-1210 Park Avenue, using a side hall plan with a three
story canted bay, but with a rock faced coursed ashlar stone façade, and side stone porch with round
stone columns and stylized capitals (fig. 5). In fact, as Fan area production builders developed westerly
lots over the next few decades, the mansard roof is applied in the majority of instances, but often in only
a half or three-quarters third story.
The answer to our question of timely placement is given by architectural innovators such as
McAlester and McAlester, 242.
William T. Comstock, when in 1881 he acknowledged the French style as having “been supplanted by our
present modified Gothic, which appears as ‘Queen Anne,’ ‘Elizabethan,’ ‘Jacobean,’ or ‘Colonial’…[and]
while bearing many characteristics of their prototypes, do not adhere strictly to any of them. Thus, in
what is known as the Queen Anne (of the present day) is frequently introduced classic features, and the
same is true of the other styles.”9 Elements were being used in conjunction with other -- sometimes
classical -- stylistic features to create a “free style.” The architectural communities’ call for a blend of
styles, and “cohesive contradiction” continued, and was even recommended, as detailed in American
In 1889 the National Architect’s Union in Philadelphia recommended “a model of convenience and good
arrangement” on the interior, while retaining an “irregular exterior” with “a pleasing effect upon the
eye.” In one submittal for an inexpensive dwelling, the magazine described the design as combining
“convenience, good taste, and economy,” as well as a “neat dressy exterior.”10
We observe the intent of this approach in Shafer’s row: Italianate ornamental cornice, plus
Second Empire mansard roof, plus Queen Anne porch or Neoclassical portico, plus ornamental iron
cresting, equals a mixture of architectural ingredients. This technique was refined as the Fan continued
to develop, so that eventually we see a variety of ingredients repeated across patterns, including one
offering a concave towered mansard roof, plus neoclassic Ionic porch, plus aesthetic divided light
windows and iron cresting, sprouting as late as 1910 (see Appendix D).
In the case of Shafer’s row, this model of “cohesive contradiction” was executed on a structural
row house plan that spread in the European world over the course of 500 years. A deep, narrow plan
usually accommodating two principal rooms was a design intended to maximize space in dense urban
towns, and evolved in the Middle Ages.11 By the 17th century, its application was common in city centers
such as London, and planners had mastered required adaptations to varying widths and depths (fig. 6).
Bicknell and Comstock, Preface, Modern Architectural Designs and Details, n.p.
Gottfried and Jennings, 19.
Accordingly, as settlements in the colonies grew into bustling townships, Americans turned to an
established concept to address their needs.
Some might reason that the second-most prominent and noticed element of Shafer’s Row is the
exquisite wood porches on three of the five dwellings covering the entries (see Appendix E – 811, 813 and
817 S. Cathedral Place). There are several ingredients that compose the porch design: porch posts, rail &
baluster, three varieties of brackets, including post face brackets, drop and running trim (also called
cornice drapery or capping), and an upper frieze of spandrels (fig. 7). The posts are very symmetrical in
design: the body displays a notched center followed by a grouping of three incised rings around the
circumference at axis points equidistant from the centered notch, followed by two more sets of two
incised rings as the circumference tapers, a convex extrusion at the narrow-most point of the
circumference, from which the post flares out again slightly, and ends with three cushiony convex “rings.”
The “capital” and “base” of the post are also fairly symmetrical, although more square in design, and
feature a popular incised floral detail at all visible sides above and below the cushiony rings on the post
The distinguishing design of the porch lies below the fascia in the combination of the brackets,
drop and running trim, and spandrels. The square grid design of the brackets is the most identifiable
feature, and is flanked by simple arched brackets and a series of drops. In between this design lies the
equally distinguishable edge of running trim flanked by the same drops, popularized in the period’s
pattern books (fig. 8), and observable in various forms around Richmond. The choice and origin of this
particular element became evident to Dr. Brownell and I after some time of observation, leading us back
to the mid 19th century tastemaker A.J. Downing, and his book Architecture of Country Houses. Here we
found several detailed elevations of a balcony window treatment on “A Villa in the Italian Style” (fig. 9)
designed by the eminent New York architect Richard Upjohn.12 This canopy exhibits a kindred hanging
motif that can be traced back to Venetian décor, and the use of lambrequins that hang down from the
edge of window treatments (fig. 10).
This overall design could have its origins from an 1881 elevation shown in the upper left corner
of Plate 8 of William T. Comstock’s Modern Architectural Designs and Details (fig. 11), and although it
exhibits very minor variances, it conveys an early ancestor to the post and baluster combination. The
combination of elements and origins previously described suggest an Italianate design foundation with
geometric detailing, perhaps meant to echo Moorish ornamentation soon to be seen elsewhere in the
Although the entry treatment is normally an important feature in identifying overall
architectural style; here the porch is more importantly a significant part of the industrial vernacular.
Porches and woodwork were at the time advertised in catalogs and generally selected as a whole just as
one would select the hardware or staircase newels. In nearly every pattern book consulted for porch
design, a close cousin to the design at Shafer’s row was found, although never in a matching
configuration. Where did this design come from? Two reasons explain why a full pattern book or
catalogue match has not been found.
First, as production and application of millwork increased in the latter 19th century, mills would
ship or deliver industrially-produced pieces “knocked down” to lumber yards across the country, and they
would in turn arrive on the site unassembled.13 The carpenter on site would be endowed with piecing
together the wood parts to create an aesthetically pleasing composition, likely guided by a pattern book or
builder’s guide on hand. An introduction to A.J. Bicknell’s Victorian Village Builder offers that “…with
the prefabrication of ornament, architecture became increasingly an art of assemblage,”14 to which the
skill of the era’s tradesman transformed him to a true artisan, as well as transforming the end result of
the product supplied. But, more likely in the case of Shafer’s Row, heavy woodworking machinery became
accessible in larger cities and trade centers, where inexpensive Victorian detailing was produced and
distributed via the railroad system to local lumber yards. Suddenly supplied with pre-cut detailing from
distant mills, “many builders simply grafted pieces of this newly available trim onto the traditional folk
house forms familiar to local carpenters.”15
Secondly, Shafer’s Row was built during a transitional period of exterior millwork go-to sources.
Builders and homebuyers were selecting their designs from a combination of imitation, and architectural
guides and house pattern books established since the early 19th century (Downing, Bicknell and Comstock
reigning in the latter years of the century), as well as from a number of architectural and building
journals. With this variety of reference tools, local manufacturers and suppliers depended more on their
production skills to replicate the designs. The design at Shafer’s row was almost certainly selected from a
Richmond wood supplier’s catalogue that has since been lost. Presumably, local wood workers may have
offered a combination of universal stock items available at the time, combined with more complex
designs not found in universal guides. This combination of offerings is observed in surviving early
catalogues from Richmond woodworkers J.J. Montague and Thomas E. Stagg.
Also circulating since 1871 were editions of W.L. Churchill’s Universal Moulding Book, offering
the manufacturers an almost how-to guide with the “latest styles of mouldings and architectural designs
of exterior and interior finish in great variety, giving full size of moulding, and their exact measurement
in inches on each moulding.”16 In 1887, the Wholesale Sash, Door and Blind Manufacturer’s Association
was formed with the objective to standardize the industry and institute grading rules,17 and within just a
few years partnered with the existing New Universal Moulding Book revised edition, to include official
pricing, standardized style numbers and again, exact measurements in a widely circulating catalogue.
This most likely occurred after construction on Shafer’s Row was underway, or perhaps even after
completion. An 1891 edition of The New Universal Moulding Book was published, perhaps being the first
to exist under association with the new manufacturer’s organization. As residential development in
Richmond moved into the 1890s and 1900s, the standardized exterior millwork of the 1891 catalogue
and later editions are more easily observable (fig. 12), and would explain why many homes with porches
built in 1889 and earlier had a “non-standardized” design.
McAlester and McAlester, 310.
The New Universal Moulding Book, n.p.
Just as the well-to-do of Richmond would often approach an architect for the commission of a
new home and stipulate “I want a house like that one,” tract developers or even buyers may see one
element of the home, in this case the all-important front porch, and request a reproduction of an existing
design around town. This explains the same porch design popping up around Richmond (see Appendix
E), but upon closer inspection exhibiting small variations in detail or components that indicate the
likelihood of being produced by different manufacturers or suppliers. Selection by imitation also explains
the complete absence of the design in either of the surviving Richmond millwork manufacturer
A final ingredient to the exterior assemblage is truly a ghost; frothy iron cresting originally
adorned the mansard and porch rooflines of Shafer’s row. Although in the 1870s and 1880s mansard
roofs and iron cresting were a typical combination, pattern books suggest this ornamentation for a
number of styles, even one labeled as “gothic.”18 At some point after the 1960s this classic Victorian
trimming was ripped from the heads of these buildings, but evidence surfaced confirming its existence
On the interior, the four easterly houses in the row retain original bronze hardware on the
sliding doors between the front two parlors. All but one house has had the hardware painted over in
white. In 815 South Cathedral Place, the bronze escutcheons still exhibit the beautiful craftsmanship and
finish. After carefully removing the pulls and lockset, the manufacturer turned out to be the Norwalk
Lock Company (fig. 14). Norwalk was one of the top hardware manufacturers, located in the Connecticut
area as expected along with even more well-known companies such as Russell & Erwin of New Britain,
Connecticut, and Nashua of Nashua, New Hampshire. Their manufacturing complex was built in the mid
1800s and was one of the first steam-powered factories in America.19 Segal Lock & Hardware Company
acquired a controlling interest in the Norwalk Lock Company in 1929 according to an August 21 New
York Times article of the same year.20 Segal is still in business today.
Bicknell, Plate 7.
"Segal Lock plans issue”
An illustration from an 1880 design book depicting an interlacing geometric pattern terminating
in a lotus flower design (fig. 15), as shown on the Norwalk locks, tells us that this motif is of Moorish
decent. Additionally, articles appeared in 1889 editions of The American Architect and Building News
highlighting “The Lotus in Ancient Art,” indicating the popularity of this stylistic element (fig. 16). It is
no surprise to find it worked in here, on our diversely-styled row. There is no way to know which
selection came first: the porch or the lockset, but perhaps the echoing cubes, circles and semicircles
evident in both of these vernacular elements made both a ready choice for Shafer’s row.
We’ve seen various styles emerge in different ingredients, but in our last vernacular stop we’ll
see one ingredient appear in a variety of styles. Across the five houses in the row, there exists at least
four unique styles of chimneypieces and fireplace outfits. In several houses there survives once
marbleized slate chimneypieces with simplistic carved detailing that has been painted white. On some of
these pieces also survives cast iron surrounds depicting a lively scene meant to show the function of the
element, in this case to give warmth (See Appendix A – fig. A6). At either base are campfires, torches at
each corner, and a radiating sun on top. While the wealthy showcased highly sought-after firebacks such
as Vedder’s “Sun god” in their homes, the fashion percolated down into more attainable products for the
middle class. Most likely these surrounds also featured some kind of detailed fireback, as found in several
instances where the surround was not present. These firebacks depicted either a repeating fleur de lys
pattern, or a neoclassical torch, scroll and laurel wreath motif.
Where fireplaces survive and there is not a slate chimneypiece painted white, there are three
stone fireplaces in 811 South Cathedral Place, most likely original and delicately marbleized with sections
of contrasting inlay (See Appendix A – fig. A4). Breaking from the stone examples, in other locations
throughout the row are varying wood chimneypieces returning to classical motifs, including supportive
pilasters with Ionic and Doric orders, garland, and accompanying Roman tile surrounds (See Appendix A
– fig. A10).
By looking at many stylistic bloodlines that converge at Shafer’s row, the Spirit of Styles Past has
reminded us that American architecture -- as well as the American cultural fabric as a whole – is
recognized as “unity born of heterogeneity,”21 and nowhere was this any more embraced in one given
style of architecture than in the Freestyle Victorian design.
PART III: The Spirit of Builders Past
Many men shaped the development of the lower Fan, but in summoning the spirits of
speculative builders, initially all we may hear are crickets. Let us consider a few clues and see if a single
spirit of builders past will step forward.
In consulting the section on Fan builders in Richmond’s Fan District, a photograph of the south
side of the 900 block of Floyd Avenue shows the rows of town houses that once stood in place of VCU’s
Student Commons. More interestingly, the photo reveals that several of the houses on that row
showcased the same handsome porches as Shafer’s row (fig. 17). The Sitterding House at 901 Floyd
Avenue, still standing on the corner, and was built by Gilbert J. Hunt as his personal residence and home
office. Hunt, one of the Fan’s preeminent builders, had purchased some land from Shafer, and a close
review of the deed grantor records at city hall revealed over $60,000 in business transactions between the
two (fig. 18), including the entire southeastern corner of the 900 block of Floyd Avenue where Hunt lived,
meaning Hunt had surely used that porch on his homes. Interestingly, there were some additional
product matches between Hunt’s residence and Shafer’s row, including corner blocks and staircase newels
(fig. 19). These could be coincidence simply due to popularity. But another design feature matched that
was a little less than coincidental: the chimneys (fig. 20). These corbelled chimneys feature three courses
of stretchers stepped down to an inset or channel on the main facades, and two courses of stretchers
stepped up to a row of an alternating flush and recessed rowlock course near the opening. Try looking for
more examples of this particular design surviving in the Fan, and you’ll encounter quite a challenge.
But, was there any further way to compare Shafer’s row to the ghosts of Hunt’s buildings? After
piecing back together the original 800 block of Park Avenue, I was able to determine that two houses that
stood at 810 and 812 Park Avenue were erected on parcels that were originally Shafer’s and sold to Hunt
Scott and Lee, v.
in 1888. But the most interesting aspect of these two houses is evidence in old photos that suggest their
style: a strikingly close match to the style of the rowhouses at 811-819 South Cathedral Place (fig. 21)!
When compared side by side, we have the following matching elements: a typical side hall town house
plan, a mansard roof adorned with iron cresting, dormers in the third story roof on all façades, a three
story front façade bay window projection, the wood and brick combination modillion cornice line, as well
as the unique wood side porch design with slate roof (evident on 810 Park Avenue in a 1956 photo; the
porch on 812 Park Avenue must have been removed by 1956, according to photographic evidence). The
dissimilarities that exist include an almost bell-cast mansard roof on the Park Avenue plan versus a
straight mansard on Floyd, and what appears to be hammered granite lintels versus our smooth lintels
for Shafer’s row. These variances could be explained by Hunt’s architectural and drafting abilities, and
freedom to experiment with different elements.
If we ask “who done it?” regarding the construction of Shafer’s row, and consider that between a
number of matching or similar design and vernacular elements as well as the nature of the business
relationship between Shafer and Gilbert Hunt, it is very likely that Hunt is the man responsible (fig. 22).
Tonight we have raised his ghost, but his spirit has lived on in the Fan.
Through this research we have spoken to three spirits of a row that has stood out among
numerous others in the Fan, leaving an impression upon many, including Richmond’s Fan District author
Drew Carneal to note the row several times in his work as “handsome” and “striking,” local artist Carmen
Bendersky to depict three of the buildings in the row in a oil on canvas piece titled “Cathedral Row” (fig.
23) because “of their architecture and vibrant color,” and most notably, leading the preeminent Catholic
Diocese of Richmond to acquire the row’s dwellings one by one for their administrative offices over the
course of 50 years. The spirits have shown us that Shafer’s row was erected to offer select professional
Richmonders a desirable address in a sought-after neighborhood, that it was assembled with a diverse
mixture of stylistic elements to create a pleasing mixture of architectural ingredients, and that with the
clues left behind, Gilbert J. Hunt was likely commissioned as the builder-architect for the project. Most
importantly, the spirits have shown us a lively, colorful row of houses, in one of the most vibrant parts of
Richmond. They’ve made us happy, and taught us most importantly, that these spirits aren’t dead; they’re
up from the ashes, and with us here still.