As a border state between the north and the south, Virginia has had a very turbulent relationship with slavery. While the country was politically in favor of slavery as many businesses relied on free labor to survive, many of its citizens were secretly fighting to abolish slavery. This was the case for Elizabeth Van Lew who spent her inheritance on buying her slaves’ freedom, offered her home for the underground railroad and went to prisons to get information about the Confederate army to help the Union army’s efforts. While she was rejected by her contemporaries and called a witch for her efforts, it is the stories of strong-willed people like Elizabeth Van Lew that make this city truly worth the visit!
A special thanks to Lee Ann from the
for sharing her passion about the city with us. Richmond Tour Guys
Built in 1914, this three-story Neoclassical Revival building housed the Fraternal Order of Eagles. This organization was initially created in 1898 and consisted of men who had a passion for equality. Some of those men included FDR, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It was this organization that managed to create Mother's Day.
Completed in 1929, the Central National Bank building is a 23-story skyscraper and the only building that housed a financial institution outside of the financial district. After having switch owners several times, in 2000, the entire building was renovated to old apartments. It took $36 million to repurpose the entire ex-financial institution building into 200 apartments with 20ft ceilings and marble floors.
While this Hilton hotel does not look like anything special today, at the end of the 19th century, it was a department store that challenged the status quo.
This ex-department store was created by Maggie Lena Walker, who not only ran a successful department store, but also a newspaper and a nationwide insurance company. Walker was also the first African American woman to earn a bank charter. By training and employing black women, Walker was one of the first people to give African American woman the opportunity to be financially independent.
One last interesting tidbit, Maggie Lena Walker was the descendant of one of the slaves that Elizabeth Van Lew freed.
The National on Broad St is the only remaining theater on what was once referred to as Theater Row. Built in 1923, only the facade of the theater remains today. It continues to serve as an entertainment arts venue with a capacity of 1,500.
A closer look at the elaborate facade of the theater
This small monument commemorates all of the juniors and seniors at John Marshall High School who graduated early, in December 1941, in order to be able to enlist in the war effort and defeat the evil of prejudice.
Built in 1790, this house was the home of Chief Justice John Marshall until his death in 1835. The house and the land were sold to the City of Richmond in 1907, who wanted to build a school in its place. The Preservation Virginia organization managed to negotiate with the city to preserve the house in exchange for restoring it and opening it up to the public. On the rest of the land, the John Marshall High School was built.
Known as the home of Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr. and his family, the historic Decatur House the family in question for little over a year before the head of household got mortally wounded in a duel. The house was then rented for many years by Mrs. Decatur before she sold it off due to her increasing debt.
What's more interesting about the house the house's prominent mansard roof. Many believe that this type of roof design was very popular due to its tax exemptions. There are two theories for these tax exemptions: either (1) the windows in this type of roof were not taxable, thus giving the owners an extra floor without the need to pay taxes, or (2) taxes were attributed to each house based on the size of the house, which was measured from the base of the house to the cornice on the roof, again giving the family an extra level of nontaxable living space.
From 1861 until 1865, the White House of the Confederacy was not only the headquarters of the confederate army but also the stage for the most elaborate espionage plan. The story goes that when the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, and his family moved into the house, they required slaves to take care of it and their growing family. Elizabeth Van Lew was from a wealthy family and suggested one of her slaves, Mary, to help out the Davis family. A very successful abolitionist, Elizabeth Van Lew failed to mention that she had bought Mary's freedom and had sent her up to Philadelphia--Van Lew's hometown--to get a Quaker education. As a result, while the Davis family believed that Mary was a simpleton and would talk freely around her, Mary was taking note and relaying the information to Van Lew, who would then inform Union generals. It is said that Mary also had a photographic memory which came in handy as many important letters would be left lying around the house. While Varina Davis has denied the claims, some believe that Mary's success in collecting important information was heavily influenced by the fact that Mary was able to become Varina's confidant. Both Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary were inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame for their multiple war efforts in 1993 and 1995, respectively.
The story of this Monumental Church begins with the story of Richmond's first theater. In 1786, Richmond's first theater opened its door. About 25 year later, the theater burned in a fire. The wooden, barn-like structure was replaced with a brick, multi-story theater that would face the same fate as its predecessor one year after it opens its doors. On December 26, 1811, a theater benefit gathered many of the city's elite for a Christmas-time show. Unfortunately, the sets caught fire and panic ensued. People were trampled on the way out of the theater, others were stuck inside as the doors opened inward and still others were stuck the upper floors afraid to jump. When he heard the commotion, Gilbert Hunt--a former slave who worked nearby--rushed over to help people jump out of the upper floors. He saved about a dozen lives that night. Despite his efforts, of about 600 guests, 72 perished in that fire. The Monumental Church was erected to remember those that perished. The underground crypt contains the remains of those people.
A little up broad street from Monumental Church is Old City Hall. Built in 1894, it served as the city's city hall until the 1970s. Due to its very eye-catching castle-like style, there were many requests to demolish the building around 1915 and replace it with a more modern building. Those requests were mostly ignored. The reason for this may have easily been financial. The cost of building this city hall skyrocketed from the projected $300,000 to $1.3 million and the city likely did not have the budget to rebuild a fully functioning building. When City Hall eventually did move out of the building, it was renovated and is now being used for offices.
These quaint townhouses near Old City Hall house Virginia's Commission for the Arts.
Erected in July 2008, the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial commemorates the work that was done for school desegregation.
Virginia's Executive mansion is located on Capitol Square, just passed the Civil Rights Monument. Built in 1811 and designed by Alexander Parris, Virginia's Executive Mansion has housed the state's governors and their families since 1813, making it the oldest governor's mansion in the country.
Built in 1919, this scyscraper used to be the headquarters of an energy company. It was the first building in Richmond to have electricity. Today, it is named the Edison Building and contains 174 luxury apartments.