Rediscovering Richmond's historic places and spaces
Brooks Smith commences the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation by discussing Monument Avenue.
Farrar: Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond and today, with the start of 2011, we're going to look a little bit at the sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War and emancipation, 150 years ago this year, and Brooks, we're going to talk about some historic places and spaces in association with that.
Smith: That's right. I thought as a starting point, there's perhaps no more iconic place in Richmond than Monument Avenue, and it's not because the street played any meaningful role in the Civil War; in fact, it wasn't laid out until decades later, in 1887. But, of course, as its centerpiece, the Lee monument that was unveiled in 1890; four other Confederate figures of note and most recently, Arthur Ashe, in 1996, really bringing to light the bookends of this review, both of the war and of emancipation.
Farrar: Well, the street, of course, for many years has been known as an architectural gem; the broad avenue with those many fine homes from the Victorian era and the early twentieth century, but it was laid out, as you indicated, because of the sites of the Lee statue and then the other Confederate figures who were honored with the monuments along the way.
Smith: Well, there are some wonderful descriptions of Monument Avenue, and whether you drive down it on your way to work or church, or you participate in the Easter Parade, which draws tens of thousands of people, or perhaps even run it during the Ukrops Monument Avenue 10K, it is our grand avenue. It's an artery downtown, it's a shrine, it's a parade ground, it's a showplace and it's unique in the country, as both a national historic landmark and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which dates back all the way to 1969, and among many distinctions, the American Planning Association, who knows a little bit about streets and neighborhoods, named it among the ten great streets in America. And I think, as I reviewed its history, both its inception and its more recent history, we have to credit people like Helen Marie Taylor, who in 1968, stood out in front of a paving machine to stop the paving over of the original cobbled blocks. So the preservationists prevailed, and we have a Monument Avenue that in many respects, is true to its original design.
So like you said, the statue that started the monument, really, the centerpiece of Monument Avenue was the Lee statue that was unveiled in 1890. The sculptor was Marius Jean Antonin Mercie, and it's this colossal statue, a 40-foot granite pedestal, 21-foot, 12-ton bronze equestrian sculpture, apparently arrived by train in four enormous crates, and some crowd of tens of thousands of Richmonders helped to pull it to the site where it was erected.
Farrar: Well, how was the site selected?
Smith: It was part of this design, two-fold in its intent to draw Richmond westward and further develop the city and its suburbs; but there was, I understand, quite a bit of competition among the old Southern states for the choice of location for a statue commemorating Lee and Richmond won out and Monument Avenue won out among several locations even within the city of Richmond. And what's interesting to me is that, once it was erected in 1890, the first house wasn't built for another eleven years because of the difficult economic times. It was really just a statue in the middle of the country, but then, of course, Monument Avenue went gangbusters in the early twentieth century and is what it is today, this road of amazing mansions and beautiful old homes.
Farrar: And the other statues, maybe we should mention, are of Generals Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart and President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, who was known as a mariner and a navigator.
Smith: Yeah, he's probably the one that requires the most introduction and doesn't roll off your tongue as one of those famous Civil War commanders, but he was, I guess by most accounts, more scientist than war hero; interestingly, among his credits, he invented the torpedo as part of the Confederate Navy and he inspired the foundation of the Naval Academy, as well as the Weather Bureau. And what I think is especially interesting, if you drive by the statue today, he is seated and there's this huge globe behind him, so he is dwarfed in his statuary form. And the designer, the architect, William Sievers, was attracted to the idea and the design on the theory that man's ideas are often bigger than the man himself, and that is depicted, I think, wonderfully well in the Maury statue.
Farrar: And then, as you indicated in the modern era, the concept of Monument Avenue evolved with a controversial decision to erect a monument to a non-Civil War era figure, the Richmond historian, humanitarian and sports figure, Arthur Ashe.
Smith: That's right. And though controversial in the mid-90s when it was first proposed and eventually placed at Roseneath and Monument, the whole concept of Monument Avenue started as a place to celebrate our heroes and Arthur Ashe, I think, more than any, frankly, of Richmonders is a true hero and deserved to be recognized. It's a wonderful story; Paul Di Pasquale, a local sculptor and artist who is still vibrant, he's also the sculptor who did Connecticut, that for many, many years adorned the Diamond, and the great Neptune at Virginia Beach. He had this idea to pay tribute to Ashe before Ashe passed away, and sought Ashe's approval to do a statue of him and literally on Ashe's deathbed, he blessed the idea and also gave Di Pasquale his ideas for how he might like to appear in statue form. And most of the design that we see now, the standing Ashe with his hands outstretched, a tennis racquet in one and books in the other, ringed by children, those are ideas that Ashe himself offered up as a lasting tribute to his life's work.
Farrar: Brooks, we'll be talking more every other Thursday morning about the places and spaces of Richmond, as we go through this historic commemoration year, we'll continue.
Smith: Well, I hope to share some more well-known and preserved places and spaces like Monument Avenue and also touch on those that have been forgotten by time or remain imperiled today, so thank you.
Farrar: Brooks Smith, rediscovering Richmond.