by Charles Hancock
Society is never stagnant and therefore change is always constant. Change can be seen in a day or a few thousands years but change is always occurring. Richmond sees a lot of development at the turn of the century. From 1886 to 1924, less than 50 years, Richmond underwent rapid development. Grace Street represented some of this change. This particular part of Grace Street developed due to a religiously direction. In fact, churches were the cause of development and overall change in a three-block zone (600 to 800 block) on Grace Street.
In 1886 houses and the families that lived in them dominated the 600, 700 and 800 blocks on East Grace Street. It was not a commercial section of the street rather a residential section. The city directory of 1883-84, reveals that white people owned the vast majority of property on these sections of Grace Street. Not only did white people find their way to Grace Street but churches and country clubs as well.[i] The Westmoreland Club could be found on the 600 block and retained an exclusive club attitude that was established in 1877 for veterans of the Civil War. People could relax and enjoy themselves here.[ii] The churches existed on all three blocks and each owned a considerable portion of their block. St Peter’s Cathedral is on the corner of 8th and East Grace Street, one of the oldest churches in Richmond[iii]; St Paul’s Church is on the corner of 9th and East Grace on the opposite side of St. Peter’s. Down the road, the English Lutheran Church resided on the 700 block on 7th Street. Lastly on the 600 block stood the Seventh Street Christian Church.[iv] All of these sites are all in close proximity, which gives an idea of what the street might have been like on a Sunday morning. There were no stores in the vicinity. With exceptions to the churches and the Westmoreland club, this area held the image of a strictly residential area.[v]
Fast-forward twenty years to the beginning of the 1900’s; Grace Street is recognizable, yet change and development are apparent. The social dynamic has changed slightly in the last twenty years. To start, there are now small shops along the street and the Richmond Hotel on the corner of Grace and 9th has bought more land.[vi] The development of hotels takes the emphasis off residential and moves the street dynamic to a more commercial attitude. People who stay in a hotel are only there for a finite amount of time, as apposed to dwellings, which held permanent residences. The purpose of their stay could be business or simple a visit to Richmond. As a result stores replace previous dwelling sections of the street.[vii] As of 1905 there were both dwellings and stores along with the churches, the Westmoreland Club and a few hotels. East Grace Street transitioned from one social environment to the next. Although there were small stores there existence was only momentary. The hotels and more importantly the churches stood as a threat to the existence of these stores. In this case, the development of small stores could not work, with the presence of the churches and hotels on almost every block made it hard for small stores to obtain a foothold in the area. Each of those stores felt under threat of being bought or made to move. Either the church, which is unburdened by tax, or the hotels could buy the land of the stores in order to expand their property. The reason for the church and hotel success becomes more apparent in about a decade and a half.
By 1924 the landscape of East Grace Street changed drastically to that of the previous 1886 East Grace Street. Churches like St Paul’s Episcopal Church or St Peter’s Church obtained enough money in order to purchase much larger sections of land in order to accommodate more people during their services and to support other facilities of the church. The same idea applies to the hotels. Both the Murphy Hotel and the Richmond Hotel increased their amount of land owned on the 700 and 800 block respectively. St Peter’s Catholic Church and the Richmond Hotel are on the same section of the 800 block. This extinguishes any chance of a small business owner of establishing a shop because all the land on that block is dominated by two organizations that have existed for much longer that a small business has. It is a small monopoly on the block. St Peter’s holds one quarter of the block while the Richmond Hotel holds another. One block over, Murphy’s Hotel had one quarter and then the Snyder and Hundley Furniture Store held another quarter. This domination of larger organization over property extinguishes any chance of smaller stores of being able to compete and results in pushing any stores towards the 600 block. All this commercial development left this section of Grace Street without any dwellings.
The reason for the exodus of dwellings and stores from these blocks of East Grace is because churches and hotels appeal to a larger variety of people and unburdened by tax, in the case of the churches. A small store may cater to a certain type of person or need, but a church or hotel is sought by larger majority of people rather than a specific niche. St Paul’s Episcopal Church expanded into a church to seat over 1000 people in order to accommodate the demand.[viii] St Peter’s Cathedral purchased multiple dwellings near its’ property in order to expand. Churches need property in order to fit the people that come, as do hotels. Stores, on the other hand, do not necessarily need a lot of land in order to operate. This would seem to be an advantage to the storeowner but it works as a negative being so close to a church. The church, in this case St Peter’s Cathedral, obtained the property and bought out land that may have been a dwelling or a shop.[ix] Churches are not burdened by taxes, they can amass wealth without having fractions of it being taken away and are therefore not limited by what they can buy and the repercussion of having to deal with the resulting taxes.
Hotels have a similar case. In order to accommodate the hotel business they need to have enough property in order to house their customers. Through the years the Richmond and the Murphy hotel expand on their blocks and purchase more property. Where there once existed a dwelling in 1886 there is now a hotel. This is representative of most of the 700 and 800 blocks. Meanwhile by 1924 the 600 block became primarily dominated by stores. [x]
As hotels and churches buy up previous potential customer’s dwellings and other small stores the remaining storeowners lose a part of their market. Over the course of about fifty years, the 600, 700, and 800 blocks on East Grace Street developed from a residential area to an area dominated by churches and hotels that controlled the economic layout of that area. By appealing to larger masses than the individual store they were able to control the economic landscape of the 600-800 blocks, resulting in the domination of large portions of property on each block. Churches that existed for a while like St Paul’s or St Peter’s became key factors in the change of East Grace Street. Without these churches the dynamic of this section of the street would be much different. Because of the churches, the hotels were able to succeed and small stores on the same blocks were removed due to the development of both the churches and the hotels.
[i] Richmond City Directory, 1883-1884 ed. (Richmond: John Maddox), s.v.
“Streets.” Page 113
[ii] Virginia Historical Society Department of Manuscripts and Archives,
“Westmoreland Club (Richmond, Va.) Records, 1877-1942 Mss3 W5285 a ,” Virginia
Historical Society, last modified April 23, 2003, http://www.vahistorical.org/
[vi] Richmond City Directory, 1911 ed. (Richmond: John Maddox), s.v.
“Streets.” Page 1330
Catherine Beil, “St. Peter’s Catholic Church,” World Religions in
Richmond, last modified May 7, 2007, http://www.has.vcu.edu/soc/rdr/
“Digital Sanborn Maps 1867-1970.” Map. Digital Sanborn Map Company. 2008. In
Digital Sanborn Maps 1867-1970. http://sanborn.umi.com/splash.html.
Richmond City Directory. 1883-1884 ed. Richmond: John Maddox.
Richmond City Directory. 1911 ed. Richmond: John Maddox.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “History.” St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Last
modified 2007. http://www.stpauls-episcopal.org/index.php/who/
Virginia Historical Society Department of Manuscripts and Archives.
“Westmoreland Club (Richmond, Va.) Records, 1877-1942 Mss3 W5285 a .”
Virginia Historical Society. Last modified April 23, 2003.