Arts & Culture

Loading
May 1, 2009 - Sep 1, 2009

Disciples of Vulcan: Examining the Oregon Hill Community

In his 1856 reminiscences in Richmond in By-Gone Days, Richmond merchant Samuel Mordecai described the neighborhood of Oregon Hill:

 “…so called, probably, from its remote inaccessible, though beautiful situation, and is inhabited chiefly by a hardy and industrious race, disciples of Vulcan.”

Calling to mind the ironworkers of Tredegar, Mordecai created an image of Richmonders that seems both remote and familiar. This impression of Oregon Hill has changed little over the centuries, although other adjectives have become common modifiers for this section of Richmond, including close-knit, impoverished, hardworking, independent, rough, safe, strong, beautiful, run-down, and proud. Like the two sides of a coin, Oregon Hill can be seen as striving and crumbling at the same time. The fabric of the community is tested by outside forces that seek to carve away sections of the neighborhood and by houses in need of care and restoration.

Oregon Hill is also interesting for its demonstration that while location is important, the ties of a community can be even stronger. Beginning its life along the James River directly south of the Virginia State Penitentiary, Oregon Hill is now wedged between Hollywood Cemetery and Virginia Commonwealth University, with the Downtown Expressway making its course through the center. This modern Oregon Hill still maintains the same working class roots of its forebears, although many of its residents are now college students instead of factory workers.

This exhibition looks at the development of the Oregon Hill community, including its homes, businesses, schools, churches and, most importantly, its people. Photographs from the Valentine Richmond History Center collection, both old and recent, depict changes in the community that residents have sometimes embraced and sometimes protested and bitterly resented.  In the end, however, this is one of Richmond’s many neighborhoods, all of which have their own origins, character and stories.

Where do you live? Do you know what defines your neighborhood and makes it unique?

Origins

Oregon Hill as it is exists today comprises a larger, more western area than it occupied at its inception in the early 19th century. The early Oregon Hill neighborhood, supposedly named in reference to the dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon territory’s boundaries during the mid 1840s', was nestled at the tip of the Robert E. Lee Bridge and widened north to where the Virginia State Penitentiary stood at Belvidere and Spring Streets. The neighborhood’s western border was Belvidere Street and the eastern border was Harvie’s Mill Pond (now filled).

Prior to becoming a residential neighborhood, the early Oregon Hill was part of the Byrd family estate, which included the home Belvidere (or Belvedere), located at present-day Belvidere and China Streets. Belvidere was built by William Byrd, III, son of Richmond’s founder William Byrd, II. Byrd’s mounting debts required that he sell portions of his family’s estate in a lottery held in 1767 and 1768. Despite the lottery, Byrd’s fortunes continued to decline, and he sold Belvidere to Richmond merchant Daniel Hylton in 1776.

Hylton maintained Belvidere until 1794 when he sold it to Governor Henry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, who then transferred it to Bushrod Washington. Washington, nephew of George Washington, then sold the home in 1798 to Colonel John Harvie. After Harvie’s death in 1807, Belvidere again changed hands, first to tobacco merchant Benjamin Harris in 1814 and then to William Anderson. Belvidere, which had ceased to function as a private residence with the Andersons and had become a boarding house, perished in a fire on February 5, 1854.

Oregon Hill began to take form in 1817 when Benjamin Harris began to sell off land tracts of the estate as part of a real estate boom that was rapidly changing Richmond. In addition to selling the Belvidere house to William Anderson, Harris sold smaller plots to the west that became the community Sydney (also spelled Sidney). A portion of Sydney is now part of the Oregon Hill neighborhood.

By the 1840s, the Oregon Hill neighborhood began to develop in earnest. During this decade Lewis E. Harvie sold portions of land he owned that bounded Maiden Lane and Holly, Belvidere and Church Streets. On many of these plots purchasers built cottages that were rented by workers at nearby Tredegar Iron Works, setting the stage for the growth of the Oregon Hill neighborhood during the second half of the 19th century.

View of Richmond, Va from Oregon Hill

This view shows an Oregon Hill resident’s perspective of the City of Richmond during the early 20th century.

Ben Green Row
"Rickety Row"

These houses were built in 1838 on land by local businessman Benjamin W. Green, who during 1840 to 1841 was tried and acquitted of robbing the Bank of Virginia.

104 through 108 Holly Street were built circa 1848 by Peter McKinney.

Now demolished, these blocks of Maiden Lane and Holly Street depict some of the homes located in the early Oregon Hill neighborhood. Photographed in the early 20th century by Richmond photographer W. Palmer Gray, these and other photographs of Oregon Hill were published in the book Old Richmond Neighborhoods by architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott, in conjunction with rising concerns about preserving Richmond’s older neighborhoods in the wake of mid-20th century redevelopment.

Iron Guides a Neighborhood

The 1820s and 1830s saw the United States’ first industrial and transportation expansion as cities throughout the young country dug canals, laid railroads and manufactured products, from weapons to textiles to flour that exploited local resources. Richmond was no exception; the development of the James River and Kanawha Canal and railroad lines linked the city to rich metal and agricultural resources in western Virginia.

Francis Deane and other investors established Tredegar Iron Works, named after a Welsh iron foundry, in 1837 along the James River to the west of Richmond. In 1838, Tredegar merged with the slightly older Virginia Foundry Company, retaining the Tredegar name. That same year, a countrywide depression caused the company to fall into debt, and Joseph Reid Anderson was appointed director in 1841 to help make the company profitable. During the decades leading up to the Civil War, Anderson’s leadership helped make Tredegar the South’s leading producer of railroad rails, bar iron and machine and locomotive parts, also supplying military pieces to the United States Government. Anderson purchased Tredegar in 1848, changing its name to J. R. Anderson & Company, although the company was still referred to as Tredegar.

 

   Workers during Tredegar’s early years were largely free and enslaved African Americans as well as recent immigrants, Germans in particular. These new Richmonders flocked to nearby Oregon Hill to raise their families. Although some African Americans moved into the area as early as the 1840s, Oregon Hill has remained mostly white throughout its history, and this continues to be true today. German, Irish, Italian, Welsh and other European immigrants lived together in close proximity, retaining their own languages and customs while still striving to become part of the greater Richmond community. During Tredegar’s major growth during the 1840s and 1850s, Oregon Hill itself began to expand, crossing over onto the west side of Belvidere Street.

Tredegar Iron Works
Workers at Tredegar Iron Works

During the Civil War, Tredegar Iron Works turned its focus to producing cannons and artillery to aid the Confederacy, although iron and bronze shortages were a constant problem. The Tredegar site was spared during the April 1865 evacuation fire of the city. Although the factory was taken over by Union officials immediately after the war, it was eventually returned to Joseph Reid Anderson, who directed its operation until his death in 1892.

The factory, now called Tredegar Company, produced munitions for the United States military during the first half of the 20th century. In 1955, the factory site was damaged by a fire and soon afterwards was purchased by Ethyl (now NewMarket) Corporation.

Ethyl leased the site to the Valentine Museum, which operated it as an industrial museum called Valentine Riverside from 1994 to 1995. The site now is operated by the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and the National Park Service’s Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center.

Employee Identification Badge for Robert Latnie Martin
Albermarle Paper Manufacturing Company Hill

Located along the James River and Kanawha Canal near Tredegar Iron Works, Albemarle Paper Manufacturing Company, known for its “World” blotting paper, was another major early employer for the Oregon Hill neighborhood. Established in February 1887 and led by James Fenelon Chalmers, Albemarle used the hydropower of the canal to run its Hollywood and Riverside mills.

In 1962, Albemarle, then headed by Floyd Dewey Gottwald, acquired the New York based chemical giant Ethyl Corporation and adopted its name. Ethyl Corporation then sold the Albemarle Company in 1968. The James River Paper Company, later James River Corporation, acquired the Hollywood and Riverside mills.

Beginning in 2004 Ethyl became NewMarket Corporation. It is a major land owner in the early section of Oregon Hill and on Gamble’s Hill to the east.

Employee Records, Albemarle Paper Manufacturing
Perkins Monument Center
Dry Goods Store

Located a block from Hollywood Cemetery, Perkins Monument Company positioned itself to accommodate the masonry demands of the cemetery.

The Stevenson family lived in and ran a dry goods store from this residence on South Pine Street.

In addition to major companies like Tredegar and Albemarle that employed much of Oregon Hill, the neighborhood also has smaller, local businesses that served the needs of residents and local institutions.

Pine Street Hair Shop
Chuck Wagon Bar and Grill
Happy Birthday From...Pine Street Barber Shop
Chuck Wagon Restaurant Menu

Formerly called the Pine Street Barber Shop and located at 324 South Pine Street, the Pine Street Hair Shop now resides at 334 South Pine Street, the previous home of Pine Street Pharmacy and Pine Street Confectionary.

Oregon Hill has supported its restaurants, salons, pharmacies and other types of businesses throughout the decades. Some of these establishments, such as the Italian restaurant Mamma ‘Zu, are known throughout the city, while others, such as the Chuck Wagon Bar and Grill, have remained more popular with local regulars.

Victory Renovating Works

Houses in Oregon Hill

Oregon Hill’s earliest existing structure is the Parsons House, built at 601 Spring Street from 1817 to 1818 for Samuel J. Parsons, a superintendent of the Virginia State Penitentiary. Designed in the Federal Style, the Parsons house later served as home to Benjamin Green and then became the “Spring Street Home” for unwed mothers.

The Parsons House contrasts greatly with the workers’ cottages erected in the 1840's and 1850's. These frame buildings built for employees of Tredegar were simple and utilitarian with three to four rooms. As the community began to stretch west, the houses continued their simple design, with both free-standing and row houses. Houses generally had two stories, with slightly gabled or flat roofs. Full front porches with decorative railings and accents were very common.

There are some exceptions to this general architectural style scattered throughout the neighborhood, particularly along West Cary Street. These buildings include elements of the more elaborate Second Empire, Italianate and Queen Anne styles.

Many of Oregon Hill’s original houses have declined in condition and value throughout the 20th century. As Richmond’s industrial activity declined, houses, many filled with tenants and not owners, fell into disrepair and property values dropped. For many residents, generations of whom lived on the same street and even in the same house, the thought of leaving was impossible. Others were attracted to Richmond’s surrounding counties by postwar suburban growth.

While some structures in Oregon Hill are past the point of being salvaged, others have been maintained or rehabilitated in recent years. Beginning in the 1970s, Oregon Hill residents formed a variety of neighborhood advocacy groups to encourage investment in the area for the restoration of homes and protection from new development. Part of these efforts included work to gain recognition as an historic neighborhood. The Oregon Hill Historic District was accepted onto the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1990 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

Parsons House
Rear of Parsons House [Prior to renovation]
614-618 China Street
  China and South Cherry Streets

618 and 616 China Street (far left to left middle) were built circa 1872 by Charles Hagen. 614 China Street (right middle) was built in 1860 by John McEvoy.

Rowe House

Built in 1853 by Petersburg millwright William Rowe, this house was demolished in 1954.

307 South Laurel Street
417 South Pine Street
House on South Pine Street

Local Landmarks

Neighborhoods are tied together not just by their residents, but also by the common institutions that help to define the area both socially and geographically. Oregon Hill is no different. A variety of sites have served as defining landmarks throughout its history.

Some entities emerged organically from the neighborhood itself. Church congregations, civic organizations and other groups founded by residents not only strengthened the social fabric of the neighborhood, but also erected buildings that serve as landmarks. Oregon Hill is home to different religious denominations that have served the community since the 1840's and have provided stable environments for generations of residents through spiritual, educational, and social services.

Sometimes forces adjacent to the neighborhood have shaped its development. The Virginia State Penitentiary was built in the late 18th century in a remote, undeveloped stretch of land north of the James River just outside of the city limits. Thus, the land between the Penitentiary and the river became workers’ housing not only because of its convenient distance from Tredegar Iron Works, but also because this land became less desirable for wealthier Richmonders due to its proximity to the prison. The Penitentiary isolated Oregon Hill from the rest of Richmond, encouraging the close-knit community to be largely self-sufficient. 

Hollywood Cemetery, founded in 1847, developed along with Oregon Hill and is its immediate western neighbor. In addition to being a public park that all Richmonders, including Oregon Hill residents, could enjoy, masonry businesses opened along the Hollywood border and some residents found employment with the cemetery.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and School
Pine Street Baptist Church

What began as the Belvidere Mission of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in 1874 became St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in 1875 at Beverly (now Idlewood) Avenue and Laurel Street.

St. Andrew’s expanded beginning in 1899 through the construction of a larger church and additional buildings funded by Richmond philanthropist Grace Arents and designed by A. H. Ellwood of Indiana. New facilities included a building for St. Andrew’s School, which Arents had founded in 1894 as a sewing school, now a private school for low-income children. Other buildings associated with St. Andrew’s included a parish house, library and teachers’ dormitory as well as the St. Andrew’s Mission and Baths on Belvidere and Maiden Streets.

Originally Oregon Hill Baptist Colony or Oregon Hill Chapel, this Baptist church was formed in 1849 at Church and Rowe Streets. The congregation moved to a structure at South Pine and Spring Streets in 1870 and changed its named to South Pine Street Baptist Church one year later. The church moved again in 1882 to its present location at 400 South Pine Street, initially meeting in the building’s basement until construction was completed in 1886.

Laurel Street Methodist Church

Oregon Hill Methodist Church was organized in 1849 and was originally located on Church Street near Maiden Lane. The church moved to Laurel Street after 1880 and changed its name. Laurel Street Methodist Church was destroyed in a fire in January 1968. Later that year the congregation merged with Grace Methodist Church to form St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in western Henrico County.

Virginia State Penitentiary (Latrobe Design)

The Virginia State Penitentiary was a prominent neighbor to Oregon Hill for almost 200 years. The site for the prison was originally intended to be on Franklin Street but changed when merchant Thomas Rutherfoord sold a plot of land at Belvidere and Spring Streets to the Commonwealth. Residents preferred that the prison be located further away from established neighborhoods on a remote section of land outside of Richmond near the James River.

Designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and built 1797 to 1798, the prison’s horseshoe design was in the Greek Revival style. The building was expanded and renovated several times before it was demolished in 1928 and replaced by a campus of new buildings. This photograph shows an interior view of the original Penitentiary yard just prior to demolition.

Aerial view of Virginia State Penitentiary

This photograph shows a northeastern view of the Virginia State Penitentiary during the latter half of the 20th century. The intersection of Belvidere and Spring Streets is on the far left, and Pine Street Baptist Church is visible just beyond in the background. Ethyl Corporation (now NewMarket) purchased the prison from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1991, and the complex was demolished in 1992.

Entrance to Hollywood Cemetery
Hollywood Cemetery, looking west from entrance

Hollywood Cemetery forms the western boundary of Oregon Hill and is one of Richmond’s treasured landscapes. Inspired by the rural cemeteries movement that emphasized open, pastoral burial grounds, in 1847 a group of Richmond businessmen purchased a tract of land from the Harvie estate and began to sell subscriptions for the newly formed Hollywood Cemetery. Oregon Hill was just beginning to develop housing to the east, and the cemetery and neighborhood would eventually meet at Cherry Street.

Living on the “Hill”

Oregon Hill may be most commonly described as a “working class neighborhood,” and while this phrase has socioeconomic implications, it also connotes a certain type of community character. In her 1960 book Wide Horizons: A Collection of Spiritual and Travel Essays writer Lizzie Edmunds, when referring to Oregon Hill, commented:

“Though large families and hardships, particularly sickness, are often their fate, they possess a sturdiness, power of resistance, and the strength to take it, and more often than tears, one sees a smile and hears the sound of laughter or a song. Their common suffering has brought a comradeship and brotherhood which makes them help and sympathize with each other.” 

Edmunds’s description refers to the underlying hardships that many Oregon Hill residents have faced. Richmond’s industry declined during the mid 20th century, affecting the employment opportunities for the neighborhood. Poverty has been a constant in the neighborhood for decades, reflected in dilapidated buildings and departure of long-time residents. In line with burgeoning social activism that began in the 1890s, Oregon Hill saw the rise of organizations that provided educational, medical and recreational services. Many of these still exist today.

Despite its very real economic concerns, Oregon Hill is known for its resiliency and pride. Older residents remember families looking out for each other. Yet pride can also yield stubbornness, and the neighborhood may also be seen as self-segregating, isolating itself from the rest of Richmond.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s expansion has brought new faces to Oregon Hill with the arrival of students who value the neighborhood’s location to campus. These temporary renters have lifestyles that sometimes clash with permanent residents, although efforts are being made to mend this relationship.

Grace Evelyn Arents (1848-1926)

Called by some the “Patron Saint of Oregon Hill,” Grace Arents has left an indelible mark on the neighborhood. Herself a wealthy Franklin Street resident, Grace Evelyn Arents was born in New York City in 1848. After her father’s death, Arents moved with her mother and siblings to Richmond to live with her uncle Lewis Ginter, a wealthy tobacco and real estate mogul. Upon his death in 1897, Ginter left the bulk of his fortune to Arents, his favorite niece.

Prior to inheriting Ginter’s estate, Arents had already begun her philanthropic work in Oregon Hill, donating to St. Andrew’s Church an organ and salary to hire a custodian in 1875. Arents also founded St. Andrew’s School in 1894. Almost immediately after inheriting her uncle’s estate, Arents began to fund substantial building projects in Oregon Hill, including the new St. Andrew’s Church and associated buildings (1899-1908); Arents Free Library (1908); Grace Arents School (1911); low-income housing at 200-202 South Linden Street and 912-924 Cumberland Street (1904); and Clarke Springs Playground, located along Clarke Springs at the western edge of Hollywood Cemetery.

Grace Arents also became involved in the Richmond Nurses’ Settlement, an organization that provided medical assistance to local residents. Part of a nationwide health care movement, the Instructive Visiting Nurse Association (IVNA), a branch of the Richmond Nurses’ Settlement, operated in Oregon Hill. In 1911 Arents offered the St. Andrew’s teachers’ dormitory to the IVNA, rent free for three years. In 1919, the IVNA purchased these headquarters and operated in Oregon Hill until 1984, when the organization moved to Thompson Street.

Richmond City police officer visiting Grace Arents Elementary School
  Entrance to Open High School [Grace Arents School]

Along with the establishment of St. Andrew’s School, Grace Arents extended her educational outreach to the founding of a public school. Arents donated land and funds to the City of Richmond for the construction of an elementary school at 600 South Pine Street. Designed by Charles Robinson, the school was named after Arents and opened in 1911.

Today the Grace Arents School building is the home of Richmond’s Open High School. Founded in 1972 as an alternative high school for Richmond students, Open High was originally located at 00 East Clay Street, now the site of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Open High’s community-based curriculum emphasizes independent learning experiences.

William Byrd Community House Christmas Party
Entrance to William Byrd Community House [Arents Free Library]

In addition to the library built at 230 South Laurel as part of the St. Andrew’s complex, Grace Arents also commissioned the construction of a free library at 224 South Cherry Street. Design by the Richmond firm Noland and Baskervill in 1908, the Arents Free Library became a public library operated by the City of Richmond after Arents’s death in 1926. The library came back under the administration of the St. Andrew’s Association in 1946.

The Arents Free Library building now houses the William Byrd Community House, which was organized by the Social Workers of the Richmond Nurses’ Settlement Movement in the 1910s. Focusing on social, educational and recreational services rather than medical care, the Social Workers formally divided from the Settlement Movement in 1923, creating the William Byrd Community House. In 1946, the Byrd House moved into the Arents Free Library. Today the Byrd House provides educational and recreational programming for children, families and senior citizens.

Children Playing Dice
Cooling off at a fire hydrant

During 1990 and 1991 members of the Oregon Hill Community History Association conducted a series of interviews with Oregon Hill residents who had grown up in the neighborhood and seen it change over the decades.

Earl Jenkins, interviewee and longtime neighborhood spokesperson, was born in 1916 on South Laurel Street and spent his life in Oregon Hill. To interviewer Carol Buckingham, he recalled playing in the neighborhood as a child:

“We had different games back there years ago. Duck on David which kids today don’t know anything about if you try to explain it to them. And then we rolled hoops, this is the younger kids, of course, we would evolve as we got older…”

Louise Stanley chatting with Estelle Marks
Frankie, Hollywood Cemetery employee

Shirley Ferguson Dolan also participated in the Oregon Hill Community History Association oral history project. Interviewed by her daughter Diane Dolan Chess in 1990, Dolan reflected on her neighbors while growing up in Oregon Hill:

“I don’t think when we were coming along we thought very much at all about who was Scotch, Irish, French, German, or whatever. We simply were Oregon Hill people. There were certain families you did not want to be best friends with. You spoke friendly to them. If you saw that they were in need you would help them. You would defend them if anything was wrong. But the people on the Hill were a small world within itself.”

Battles for Survival

During the early decades of the 20th century, city leaders began to address significant growth in population and business that made Richmond one of the South’s largest cities by mid-century but also stressed its infrastructure and services. While the city’s first master plan developed by the firm Bartholomew Harlan was not completed until 1946, discussion and planning had been in the works since the late 1910's. Among the topics addressed in the master plan were examinations of Richmond’s substandard housing and transportation system. Both of these issues would profoundly affect Oregon Hill during the ensuing decades. 

During the 1950's, city planning officials examined sections of the city, including Navy Hill, Jackson Ward, Carver, Fulton, Montrose Heights and Oregon Hill that contained substandard housing and began a series of redevelopment projects. In Oregon Hill, housing immediately south of the Virginia State Penitentiary between Abingdon and Rowe Streets was designated in 1955 and again in 1966 as a blighted section in need of redevelopment. These houses were the last remaining portion of the early Oregon Hill, for the land south of Rowe Street to the Robert E. Lee Bridge had been redeveloped as the site of the 1956 Virginia War Memorial. The housing in this section was gradually razed from the 1950s onwards and now consists of corporate buildings and open lots owned by NewMarket (Ethyl) Corporation and the Virginia Housing Development Authority.

From the 1960s to the present, Oregon Hill has been involved in increasingly loud protests against the demolition of its buildings. Although opposition to construction of the Downtown Expressway in the 1960's and 1970's was muted, the emergence of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in 1968 spawned a much stronger advocacy movement within the neighborhood to combat what it perceived as encroachment into its boundaries. Over the last twenty years, Oregon Hill has scuffled with local corporations and VCU regarding plans to expand into the neighborhood or change adjacent land use.

Opposition to new development affecting Oregon Hill has many reasons, including a desire to preserve the neighborhood’s historic architecture; suspicion of change; and concerns about gentrification that could force out long-time residents. However, new development can also increase the profile of the neighborhood; encourage new home purchases; and attract non-residents to Oregon Hill’s businesses and institutions. There is no doubt, however, that Oregon Hill will continue to fight for its interests.

Construction of Downtown Expressway [Taken from Colonial Avenue facing west]

This image shows progress on the Sheppard Street Bridge crossing the Downtown Expressway in the Byrd Park neighborhood, west of Oregon Hill. 

The 1960s brought dramatic changes to Oregon Hill due to plans for the Downtown Expressway constructed by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority. Recommended in the Bartholomew Plan to provide faster access from the western suburbs to the downtown financial district, the Expressway was designed below grade and cut a valley through the Randolph, Byrd Park and Oregon Hill neighborhoods. Completed in 1977, the Expressway destroyed almost one hundred of Oregon Hill’s residential and commercial buildings.

Houses slated for demolition by Ethyl Corporation
Protest against Ethyl’s demolition plans

During 1997 Oregon Hill residents protested Ethyl (now NewMarket) Corporation’s plans to demolish buildings it owned along the 700 block of South Pine and South Laurel Streets. Neighborhood residents argued that the mostly vacant houses could be rehabilitated while Ethyl preferred that the land become a park. While Ethyl did offer to sell the land to the neighborhood, the money for such a purchase was not raised. The battle was ultimately won by Ethyl, which demolished the houses in July. In 2004, this land, which had been slated for apartment buildings in 2002, became part of a new condominium development, Overlook Townhouses.

Demolition of houses at 200 block of South Linden Street

Not all preservation fights in Oregon Hill have been against external forces. In 2001 the St. Andrew’s Association razed houses it owned on Linden Street. The houses, originally built by Grace Arents in 1904, were Richmond’s first low-income housing. Despite protests from Oregon Hill’s neighborhood organizations, the Association proceeded with demolition of the houses, which were in disrepair.

Residents protesting the expansion of Virginia Commonwealth University into Oregon Hill neighborhood

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has had a variety of confrontations with Oregon Hill since the school’s birth in 1968. A young urban university with a need to grow, VCU’s 1976 and 1989 master plans proposed expanding its campus into Oregon Hill. Increasingly strong protests from neighborhood residents helped to redirect the school’s focus to West Broad Street and the Carver neighborhood.

Despite these efforts, VCU has a significant presence along the northern border of Oregon Hill, and the school has built a variety of facilities along West Cary Street. Moreover, the neighborhood is increasingly popular with students for its location and affordable rents.

City Auditorium, West Cary Street at Linden Street
  Construction of Cary Street Recreation Center

One of VCU’s most recent projects, the construction of a Cary Street Recreation Center on West Cary Street between South Linden and South Cherry Streets, has again stirred Oregon Hill advocates. The project involves the City Auditorium, which originally opened as a city market in 1891 and then was adapted to a public auditorium in 1907. Employed as VCU’s Cary Street Gymnasium since 1981, this building will be integrated into a larger Recreation Center complex.

The project also included the demolition of two 1880s livery stables located at 911 and 917 Green Alley. Despite being listed as contributing structures to Oregon Hill’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, neighborhood preservationists were unable to save the buildings, which have been razed. Oregon Hill residents now worry about the scale of the Recreation Center in relation to neighboring residences and increased traffic. VCU counters that this facility has been part of its master plan since 1996, will provide its growing student population with facilities expected of Virginia’s largest university, and will offer outreach services to local children. The Recreation Center is slated to open in 2009.

Today and Beyond

During the last decade, the national real estate boom hit Richmond as it did the rest of the country. In Oregon Hill, this trend resulted in new interest from non-residents who saw an area full of opportunity. Individual owners are now rehabilitating houses, and developers have embarked on new construction projects. With this activity, property values are rising and blocks are beginning to see new energy. Yet for every renovated home there are many others in desperate need of care or, in the end, demolition. The community’s perceived isolation, moreover, makes its place in Richmond’s future uncertain. Does resistance to outside development prevent Oregon Hill from moving forward? Or will its advocacy efforts help it blossom into a vibrant urban community?

Who knows what the future of Oregon Hill will bring? With the determination of its dedicated residents, one can only hope that the “Disciples of Vulcan” will continue to show the resiliency that has characterized this neighborhood since the 1840's.

Credits: Exhibit

Meg Hughes — Curator/Director of Archives and Photographic Services
Kristi Austin — Museum Technician
Richard Klemm — Operations Assistant
Ken Myers — Director of Operations and Capital Projects
Ed Ragan — Historian
Suzanne Savery — Director of Collections and Interpretation
Tesni Stephen — Museum Technician
Brianna White-Gaynor — Museum Technician
Katherine Poole — Intern

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.