296 pp., 9 x 12, 115 color and 198 b&w illus., 1 map, append., notes, index

$39.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2607-3

Published: Spring 2001

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Richmond's Monument Avenue

by Sarah Shields Driggs, Richard Guy Wilson, and Robert P. Winthrop

Copyright (c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


The creation of a great avenue or street of power transformed many American cities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Across the country, broad, grand boulevards appeared. Boston's elite had Commonwealth Avenue; Chicago's wealthy lived along Prairie Avenue; and in Los Angeles the celebrated address was Wilshire Boulevard. Smaller towns also felt the need for a great street, as evidenced by Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia; Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island; and Magnolia Avenue in Riverside, California. Here lived the wealthy in large and impressive houses along a street that gained a special character through landscaping and decorative features. The forces that made these streets lay with real estate speculation, transportation changes, the growth of wealth, and the need to express identity and power. Monument Avenue in Richmond is one of these grand American avenues.

The character of each of America's great avenues is unique, but Richmond's Monument Avenue, as its name implies, has its own distinction. A place of beauty and a successful example of city planning, the long parade of houses and trees frames a sequence of statues unique not just along American streets, but in American cities. The meaning or iconography of these statues is complex, for most of the statues relate to the Civil War, and, depending on the viewer, offer different interpretations of that cataclysmic event. More recent additions represent attempts to either reconcile different versions or provide an alternative view of the South's past.

The Monument Avenue historic section, a renowned example of urban design, is lined with impressive houses and churches and punctuated by six statues dedicated to different heroes. Richmond is known as a city obsessed with its past, and Monument Avenue serves as a shrine to that obsession. It infuses the city with a mythology and demonstrates how history and perceptions of the past change, and how new meanings are created.

Monument Avenue marches out from Richmond's old city limits for one and a half miles, a grand avenue laid out with a dual purpose. Proposed in 1887 to provide an appropriate setting for a major memorial to Robert E. Lee in the former capital of the Confederacy, the broad, tree-lined boulevard embodied the growing City Beautiful movement of the turn of the century. Lee's statue was unveiled in 1890, and in time other statues were added and houses were built further west as the street was extended. Here Richmond's wealthy and prominent citizens chose to construct houses, apartments, and churches. The result is a panoply of the architectural styles by which Americans defined themselves between the 1890s and the 1920s.

But the roots of Monument Avenue go back much earlier. In a large sense, the street was a response to the new wealth of post-Civil War America. Monument Avenue simultaneously symbolized Richmond's rising from the ashes of defeat and celebrated the past embodied in that defeat. As the avenue grew, it became the centerpiece for a specific interpretation of Virginia history, a memorial to the "Lost Cause" and the particularized white Southern view of the Civil War. The statues of J. E. B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis (both erected in 1907) and Stonewall Jackson (1919) that followed Lee's, demonstrate the power of this myth. A statue to the navigator Matthew Fontaine Maury, unveiled in 1929, began to shift the focus and meaning of the street away from the Confederacy alone. Then in the 1990s, after considerable controversy, a statue dedicated to Arthur Ashe, the great tennis star and champion of African American achievement, was added at Roseneath Road, further redefining the avenue as a parade of heroes, and not a testament to a single cause.

Monument Avenue is also a neighborhood of 263 houses and apartment buildings and 6 places of worship. The churches and residences display aspiration, competition, and achievement. Monument Avenue shares a common characteristic with other great American residential avenues from the turn of the century: many of the buildings are not architecturally distinguished themselves, but gain their significance from the impact of the harmony of scale, form, materials, cornice, roofline, and setback. The perception of unity is deceiving, for great variety exists among the buildings, since the street grew piecemeal over a period of forty years. The avenue becomes a virtual catalogue of the stylistic interests of early twentieth-century Americans, as the buildings compete with their facades ranging from prim James River Georgian to giant Southern Colonial columnar and more eccentric Spanish and Jacobean.

By the Depression, most of the avenue was built up as far as Roseneath Road to the west, for a total length from Stuart Circle of a mile and a half, or fourteen blocks. The infill of a few buildings added after World War II for the most part followed earlier examples. The historic area begins with two great circles that surround the Lee and Stuart Monuments; the intersecting streets gently curve into the traffic pattern. Asphalt paving blocks still remain in portions of the avenue. Eventually Henrico County extended the avenue to the west, creating a boulevard of more than five miles.

Monument Avenue incorporates many stories, but the main plot involves the statues and the various memories they impose upon the viewer. Statues attempt to shape a collective memory, to give legitimacy to a point of view. Statues and monuments--and those on Monument Avenue are both--speak to those who see them, or convey meanings, some obvious, others submerged. The initial statues on Monument Avenue attempted to convey the nobility of martial exploits and vindicate the Confederate cause. Symbolism and validation underlay the creation of Monument Avenue, for its location at the end of Franklin Street created an alignment with Capitol Square and two powerful statues there, Houdon's Washington inside the Capitol, and Crawford and Rogers's equestrian Washington on the Capitol grounds. Certainly political motives underlay the erection of these statues, and for Richmond's African American population, the statues symbolized decades of disenfranchisement. Many years later the political roles were reversed, and the decision to place the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue gave the street a new meaning.

The controversy surrounding the Ashe statue is indicative of the still unfinished nature of the armed conflict that divided our nation some 120 years ago. The nature of the Civil War--whether it was a contest between slavery and freedom, or a defense of states' rights--will forever be debated. And while militarily, and to a large degree legislatively and legally, the issues arising from the Civil War have been settled, still in many places, especially in the South, they arouse deep passions.

The focus of this book is the historic core of Monument Avenue, why and how it was created, and the statues and houses that line it. Many different individuals, with a variety of motives, created Monument Avenue. The statuary committees, including the various backers and sculptors, seldom if ever lived on the avenue, but they gave it one aspect of its character. Very different were the concerns of the merchants, doctors, and architects and builders who created the street's houses and churches. For them it was a neighborhood. The story of the avenue involves the history of the city in which it is located and the varying politics that held sway there. To tell that story in the following pages, the plan for the street is first considered, followed by the statues and then the buildings. The story also involves the personalities, the spaces and gardens, and the stories of both individuals who lived on the avenue and those who, though they never lived on the avenue, are commemorated there.

In a sense Monument Avenue represents a saga, one that is very American and yet unique to Richmond and its own long, and still ongoing, history. That the avenue still exists nearly intact is an important story of preservation. Monument Avenue embodies recovery and reconciliation.

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