Must-See RVA! — Chemical Building

Must-See RVA! — Chemical Building

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.

May 2017

11-15 South Twelfth Street
Built, 1900

Englehardt says 13 South Twelfth Street; Winthrop says 11. WHO IS RIGHT?

(LOC) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 16

Sanborn to the rescue; they both are!

Erected as the Chemical Building for the Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, this structure came close to being a skyscraper by Richmond’s standards at the turn of the century.

May 2017 — first floor ironfront

The first floor has a cast iron storefront; the upper levels are decorated with handsome terra cotta ornament of Classical swags and wreaths. This is a rare example of office building design before the introduction of the skyscraper. [ADR]

[RVCJ] — Virginia-Carolina’s principal leadership, 1903
The Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company was the brainchild of Samuel G. Morgan, an entrepreneur with a clever notion.

He began his lifework in 1881 with the organization of the Durham Fertilizer Company, which grew into the Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, chartered in New Jersey on 12 Sept. 1895. The original authorized stock was for $6,500,000. [DNCB]

[RVCJ] — Chemical Building engraving, 1903

By 1916 the outstanding common stock stood at $27,984,400 and the preferred at $20,000,000. Also by 1916 its output was the largest of any fertilizer company in the world, and the corporation controlled 135 affiliated plants scattered generally over the southeastern United States. [DNCB]

May 2017 — terra cotta swags & wreaths

Moving the headquarters of his company to Richmond, Va., in 1896, Morgan soon became immersed in various businesses in that state such as the Merchants National Bank, the Virginia Trust Company, and the Old Dominion Trust Company. His wealth placed him on many other directorates, including those of the Texas and Pacific Railroad, Southern Cotton Oil Company, Mechanics and Metals National Bank of New York, and Charleston Mining and Manufacturing Company. [RVCJ]

[RVCJ] — Virginia-Carolina’s executive departments, 1903
He enjoyed membership in such clubs as the Westmoreland, the Commonwealth Club, the Deep Run Hunt Club, and three groups in New York: the Calumet, the Manhattan, and the New York Yacht Club. Morgan lived in Richmond but maintained an elaborate country place, Meadowbrook, near Curle’s Neck, Va. [RVCJ]


Morgan’s success came from his innovative use of tobacco waste products. Before he founded Durham Fertilizer, once the leaf was removed from the stem, the stems were thrown away. In a process described as “mixing prescriptions on a terrific scale”, the stems were used to create sulphuric acid, which was then combined with phosphate rock to make super-phosphate, a major ingredient in commercial fertilizers. The giant containers and vats utilized in the process gave the plant “the plant an air of a melodramatic movie.” (Open Durham)

[RVCJ] — Richmond Chemical Company’s Works, 1903

The Chemical Building was the company headquarters, overseeing two plants located at Rockett’s Landing. The Richmond Chemical Company location had direct access to the James River and the railroads. It produced over 45,000 tons of fertilizer annually, and had 240 employees.

[RVCJ] — Atlantic and Virginia Fertilizing Company’s Works, 1903

The company also acquired the Atlantic and Virginia Fertilizing Company’s Works, also located at Rockett’s, which produced 20,000 tons manufactured fertilizers annually, with 105 employees.

May 2017 — terra cotta wreath

Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company lasted until 1963, when Socony Mobil Oil came calling. The two agreed to terms on August 13th of that year, a merger valued at around $70 million.

Today, the former headquarters is flanked by taller skyscrapers and green trees, and continues to provide office in our busy downtown.


  • [RVCJ] Richmond, Virginia, The City on the James. Engelhardt, George W. 1903.
    [DNCB] Samuel Tate Morgan. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Volume 4. Tilley, Nannie M. Editor, Powell, William S. 1991.


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