AKA, Founders Hall
827 West Franklin Street
In the spring of 1919, the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health faced growing pains. The Saunders-Willard House provided the answer.
The vestry of Monumental Church offered the school a “whole building” at 1228 East Broad Street, a three-story residence next door to the church and rent free. The offer was accepted.
Miss Catherine Harahan wrote in her reminiscences: “Anyone who attended school there could never forget it. The building had been renovated; it was clean and neat, but bare. In the basement were two large rooms for the recreational leadership department. On the second and third floors there were classrooms. The small library was on the first floor.” [HRPI]
But there were issues.
Number 1228 East Broad Street had been built in the era when few houses had indoor bathrooms, and the ones which had these conveniences, often did not locate them in the house itself. Number 1228 was like this. The bathroom was in a separate little addition in the rear, across the porch, “which one had to cross to get there.”
The 1228 location was then rather “slummy”. The night students were the first to reject the 1228 East Broad Street area. They said they were afraid to go there. It was too close to the former “red light” district and also only a block, and a short block at that, from “Jail Alley”, they complained.
The questions came to be asked: Wouldn’t it be better to rent quarters in a better downtown neighborhood? And wouldn’t the increased enrollment produce revenue to pay the rent? [HRPI]
On November 30, 1882, E. A. Saunders bought the site of his future mansion, now known as Founder’s Hall, for $7500.00 at a public auction of the estate of the deceased James B. Taylor. At that time, the land and frame house was put in the name of his wife, Mary J. Saunders. Their initials “E.A.S.” still are etched in the glass transom over the main entrance door. The building suggests the home which Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler of “Gone with the Wind” built in Atlanta about the same time.
Mr. and Mrs. Saunders had owned at least fifteen properties in and around Richmond. These estates included farms, plantations, and houses. The farming land that Saunders owned, which bordered the James River, included “Boscobel,” 450 acres; “Buckland,” 650 acres; “Shirley Plantation,” 800 acres; and “Weyanoke,” and some properties in Orange County close to Gordonsville.
E. A. Saunders was a successful entrepreneur and was involved in endeavors beyond the aforementioned grocery empire. For some time, Walker and E. A. Saunders were again business partners in a substantial milling industry. Saunders was a component of the tobacco manufacturing concern of Hardgrove, Pollard and Company as well as a part of the firm of E. A. Saunders and Company of New York, which dealt in the Cord-Wood and Lumber Association of Virginia. [TWVMFA]
After the Saunders family moved from the house, Number 827 was rented to the Honorable Joseph E. Willard when he served as lieutenant-governor of Virginia in 1902-06 and while he served on the State Corporation Commission in 1906-1910. Mr. Willard continued to live at the residence until about 1915, although after 1913 he was abroad much of the time as ambassador to Spain.
After Mr. Willard, Number 827 was occupied by the University Club of Richmond on a rental basis. In 1925 Franklin Street was chiefly residential, even though it was on the edge of the central section of Richmond and within walking distance of the business district. Many of the old houses still were occupied by members of the original families which built them. However, the Franklin-Shafer Street-Monroe Park neighborhood was changing. [HRPI]
The fates of the house and the School of Social Work began to align.
The question of finding a suitable, permanent location concerned officials and friends of the school for many months. Between 1922 and 1925, the minutes of the Board of Directors record many talks with President J. A. C. Chandler about “William and Mary taking over the school entirely.”
President Chandler said that he would recommend to the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary the absorption of the school, with the understanding that William and Mary would maintain the institution permanently in Richmond “provided the school acquired a permanent building in a good central neighborhood.”
More specifically, it was recommended that the Board of Directors acquire as a “permanent home of the school” the former Saunders-Willard house, on the southeast corner of Franklin and Shafer Streets.
There was some objection to the site as a permanent location for the school. One view held that it was too near the business section and “never could be made to look like a campus.” This objection to location in the central part of the city, where no conventional campus was possible, continued through the years.
Two answers primarily were made to this question in 1925. First, it was felt that a good central location would result in an increase in the number of tuition-paying students and would also make possible higher tuition charges. The second answer was that the nature and purpose of the institution was the important factor. The kind of educational work contemplated for the new institution needed a central city location. A suburb or small town, while fine for a liberal arts college, was not a satisfactory setting for the kind of institution of higher education which emphasized the professions, vocations, occupations or “extension work”.
Another factor in 1925 favoring the Franklin Street area was that the Richmond Public Library at 901 West Franklin was then located across from Shafer Street and available to students. In any case, the kind of neighborhood selected for the permanent location of the new institution was of great importance in the subsequent history of Richmond Professional Institute and of the emerging University. In ways, it is true that the selection of this permanent location for the new type of institution was one of the wisest decisions the founders made. [HRPI]
The house itself is composed of brick, two-and-one-half stories, mansard roof, three-bay front, molded deck, modillioned cornice, ornamental gables cap the dormers, corbelled chimney cap, stone hood molding cut with scrollwork, bay projections, Corinthian porch with latticework crowning balustrade and splayed newel posts, and door with segmental surround. (VDHR)
Generally considered “Victorian” in style, as are most of the preserved 19th century homes on Franklin Street, Founders Hall is classified specifically as “French Second Empire” in the Epes and Nicholson study. The distinguishing feature according to them is the “mansard roof”: “Decorative patterns of color or texture in the roofing materials.” The appearance of the original structure is very attractive due to its first and second floor bay windows on the front and west sides; the variation in architectural patterns around the roof line, front porch and entry way; and its pleasing blend of red brick, gray stone and wood materials.
The additions to the rear are constructed from red brick and concrete and are functional but unattractive. No attempt appears to have been made to integrate style and materials with the older part of the structure. The brickwork at the rear of the addition, however, is not uniform. The bricks at lower levels appear more worn and slightly larger than the bricks at higher levels. Also, the walls along the rear are not all the same height. Based on these observations, it seems that the additions could have been built on top of and beside existing brick structures that may have been associated with the original structure before 1925. [FOUH]
Unfortunately, it’s also another victim of the insidious Tree-Architecture Conspiracy, but that’s the least of its problems. While it may be structurally sound, the exterior is in appalling condition. There’s peeling paint everywhere, mold on the newel posts leading to the front door and elsewhere, and a rats nest of cobwebs on the ceiling of the porch. On close inspection, it looks terrible — dirty, and in dire need of power washing.
VCU has done an amazing job transforming this area of the city and has built wonderful new additions to the Monroe Park campus. Their track record of stewardship for their older historic buildings doesn’t always match this pattern of success. Considering what Founder’s Hall represents to the university, VCU should be embarrassed.
(Saunders-Willard House is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)
- [FOUH] Founders Hall, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. James A. Shultz. 1995.
- [HRPI] A History of the Richmond Professional Institute. Henry H. Hibbs. 1973.
- [RVCJ93] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1893.
- [TWVMFA] A Tiffany Window In the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Patronage of The Saunders Family of Richmond. Joshua A. Kline. 2012.
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