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Must-See RVA! — The Mutual Building

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

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909 East Main Street
Built, 1904, 1912
Architects, Clinton & Russell

The concept of insurance dates back to the Code of Hammurapi. The Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia is almost as old.

(Geograph) — Hand in Hand Fire & Life Insurance Society Fire Mark

Mutual insurance in America, as we have come to know it, really began in London, England, in 1696 with the formation of Contributors for Insuring Houses, Chambers or Rooms from Loss by Fire by Amicable Contributionship. For obvious reasons it became more commonly known as the Amicable Contributionship and ultimately as the Hand-in-Hand, a reference to the organization’s fire mark, one hand clasping another hand, reflecting aid and assistance.

(Worthpoint) — Charleston Insurance Company Fire Mark

Like so many other ideas of its time, travelers from England to the colonies brought stories and accounts of various insurance plans and schemes. Probably as a result, the first attempt at a fire insurance plan in America was in Charleston, South Carolina in 1736 with the formation of the Friendly Society of Charleston. Unfortunately, in 1740 Charleston suffered a conflagration that is said to have consumed over three hundred houses besides storehouses, stables and several wharves. The losses sustained by the Friendly Society were far too great for its fledgling operation and the organization failed.

(National Fire Heritage Center) — Benjamin Franklin

At about the same time that the Friendly Society was trying to get started, the esteemed Benjamin Franklin resided in Philadelphia and was continuing his long-standing interest in fire prevention. With the help of others, he formed a purely volunteer firefighting association in 1735 called the Union Fire Company. Because of the social aspects of this type association, it precipitated the formation of other firefighting associations thus to the benefit of all citizens of Philadelphia. However, in spite of the inherent value of having firefighting associations, Franklin came to realize that fire was as inevitable as death and taxes and concluded that a plan of insurance was needed to make up the losses caused by fire.

(Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia) — Fire Mark of the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire

With that realization, Franklin set out to form an insurance company patterned after the Amicable Contributionship, an organization he may have become familiar with while working in England as a journeyman printer. The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire was organized by Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues in March 1752 and remains today the oldest mutual fire insurance company in business in America. The Philadelphia Contributionship selected as its fire mark four hands crossed and clasped in a form commonly known as “Jacob’s Chair.” As was the case with the Amicable Contributionship, the Philadelphia Contributionship also became known in America as the Hand-in-Hand. (Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia)

(Geni) — Dr. William Foushee

In 1794 a Prussian émigré named William Frederick Ast met with a group of Richmond citizens to discuss the need for an organization to underwrite fire insurance in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the financial opportunities such an organization would present.

Ast’s strategy for mutual assurance, which was said to be modeled on a system introduced by Frederick the Great, won enthusiastic support from many prominent Richmonders, including the city’s first mayor, Dr. William Foushee. Members of the Virginia General Assembly were told that “The principles of this insurance are founded upon benevolence—a number join to succor such of them that may be so unfortunate to suffer accidentally by fire—a loss falls heavy upon one; but where many contribute towards paying it, each man’s share becomes slight.” Ast also pointed out that the only other insurance then available to Virginians came from English companies, a situation that diverted large sums of money from the state due to the high cost of that transatlantic insurance.

December 2018

Ast’s well-conceived idea gained strong support in the legislature. On December 22, 1794, that body approved the plan, declaring in part that, “ …from the great and frequent losses sustained by the ravages of fire, it is advised expedient to adopt some mode to alleviate the calamities of the unfortunate who may suffer by that destructive element, and William FE Ast of the city of Richmond, having suggested and submitted to the consideration of the general assembly a plan of mutual assurance… which it is conceived will fully answer the above purposes”. [FUB]

(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards) — Currier & Ives depiction of the Evacuation Fire

So the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia was born, and things were going great… until the Civil War.

The Great Unpleasantness stretched from 1861 to 1865, and as far as Richmond was concerned, ended with the Confederates setting fire to the tobacco warehouses along the canal basin. It may seem like historical hindsight, but you would think that someone would have had second thoughts about the burning of fungible commodities on a windy Spring evening. Oddly enough, it spread, leaving behind a smoking ruin where the city core once stood.

(Library of Congress) — View in the “Burnt District,” Richmond, Va., showing two women dressed in black approaching shell of four-story building, gutted by fire

The toll from the fire was almost incalculable. In addition to the buildings torched by the retreating Confederate Army, the blaze destroyed nine hundred buildings, three bridges across the James, the Henrico County Courthouse, two railroad depots, several banks, and a church. Sorting out claims for damage would take years as the Society worked to rebuild its business. [FUB]

(American Battlefield Trust) — General view of the burned district of Richmond

In the aftermath, the Mutual Assurance Society squared itself for the reckoning.

On May 17, 1865, the standing committee convened to take stock of its circumstances and found itself facing aggregate claims of over $100,000* without any hard currency in its treasury. A large portion of its securities had been rendered completely valueless while the remainder had greatly depreciated. Nevertheless, when the Society’s assets and liabilities had been examined thoroughly, and allowing for its obligations and losses on investments, the Society found itself with a surplus of $126,000**.

[RVCJ03] — 1014 East Main Street office

That happy circumstance, combined with its solid reputation and operating experience of over seventy years, helped put the Society back on its feet after the war. In time, the Society paid off every valid claim for loss and public confidence generated by those payments helped lift the society out of the ashes and back into a role of leadership in the financial and commercial life of the Commonwealth. [FUB]

(Chronicling America) — new Mutual Building — Richmond Times-Dispatch — Sunday, May 21, 1905

And so it was. The rebuilding of the Burnt District afforded Mutual Assurance the opportunity to occupy a spiffy new office building at 1014 East Main Street, and soon the good times were rolling again. Fast forward a few decades and the company was facing growing pains.

The steady increase in the Society’s assets mirrored the fortunes of Richmond’s financial and commercial sector and the growing stature of Richmond as a major railroad center.

March 2019 — main entrance on Main Street

The invigorating effects of Richmond’s fast-growing financial and commercial interests were most obvious in the changing appearance of the city’s downtown. In 1905 the skyline was dramatically recast by the twin wings of a new nine-story office building at the southeast corner of Ninth and Main Streets.

March 2019 — courtyard entrance on Ninth Street

Towering 125 feet above street level, the Mutual Assurance Society Building was designed and built as a sound investment in real estate for its members, and was the sixth home of the Society in its 110-year history.

March 2019 — cast iron fence

Upon completion in May 1905, the massive structure–complete with six Otis elevators and its own Westinghouse electrical generating plant–became an instant Richmond landmark.

March 2019 — courtyard staircase & lamp post

A three-page story in the Times-Dispatch on May 21 call the building “by long odds the handsomest, most substantial and imposing office structure in the City. It will compare with any in the South, and is the result of skillful application of the most improved building methods in every line, working with the best obtainable materials.”

March 2019 — courtyard gate

The Mutual Building was a completely modern skyscraper for its day. The headquarters of the fifth oldest fire insurance company in the United States, the building employed the latest in fireproofing technology developed by the Metropolitan Fireproofing Company of New York.

April 2019 — lobby staircase

The ornate structure, with exterior walls of blue granite, brick, limestone, and terra-cotta over a steel and iron skeleton–covered more than half an acre on one of the city’s busiest blocks and cost nearly $600,000***.

April 2019 — lobby stairwell

Marble, mahogany, oak, and silver-embossed plate glass were applied to the building’s interiors.

April 2019 — plaque of the Mutual Assurance of Virginia Standing Committee when the Mutual Building was built

The Old Mutual took offices on the second floor, and the rest of the building was leased to Richmond firms. The income from those rentals added to the financial security of the Society, whose insurance in force now totaled nearly $17 million. [FUB]

March 2019 — showing top four floors

Nor was that the end of construction. The need for office space was so great, that in 1912, Mutual Assurance went back for another bite at the apple and added the current top four terra-cotta clad floors.

April 2019

Of course, they made sure not to skimp on the beautiful detailing. A copper cornice always adds a touch of class.

April 2019 — basement stairwell

In his book Architecture in Downtown Richmond, Robert P. Winthrop described this building thus:

Part of a cluster of early high-rise buildings, the Mutual Building is the oldest and best preserved.

April 2019 — rooftop stair railing

U-shaped, this configuration provided for good lighting and ventilation in the days before air conditioning. The building is surrounded by a superb cast iron fence with quite grand gates at the courtyard. The main lobby and staircase have been preserved, little altered. [ADR]

April 2019 — sub-basement fire door

It is hard to understand how massive or how old this building is without walking through it. Amazing architectural detail is everywhere to be seen, even in the most ordinary elements, like a classical fire door.

April 2019 — sub-basement vault

It’s longevity obscures its larger purpose as a financial institution, when an insurance company had to secure vital documents as a cost of doing business.

April 2019 — first floor vault door

Or indeed, the needs of the other tenants who occupied its floors.

Today, the Mutual Building is owned by the Shamin Hotels Group, based in Chester, Virginia. They are clearly aware of the property’s historic value, which is the best thing you can ask for in a steward going forward.

(The Mutual Building is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


1,550,773.01 in 2019 dollars
1,953,973.99 in 2019 dollars
17,041,078.65 in 2019 dollars

(CPI Inflation Calculator)


Note

The interior pictures of the lobby, rooftop, and basements shown here were made possible through the generosity of Shamin Hotels, which owns the Mutual Building. Rocket Werks thanks Mark Yardis, Vice President of Operations, who granted permission; R. Anthony Harris, Social Media Manager, and Sterling Gary, Building Engineer, who provided access to this historic property. The opportunity to see and document historic Richmond locations like the Mutual Building isn’t always granted, but the spirit of public service, as exemplified by Shamin Hotels, is always appreciated.


Print Sources

  • [ADR] Architecture in Downtown Richmond. Robert P. Winthrop. 1980.
  • [FUB] Founded Upon Benevolence: A Bicentennial History of the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia. Richard Love. 1994.
  • [RVCJ93] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1893.

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Local Asian American Society of Central Virginia to host author and artist of new book

Author Joe Kutchera and artist Alfonso Pérez Acosta teamed up on the new coffee table art book, which features the portraits and stories of 22 immigrants who have come to Richmond from around the world to become our neighbors.

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The Asian American Society of Central Virginia (AASoCV) will host a local author and artist this weekend to present their new book, Portraits of Immigrant Voices, at its 24th annual Asian America Celebration tomorrow.

Author Joe Kutchera and artist Alfonso Pérez Acosta teamed up on the new coffee table art book, which features the portraits and stories of 22 immigrants who have come to Richmond from around the world to become our neighbors.

Alfonso Pérez Acosta painted the original portraits while Joe Kutchera wrote the personal histories. The author’s proceeds will benefit Afghan and Asian refugees who have settled in Virginia in a fund set up and managed by The Asian American Society of Central Virginia, a non-profit charitable 501(c)(3) organization.

The event is free and open to the general public. The pair will present the book on stage at 2pm and immediately following, AASoCV will host a book signing at 2:30pm. The book will be on sale for $40 at the event.

The 24th Annual Asian American Celebration features cultural performances, food, hands-on activities, exhibition booths, and merchandise from the Asian American communities in Central Virginia. This year’s theme is “weddings and our heritage.” The Celebration will take place at the Greater Richmond Convention Center at 403 North Third Street, Richmond VA 23219 from 11am to 7pm.

Learn more here.

The introduction to the book follows below:

Stories of Gratitude, Progress, and Manifesting Dreams

By Joe Kutchera

During the fall of 2020, following the George Floyd protests along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, I saw an African American woman wearing a t-shirt with this message in bold letters.

I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.

As a (white) writer, I was stunned at how one sentence could leave me speechless and make me feel such a wide range of emotions. At first, I felt infinitesimally small, humbled by the brutal African American history behind that sentence, reflecting the violence and intimidation that Black Americans experienced during slavery and Jim Crow, which kept them from America’s prosperity. And seconds later, the sentence made me feel incredibly hopeful as it communicated that great progress and change is indeed possible, measured through a multi-generational lens, taking into account the sacrifice and suffering of previous generations. The formerly wild dream of freedom and opportunity is now, we hope, finally possible for African Americans today, though we still have a long way to go to ensure equitable outcomes for all Americans.

Many Americans may know Richmond, Virginia (RVA) for its history as the capital of the Confederacy with its Civil War Museum and the now-removed statues of Robert E. Lee and Confederate generals along Monument Avenue. The ugly history of slavery and the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ permeate so much of the city, but a more complex and hopeful picture of its citizens is emerging.

In decades past, a majority of RVA’s population has been Black, with Whites representing most of the remainder of its population. Yet, a more multicultural, and even international population, is growing out of RVA’s Black and White history. The 2020 Census shows that RVA’s African American population fell below 50%, while its White population increased as a result of gentrification. Blacks appear to have left Richmond City for the suburbs (Henrico and Chesterfield Counties), where the Black population increased. Yet, the Asian and Hispanic/Latino population grew by double digits in Richmond City, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, and the people who selected “some other race” and “two or more races” grew by triple digits. This reflects an increase in children of interracial couples, immigrants from Africa (distinct from African Americans), as well as ‘mestizos,’ or people of mixed races, from Latin America. However small those populations might be now, the growth rates indicate that RVA, like the rest of the country, is becoming much more diverse.

With this in mind, I am grateful to be working with the Asian American Society of Central Virginia in sponsoring the publication of this book. AASoCV represents 18 diverse Asian communities that have stood up against racism and xenophobia, as described by AASoCV’s chair, Julie Laghi, in the foreword. AASoCV provides a perfect example of how people from vastly different language groups can come together to build community and cultural bridges, thereby promoting tolerance and diversity.

AASoCV has enabled me and the team involved behind this book to take this project to the next level, furthering our mission to share immigrant stories and reflect on how they embody the American dream. Tida Tep, the daughter of Pim Bhut, featured on page 70, joins us to visually bring these stories into the printed medium.

Our project initially began in an organic way. In August 2020, around the time that I saw the “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream” t-shirt, I received a call from Karla Almendarez-Ramos, who manages the City of Richmond’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Engagement (OIRE). She asked me if I would be interested in and available to write profiles of immigrants as a celebration for National Immigrants’ Day on October 28, 2020. Richmond-based Colombian artist, teacher and muralist, Alfonso Pérez Acosta, had pitched the idea to Karla after crafting his initial computer-drawn portraits.

I immediately told her yes, that I would love to work on the project. I have written about and reflected on the subject of immigrants’ journeys previously, both interviewing recent immigrants and researching my own ancestors immigrating from Eastern Europe to the United States. My wife, Lulu, migrated from Mexico, to join me in Richmond in 2013. And previously, I had migrated to Mexico and the Czech Republic for work, during different chapters of my life. As a result, I also understand the immense challenges that immigrants face when moving to a new country.

National Immigrants’ Day has been celebrated since 1986, but mostly in places like New York City. We wanted to bring this celebration to Richmond, Virginia to highlight the diversity of its community and the variety of languages spoken (in addition to English). With the support of a grant from Virginia Humanities, we unveiled the portraits on October 28th, National Immigrants Day, on RVAStrong.org/portraits and published updates regularly through Thanksgiving, to honor our subject’s themes of gratitude. The exhibit’s social media campaign ran through December 18th, which the United Nations has named International Migrants Day as a testament to humanity’s “will to overcome adversity and live a better life.”

Many of the people we featured came as migrants initially, moving to the U.S. temporarily for work or educational opportunities. While others came as refugees, fleeing war and violence. And still others came here simply because they fell in love with an American! Yet, they all became immigrants when they decided to settle down permanently in the United States.

Each portrait features the subject’s name, country of origin, and language, written in both English and their respective language. To create the color behind each portrait, Alfonso blended all the colors from each subject’s flag of their home country to formulate that single, albeit blended color. For example, the red and white in the Swiss flag become pink behind Dominik Meier’s portrait (on page 62). I wrote personal histories to accompany each portrait to shed light on the challenges of migration and displacement, as well as explore the commonalities of learning to speak English and integrating into American culture. Their stories showcase the incredible creativity and ingenuity of these immigrants in overcoming numerous obstacles in their journey, some of whom have gone on to start companies and obtain graduate degrees.

In speaking with everyone we featured in this book, they have taught me how Richmond is a far more diverse and dynamic city than I ever realized. They truly appreciate America’s freedom, democracy, and the way that their neighbors have accepted them. As a result, I see Richmond and the United States through their eyes. In listening to their stories, I get the sense that they, too, have accomplished their dreams, and in some cases, even their ancestors’ wildest dreams.

“Virginia is for lovers. … But we need to keep that slogan alive,” says Mahmud Chowdhury, originally from Bangladesh (#19 in the series), referring to the state motto of Virginia. “Let’s continue to love each other, be our brother’s keeper and have each other’s back,” says Hannah Adesina, from Nigeria (#17 in the series). Immigrants are here “to demonstrate the best of ourselves, manifest our hopes and dreams,” says Brenda Aroche, from Guatemala (#13 in the series). And Ping Chu from China (#12 in the series) encourages us all in saying, “We need to build up a united country. This is the United States, right?”

The United States has an individualistic culture with an “I” oriented English language. Even though that is the case, the immigrants featured in this book have taught me that when we work together and support one another, WE can become our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

When Chinese New Year celebrations took place on February 1, 2022, the same day that Black History Month began, I learned that 2022 was the year of the tiger. I realized that 2022 couldn’t be a more perfect year for us to launch this book with a symbol of bravery, courage, and strength on our side.

Joe Kutchera is the author of four books and the founder of Latino Link Advisors where he develops digital marketing and content strategies, with an emphasis in reaching the U.S. Hispanic market.

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Suspension Bridge to Belle Isle Closed Today

The bridge should be completed by the weekend.

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The suspension pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle is temporarily closed due to concrete falling from Lee Bridge.

The closure took place Wednesday after city officials received reports of concrete pieces being found on the pedestrian bridge.

“It was concluded that the concrete pieces fell from an open joint of the Lee Bridge. Consequently, the pedestrian bridge located directly under the open joint had to be closed in an effort to protect the public,” a release said.

While the engineers say there is no serious danger they’re putting in a scaffolding protection system along some stretches of the bridge. The installation is taking place today (Thursday) and is expected to be done Friday.

Dominion RiverRock is this weekend and temperatures are in expected in the upper 90’s so usage of the bridge and Belle Isle will be at a season-high.

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Virginia lawmakers dodge questions on whether budget might include new policy on skill games

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

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By Graham Moomaw

Budget leaders in the Virginia General Assembly won’t say if they’re considering changing the state’s contested ban on slots-like skill machines through the budget, despite that possibility already convincing a judge to order a lengthy delay in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.

Last month, lawyers challenging the ban as unconstitutional pointed to the legislature’s ongoing special session and unfinished budget to argue the case should be delayed until all sides know what the state’s official policy on skill games will be. But the General Assembly’s budget negotiators won’t even say whether skill-games are part of their discussions.

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

Knight insisted the budget will get done and said “fine-tuning” is underway.

“In negotiations, I don’t comment on anything,” Knight said. “That’s how I work a negotiation.”

Asked about potential skill games changes Tuesday after a meeting in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, one of the 14 legislators working on the state budget, deferred to Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. Howell did not attend Tuesday morning’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, and she did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday. In an email, a Senate budget staffer said “budget negotiations are ongoing.”

As Virginia recently relaxed laws to allow more types of state-sanctioned gambling, skill games have become a perennial point of contention. Usually found in convenience stores, sports bars and truck stops, they function similarly to chance-based slot machines but involve a small element of skill that allows backers to argue they’re more akin to traditional arcade games. Most machines involve slots-like reels and spins, but players have to slightly adjust the squares up or down in order to create a winning row of symbols.

Proponents insist the games are legal and give small Virginia business owners a piece of an industry dominated by big casino interests. In 2019, the chief prosecutor in Charlottesville concluded that they amount to illegal gambling devices, and critics have accused the industry of exploiting loopholes to set up a lucrative gaming enterprise that rapidly grew with minimal regulatory oversight.

After a one-year period of regulation and taxation to raise money for a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund, the critics won out in the General Assembly, with a ban on the machines taking effect in July 2021. But a Southside business owner who filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, successfully won a court injunction late last year barring enforcement of that law until his legal challenge is resolved. After Stanley wrote a letter pointing to the special session and unfinished budget talks as a reason to delay a hearing scheduled for May 18, the judge overseeing the case postponed the hearing until Nov. 2. The order also prohibited the state from enforcing the ban against thousands of previously regulated skill machines until November. The order doesn’t apply to machines that weren’t fully legal before the ban took effect, a distinction sowing confusion for local officials trying to sort out what’s allowed and what’s not.

In recent social media posts, the plaintiff challenging the ban, truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, said the delay was requested because “legislators are threatening to now try to ban or legislate skill games through the budget.”

“So we need to know what we are fighting against,” Sadler said in a message posted to Twitter last week in response to a Virginia Mercury article about the delay.

Skill-game supporters have claimed the ban was driven by other gambling interests who want to clear out smaller competitors to make more money for themselves. As the gambling turf wars continue in Richmond, some local governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity on whether the state is or isn’t banning the machines.

“It’s created chaos,” said Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

Jarratt said her city has been dealing with crime and other disturbances associated with the machines, but has gotten little help because there’s no regulatory agency in charge of them. Virginia ABC had temporary oversight of the machines starting in 2020, but that ended when the ban took effect last year and ABC no longer had legal responsibility over gaming machines in ABC-licensed businesses.

“It continuing to drag on over months is only making the situation worse and leaving localities in a difficult position,” she said, adding her city simply doesn’t have the staffing power to try to figure out which machines are operating legally and which are illegal. “You want to be fair to the business owners, but you also need to look out for the best interest of the locality as a whole.”

Jarratt said she’d like clearer direction on whether the state is going to allow the machines or not.

If a new skill-game provision is put into the state budget, it would still need to win approval from the full General Assembly. But with the clock ticking to pass a budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, it’s unclear how open party leaders would be to changes to whatever deal budget negotiators present as the final product of months of work.

Knight offered little clarity on whether skill games are even a live issue. He also seemed to caution against putting too much stock into what people say they’re hearing about the budget.

“I heard that we were going to do the budget today. I heard we were going to do it on the 24th. I heard we were going to do it on the 27th. I’ve heard June the first. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Knight said. “But as far as I know, the only people that know are maybe a few budget conferees. And we’re not talking. Because we’re working to get things right.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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