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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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]
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.
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]
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**.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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***.
Marble, mahogany, oak, and silver-embossed plate glass were applied to the building’s interiors.
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]
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.
Of course, they made sure not to skimp on the beautiful detailing. A copper cornice always adds a touch of class.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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
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.
- [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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