209 North Twenty-Seventh Street
Built, circa 1894
Home of a talented artist, who faded from fame.
Among the few houses dating from the late ’twenties is the Andrew Ellett house, built in 1829 by William C. Allen. By early March, 1830 it was occupied by Fleming James, a prominent business man who nearly twenty years later was to build the eastern half of Linden Row. In 1835 Allen sold the property, which at that time ran back to Broad Street, to Orren Williams. From that time until 1937 it remained in the hands of the same family: Williams left it in 1841 to Cornelia Hull, who, three years later, became the wife of Andrew E. Ellett.
There is no more charming old house of moderate size left in Richmond than the Ellett house. The Greek Revival had hardly begun to influence Richmond architecture when it was built: the little porch with two small columns and a tiny pediment are the only signs of it here. The house is fairly well preserved. The front is painted a light grey, with white trim, and it is shadowed by a big tree. Even to those who are not versed in Richmond’s past, this is a house that makes them say, “I wish I could live there!”
The Ellett family continued to make this their home until the death of Caroline H. Ellett, Andrew Ellett’s daughter, in June, 1929. [HOR]
However, at some point in the mid-1880′s, the Ellett family decided to divest some of their property holdings and subdivided lots 117 and 125 into eight smaller parcels. They retained the largest one for the house at 2702 East Grace but created four lots on Broad Street, two on Twenty-Seventh Street, and one next door on the East Grace Street corner.
New neighbors quickly appeared. 207 North Twenty-Seventh was built in 1888, 2700 East Grace Street and 2701, 2703, 2705, 2709 East Broad Street were all constructed in 1890. The last entry was a double-house in 1894, 209-211 North Twenty-Seventh, on the smallest lot that stood on the alley that now ran completely between Twenty-Seventh and Twenty-Eighth Streets.
That same year, 209 North Twenty-Seventh was occupied by the Gretter family: Frederick, his wife Mary, and daughter Florence. Combined they constitute its longest occupancy by a single family. Frederick is listed as the head of the household on the 1920 census and died in 1922 at the age of 80. Mary replaced him on the 1930 census, dying in 1936 at the age of 84, and was followed by Florence on the 1940 census.
Interestingly, although they are the family most closely associated with the house, the Gretters were renters, not owners, during their long stay. This may explain why both Mary and Florence had to take in boarders following Frederick’s death.
The Gretter’s status as renters may have had much to do with Frederick’s occupation as a clerk in the dry goods store Levy & Davis, which seems to have paid the bills but did not afford him the opportunity to own his own home. This was further complicated by the death of Abraham Levy in 1894, and the closing of the business. It is unknown where Frederick landed in the aftermath, but he lived another 28 years and continued living in the same place, so it’s safe to assume that he found another gig. Dry goods stores were everywhere on Broad Street in those days. There was Temple, Pemberton, Cordes & Co., which eventually became J. B. Mosby & Co., plus there was Miller, Rhoads, & Gerhart which became Miller & Rhoads, and this other company called Thalhimers.
Due to the volatility of the dry goods business, Frederick may have played things conservatively when it came to living arrangements. He did not skimp on his daughter, however.
Between 1897 and 1900 there were occasional pieces in both the Richmond Times and the Richmond Dispatch about Florence and her emerging talents as an artist.
Talented Young Artist Who is Gaining Fame
Miss Florence E. Gretter, one of Richmond’s attractive young women, is establishing for herself quite a reputation as an artist at the Cooper Institute, New York. About three years ago it was discovered that Miss Gretter possessed great talent in this direction and she decided to cultivate that talent at the above-mentioned institute. She has received the highest praise from her instructors, and although Miss Gretter will not be graduated from the Institute until spring, her name is already known, and even as far as England have her praises been sung. Miss Gretter’s especial favorite is miniature painting on ivory, and an excellent picture of Fitzhugh Lee is now on exhibition at the Woman’s Exchange. (Chronicling America)
Here’s where the mystery of Florence Gretter takes hold.
Her father, a former Confederate Private living in Lost Cause/Jim Crow Virginia, sent his southern belle daughter north to an art school in the East Village of New York City for training as an artist. The more you think about it, the more it makes you scratch your head.
Cooper Union (then also called the Cooper Institute) was then and remains today a prestigious art school. The fact that she went there raises many questions. How did they know to send her to a specific school in a northern state? Who in Richmond would have recommended it to them? What prompted her parents to conclude that she was sufficiently talented to spend the money for her to live in New York City during her studies? Where did she stay? Did life in the East Village and the Big Apple affect her outlook?
Intriguing questions, but in many cases, there are no answers, save one. Cooper Union originally offered free courses to students until a formal four-year degree program was created in 1902, and then switched to granting those students full scholarships. Aside from rail fare, room, and board, Florence’s education in New York was as cost-effective as a dry goods clerk could hope for.
One thing, however, is crystal clear — the woman had talent. In 1990, the University of Richmond was the beneficiary of a surprise donation of seven charcoal sketches made by Florence during her studies at Cooper Union. Each is signed with her name and numbered, indicating that they formed part of a portfolio submitted for a grade.
This figure study represents an idealized female form at the turn of the nineteenth century. The model’s body is rendered smooth, even porcelain-like, and her hair, pinned loosely on top of her head, suggests the Gibson girl hairstyle which was popular at the time. Although this image, created by a female artist, does not suggest any sort of sexualized content, the hairstyle and the sensitively rendered female form reveal pressures upon women at the time to aim towards perfection in their appearance. (University of Richmond Museums)
The truly sad thing is that these sketches are Florence’s only known pieces.
From newspaper articles, we know that she had commissions for miniatures at various times. The 1900 Richmond Times article above references commissions from England and for a portrait of Fitzhugh Lee. A Richmond Times-Dispatch from Sunday, June 28, 1903 states
A beautifully executed miniature of the late Major Norman V. Randolph has been painted by Miss Florence Gretter of North Twenty-seventh Street.
The miniature was shown at R. E. Lee Camp to Major Randolph’s comrades who greatly admired it. It represents the Major in his Confederate uniform with his hat on and with the animated expression his face wore when in health. The coloring of the miniature is exceedingly fine. (Chronicling America)
Outside of these mentions and the charcoal sketches at UR, there is no public record of this artist’s work.
Miniatures are a subset of portraiture with a devoted following — witness The Miniature Artists of America. You would think that someone, somewhere would have some mention of what she produced. However, Dr. Carol Aiken, a portrait miniature conservator and scholar, maintains a database of miniature artists and has never heard of Florence Gretter.
This is all the more intriguing because it appears that Florence continued working on her artistic chops, even after she no longer attended Cooper Union. An article in the Sunday, October 28, 1906, Richmond Times-Dispatch mentions her plan to show her miniatures at the Jamestown Exhibition that year. It goes on to say that she had recently traveled to Boston to spend some time perfecting her work in oil painting.
Why Boston? With whom did she study? How long was she there, and what, if anything, did she produce from this encounter?
Sadly, however, it seems that the excursion to Boston was Florence’s last public foray in the pursuit of excellence. The Richmond newspapers continue to reference her activities, but except for Boston, they are focused primarily on her Church Hill neighborhood.
At the time, Church Hill was still a leader in social Richmond activity. The westward expansion of the city was full-bore by 1900, but as the oldest area of the city, Church Hill still had gravitas.
A Richmond Times article on June 16, 1900, describes a Banquet at-the Virginia Club where a Handsome Reception Tendered the Ladies Last Night and stating that the Affair was a Great Success. Miss Florence Gretter was among the named attendees.
Aside from these mentions, she participated in the Star Club (Richmond Dispatch, Sunday, November 16, 1902), where she played the role of the Hostess of the Inn; assisted in closing exercises of the higher department of Miss Robinson’s School (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday, June 12, 1904); participated in the Delightful Musicales of Miss Effio Aylett Cofer, singing The Norse Maiden’s Lament with six other ladies (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday, June 17, 1906); and for hosting the Fortnightly Flinch Club (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday January 8, 1904), so named for a card game based on stockpiling.
However, beyond this, her focus on art is either lost or no longer covered by the Richmond newspaper society columns. By 1922 her father had died, leaving her mother Mary little choice but to take in boarders in order for them to continue paying rent.
Even so, Florence appears to have kept her hand in the game. Aside from her obituary in 1957, the last mention of Florence in the Richmond newspapers was in 1929, just three days after Black Tuesday ushered in the Great Depression when she was 53. It doesn’t say much, but the photograph shows her at work in her studio still painting portrait miniatures. It goes on to mention a recent miniature of Major Norman V. Randolph.
This in itself is telling. She first painted Major Randolph’s portrait in 1903 (above). By 1929, she is still painting it, which suggests that she might have had a regular clientele for leaders from the Lost Cause.
Towards the end of her life, Florence contended with her own boarders until they, and the 18 stairs to the second floor where she slept, became too much.
Prior to moving to the Protestant Episcopal Church Home, she reached for a life-line in neighbor Eugene Markham. Florence had hoarded the sketches from Cooper Union as trophies, clinging to a time of creativity in which she still held pride, and gave them to him to keep them from the dust bin. Her plan succeeded. On Eugene’s death, his daughter discovered them in his attic, rolled up in wallpaper sheets, and nearly threw them away until she realized what she’d found. There is probably a Princess Leia-Death Star Plans analogy to be made here, but let’s not.
Not every college hoopster goes to the NBA or even the G-League. Not every artist, no matter how talented, finds a patron, or an art community in which to thrive. Florence Gretter did not transform into Georgia O’Keefe in the steel canyons of New York City; she had game but never found (or at least there is no record to show that she found) a larger audience than the Richmond neighbors that she’d grown up with. A pity; she was quite skilled. One wonders what she’d have achieved in a different environment.
(Gretter House is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)
- Rocket Werks gives a big shoutout to Page Hayes of House of Hayes. Scans of old newspaper photographs and articles tend toward extreme graininess. Page was able to take the 1900 sketch of Florence Gretter from the Richmond Times and turn it into a thing of beauty. Outstanding.
- A shoutout of equal voice is given to Mrs. Jean Heath. Mrs. Heath is the daughter of Eugene Markham, and it was she who discovered the hidden charcoal drawings that are Florence Gretter’s legacy and bequeathed them to UR.
As a ten-year-old Mrs. Heath knew Florence when she was still dressing up in Colonial costume at St. John’s Church, making Sunday dinner rolls for her neighbors, and cheese sandwiches for the boarders for whom she cared — a witness to the perigee of Florence Gretter’s life. Without her, much of Florence’s legacy would be lost to history.
- [HOR] Houses of Old Richmond. Mary Wingfield Scott. 1941.
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