Must-See RVA! — Monroe Park

Must-See RVA! — Monroe Park

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

August 2019
August 2019

AKA Western Square, Old Fairgrounds
620 West Main Street
Created, 1851
VDHR 127-0383

Now hear this: Monroe Park is beautiful.

(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards)
(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards)

Monroe Park is situated on land acquired in 1851 by the City of Richmond. Planned to serve as a park for the stylish western suburbs. It was first used for the site of an agricultural exposition and later as a camp site for Confederate troops before being developed for recreational use in the 1870s.

August 2019 — looking towards Grace & Holy Trinity Church & Altria Theatre, formerly known as the Mosque
August 2019 — looking towards Grace & Holy Trinity Church & Altria Theatre, formerly known as the Mosque

With the rapid growth of the western suburbs of Richmond at the turn of the 20th century, the park provided an ideal setting for the monumental Gothic Grace and Holy Trinity Church, the Italian Renaissance Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and the Moorish Mosque Auditorium.

August 2019 — looking towards Johnson Hall, formerly Monroe Terrace Apartments
August 2019 — looking towards Johnson Hall, formerly Monroe Terrace Apartments

These buildings, along with several late 19th-century townhouses which recall the earlier residential character of the park, and two impressive apartment houses of the 1920s, create an architectural ensemble which is unique in Virginia for its monumental character and stylistic diversity.

(JSTOR) — Charles H. Dimmock — November 5, 1863
(JSTOR) — Charles H. Dimmock — November 5, 1863

In 1850 the only public park in Richmond was Capitol Square. With a population of 30,280 at that time, this single open space was no longer sufficient for the growing city’s needs, and in. 1851, city councilman Charles Dimmock proposed that parks be acquired near future major residential areas. In 1851-52, seven and one-half acres of land were purchased to become Western Square. This square would later become Monroe Park.

(Virginia Memory) — drawing from Richmond Progress article, 1882 — Old Fairgrounds Now Monroe Park
(Virginia Memory) — drawing from Richmond Progress article, 1882 — Old Fairgrounds Now Monroe Park

The site being beyond the city limits and to the west of developed residential areas, the park was not developed for two decades. In 1854 the property was used by the Virginia State Agricultural Society for a fair. The fair was vis±ed by President John Tyler and General Winfield Scott and was celebrated as a major civic event in the antebellum period.

August 2019 — looking towards Sacred Heart Cathedral
August 2019 — looking towards Sacred Heart Cathedral

By the late 1870s residential development had expanded to the west, and the park was indicated on maps of the period with an arrangement of curved paths, similar to those in Capitol Square. By 1889, this original scheme had been replaced by the present configuration of straight walks. The central feature of this design was a tall, granite, rustic pyramid from the apex of which water gushed. The pyramid was similar to the memorial erected to Confederate dead in Hollywood Cemetery in 1869.

August 2019 — looking toward Checkers House
August 2019 — looking toward Checkers House

The Monroe Park feature was surmounted by a metal pipe structure supporting an electric light. Adjacent to this odd pyramid was a wooden bandstand. In the first decade of the 20th century the pyramid was replaced with a four-tier, castiron fountain cast by J.W. Fiske. In 1971, the fountain was recast by the Robinson Company. The bandstand was replaced by the Checkers House in 1939.

August 2019 — looking toward VCU’s Lindsay House designed by Marion J. Dimmock
August 2019 — looking toward VCU’s Lindsay House designed by Marion J. Dimmock

Serving as a residential square from the later 19th century into. the first part of the 20th century, the park by 1930 was surrounded by high rise apartments and major public buildings and churches. As the area aged it became less stylish as a residential neighborhood and the Richmond Professional Institute, the forerunner of Virginia Commonwealth University, expanded into the older houses of the area.

(Library of Virginia) — aerial view, Monroe Park — February 6, 1951 — Adolph B. Rice Studio
(Library of Virginia) — aerial view, Monroe Park — February 6, 1951 — Adolph B. Rice Studio

By the later 1950s the residential character of the district was lost, and several proposals were made to destroy the park by extending streets through it, converting it to parking space, or erecting a medical center on the site. These proposals were all rejected and the park remains a major public amenity today.

(Library of Congress) — Wickham Statue — photo taken between 1905-1920
(Library of Congress) — Wickham Statue — photo taken between 1905-1920

As was typical of 19th-century practice, the park became a site for monumental sculpture. The foundation for a huge rotunda dedicated to Jefferson Davis was laid in the park in the 1890s, but this impressive scheme was abandoned in favor of a more modest monument erected on Monument Avenue.

August 2019 — World War II memorial
August 2019 — World War II memorial

A bronze statue of General William c. Wickham was dedicated in 1891, and in 1911 a monument to Joseph Bryan was unveiled. Smaller monuments to Fitzhugh Lee and the dead of World War II were erected in the later 20th century. Only the Wickham Statue was related to the park’s axial plan. (VDHR)

August 2019 — looking towards the Prestwould
August 2019 — looking towards the Prestwould

By the early 2010s, the park was showing its age needed more than just TLC. It was closed to the public in 2017 and underwent a 22-month, 6 million dollar restoration that improved security, added a bioretention wall to make it self-sustaining, 132 new trees, 13,000 new shrubs and plants, and wi-fi (WTVR). A project of that size and duration will always have fault-finders, but on the whole, the Monroe Park Conservancy and the city did good.

(Monroe Park is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


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