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Must-See RVA! — Virginia Commission for the Blind

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

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April 2020
  • AKA, The Parkwood
  • 3003 Parkwood Avenue
  • Built, 1940-1941, 1958
  • Architects, J. Binford Walford (1940), O. Pendleton Wright (1958)
  • VDHR 127-6808

And a blind man shall lead them.

(Find A Grave) — Lucian Louis Watts — Virginia Legislature Photograph, Virginia House of Delegates 1928

(Find A Grave) — Lucian Louis Watts — Virginia Legislature Photograph, Virginia House of Delegates 1928

L. L. Watts (1888-1974) was singularly instrumental in the development of services for the blind in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the individual most responsible for the successful construction of the Virginia Commission of the Blind building at 3003 Parkwood Avenue in Richmond.

His work influenced educational and training opportunities for blind Virginians across Virginia for more than 30 years, and his legacy has continued to the present day, making him of statewide significance.

Watts was serving as a Superintendent of a railroad construction project when he lost his sight in a dynamite blasting accident in 1913. After recuperating, he attended the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton, Virginia, and graduated in 1917. He became an instructor at the school and in 1919, he sent an invitation to the alumni of the school and friends of the blind to meet in June to form the Virginia Association of Workers for the Blind.

April 2020 — courtyard

April 2020 — courtyard

In 1920, Watts was appointed to a state commission to investigate the conditions of the blind in Virginia. This temporary commission reported its survey findings to the General Assembly with a recommendation that a permanent Virginia Commission for the Blind be established. The Virginia Commission for the Blind was created on March 23, 1922, through an act of the General Assembly and Watts was chosen as the Executive Secretary of the Commission, a position he was to hold for 34 years.

(Newspapers.com) — Des Moines Register, Tuesday, February 3, 1925 — showing left to right, Anne Sullivan Macy, Helen Keller, & Polly Thomas arriving in Iowa for the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind

(Newspapers.com) — Des Moines Register, Tuesday, February 3, 1925 — showing left to right, Anne Sullivan Macy, Helen Keller, & Polly Thomas arriving in Iowa for the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind

Watts was also involved in the establishment of the American Foundation for the Blind at the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind held in Vinton, Iowa, in 1921. The American Foundation for the Blind is the national organization most closely associated with Helen Keller, for which she worked for more than 40 years. Watts, with assistance from the American Foundation for the Blind, arranged for Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy to address a joint session of the Virginia House and Senate as part of a “Three Day’s Educational Campaign” on February 12-14, 1924.

(Newspapers.com) — Helen Keller from the Des Moines Register, Sunday, January 25, 1925

(Newspapers.com) — Helen Keller from the Des Moines Register, Sunday, January 25, 1925

The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness of the work of the fledgling Virginia Commission for the Blind and to convince the General Assembly to increase the state appropriation to further its work. Fourteen industries of the blind exhibited in the course of the campaign, which culminated in Helen Keller’s address on February 14. She appealed for increased appropriations and for the continued independence of the Virginia Commission for the Blind. Governor E. Lee Trinkle reported on the effectiveness of the campaign and the enthusiasm Ms. Keller’s address engendered.

(Newspapers.com) — Richmond Times Dispatch, Tuesday, June 27, 1933

(Newspapers.com) — Richmond Times-Dispatch, Tuesday, June 27, 1933

The Virginia Commission for the Blind hosted the 1933 biennial convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind in Richmond, where Watts was elected first vice-president of this international organization representing blind workers throughout the United States and Canada. When the president of the organization died in 1934, Watts stepped into the role of the chief executive and was elected president at the next biennial convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1935. After the expiration of his term as president, Watts continued to serve on the Board of Directors and as chair of the legislative committee.

(ProQuest® Sanborn Maps Geo Edition™) — Sanborn Insurance Maps of Richmond (1925) — Plate 437 — showing former Gould frame house at 3003 Parkwood

(ProQuest® Sanborn Maps Geo Edition™) — Sanborn Insurance Maps of Richmond (1925) — Plate 437 — showing former Gould frame house at 3003 Parkwood

The offices of the Commission were initially in Charlottesville but relocated to 1228 East Broad Street in Richmond in 1924. In 1931 the administrative offices moved to a frame residence at 3003 Parkwood Avenue. The use of this property was donated to the Virginia Association of Workers for the Blind by Edwin J. Gould of New York. In 1938, the Association was able to purchase the property from the Gould Foundation, on favorable terms, and in December deeded it to the Commonwealth to be used by the Commission for the Blind.

April 2020 — note the absence of the urn ornament on the pedestal at center top that appears in the VDHR nomination photo below

April 2020 — note the absence of the urn ornament on the pedestal at center top that appears in the VDHR nomination photo below

When the City of Richmond’s Fire Department condemned the frame building early in 1939, Mr. Watts, as Executive Director of the Commission, petitioned Governor James H. Price for assistance in replacing the facility. The Governor approved the construction of a new building and authorized the Commission to borrow $16,000 to add to the General Assembly’s appropriation of $30,000, the Works Progress Administration’s allocation of $24,000 and the $10,000 contributed by the Virginia Association of Workers for the Blind.

(VDHR) — blueprint for 1941 basement floor plan

(VDHR) — blueprint for 1941 basement floor plan

J. Binford Walford (1891-1956) was selected as the architect and in March, 1940, applied for a permit to construct a two-story building with a basement out of concrete, brick, cinder block and wood with a slate roof.

Walford was associated with O. Pendleton Wright from 1946, forming the practice Walford & Wright, Architects. Around the time he was selected in 1940 to design the new facility for the Virginia Commission for the Blind, he had been active in designing additional academic buildings, dormitories, and a stadium for the campus of the College of William and Mary.

(HipPostcard) — E. Lee Trinkle Library, Mary Washington College, Fredricksburg, Va., circa 1940s

(HipPostcard) — E. Lee Trinkle Library, Mary Washington College, Fredricksburg, Va., circa 1940s

He also designed classrooms, dormitories, and the Trinkle Library at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Converse and Cleveland dormitories at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, and Virginia Hall, Lindsey-Montague Hall, Colson Hall, Langston Hall, and the President’s House at Virginia State University in Ettrick, Virginia. These handsome collegiate buildings, in his assured Colonial Revival style, confirm his place in guiding the architectural character of these Virginia campuses.

[VPVH] — Gould residence prior to 1939

[VPVH] — Gould residence prior to 1939

When demolition of the former Gould residence began in 1939, Watts moved his offices to temporary quarters at 3007 Parkwood Avenue; the women’s department relocated to 3154 Ellwood Avenue. Work progressed sufficiently to allow the executive offices and home work department to move into the new building in March 1941. Work continued until the facility was completed in August, 1941.

(VDHR) — 1941 dedication photo — note the urn ornament atop the central pedestal above the door

(VDHR) — 1941 dedication photo — note the urn ornament atop the central pedestal above the door

The new quarters were formally dedicated on September 25, 1941. Among the speakers was R. S. Hummel, State Administrator of the Works Progress Administration, who offered his congratulations to Watts and the Commission, and to the WPA workers, in recognition of the quality of the work.

(Library of Virginia) — Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr.

(Library of Virginia) — Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr.

In 1958, recognizing the need to expand the facility at 3003 Parkwood Avenue, Governor Almond authorized the expenditure of $193,820 for a major addition that would house a regional Braille lending library to serve the blind residents of Virginia and Maryland. Although Walford had died in 1956, the Commission looked to his firm, Walford & Wright, to guide the expansion.

April 2020 — note the difference in ornamentation of the 1958 entryways & the 1941 entry above

April 2020 — note the difference in ornamentation of the 1958 entryways & the 1941 entry above

The Bass Construction Company applied for a building permit on November 10, 1958, with plans by Walford & Wright, Architects, that would essentially double the size of the building by extending the rear portion of the building and constructing a wing similar in scale and parallel to the portion of the original building fronting on Parkwood Avenue. The addition was designed to be indistinguishable from the original portion, but with simpler treatment of the doors and entrances, and with an exterior basement entrance.

April 2020 — courtyard entryway

April 2020 — courtyard entryway

In 1980, the Virginia Commission for the Blind became the Virginia Department for the Visually Handicapped and relocated to the current offices on Azalea Avenue in Henrico County. The facility at 3003 Parkwood Avenue was sold into private ownership. Plans from 1983 illustrate its conversion to Parkwood Manor, a retirement home. The potential new owner plans to preserve and rehabilitate the former Commission for the Blind as an apartment building. (VDHR)

April 2020

April 2020

A prediction that came true! The former Commission building is known by the moniker The Parkwood, offering luxury apartments for rent.

(Virginia Commission for the Blind is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


Print Sources

  • [VPVH] Virginia’s Program for the Visually Handicapped. John. B. Cunningham. 1940.

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University of Richmond installs temporary signage to mark boundaries of burial ground on campus

The University of Richmond has installed signage on campus to mark the sacred space of a former burial ground for enslaved persons and describe what is known about the desecration that occurred there. The signage also details the University’s plans to more permanently acknowledge the site going forward.

RVAHub Staff

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The University of Richmond has installed signage on campus to mark the sacred space of a former burial ground for enslaved persons and describe what is known about the desecration that occurred there. The signage also details the University’s plans to more permanently acknowledge the site going forward.

The University plans to memorialize the enslaved burial ground on what is now part of the campus and the history of the land on which the University now sits, including its intersections with enslavement.

An informative sign with a QR code links to a research report by Lauranett Lee, a public historian and UR professor leading the historical research, and Shelby Driskill, a UR graduate researcher, who have explored the reported enslaved burial ground on campus. Their research has been studied in numerous classes and discussed in various open forums across campus, including as part of first-year orientation.

In January, University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher established a Burial Ground Memorialization Committee to engage a range of stakeholders in discussions. “Our story is often inspirational, but there are aspects of the past we have long ignored, including the significant history of the land on which our campus now stands,” Crutcher said.

The signage signals the burial ground’s important history,” said Crutcher. “The signage is only temporary, though, as the work of the committee will lead to the shaping of a permanent memorial.”

The committee chaired by Ed Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus, and Keith “Mac” McIntosh, vice president of Information Services and CIO, has held virtual meetings over several weeks to learn about the hopes of the university community for the memorialization of the Burial Ground. Burt Pinnock, a Richmond architect will help guide the efforts.

The committee is also consulting with descendants of individuals enslaved on the land to solicit their thoughts about the most appropriate memorialization.

“The signage is an important milestone on our journey,” McIntosh said. “The full and accurate history of the land we currently occupy helps us understand the people who came before us and helps us understand how we might best connect our present with our past and future.”

“We can’t connect our present to our past without a comprehensive and truthful view of our rich history,” he added.

Anyone with stories, questions, or information to share, is asked to write the committee at [email protected].

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StoryCorps hopes to reconnect a divided America, selecting Richmond as its starting point

Renowned public service organization calls on Virginians of differing perspectives to record conversations for inclusion in the library of congress amid America’s crisis of polarization 

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StoryCorps, the groundbreaking national nonprofit dedicated to recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs, launches One Small Step, a multi-year national effort to begin to mend the fabric of a country at the breaking point, today in Richmond.

The organization, in collaboration with local media, political, religious, and community organizations, is calling for Richmond residents to participate in 40-minute, one-on-one conversations with strangers, to share about their lives, and, in turn, to help people get past the labels of “Republican” and “Democrat,” “liberal” and “conservative.”

“Our research shows there is something special about Richmond. Even amid a contentious election year, we believe Richmond residents can show the rest of America that we can once again be neighbors and communities if we have the courage to listen to one another,” said StoryCorps Founder and President Dave Isay. “Every day brings new evidence of how frustrated, angry and disconnected from each other Americans feel. One Small Step aims to remind people of the humanity in all of us, and that it’s hard to hate up close. We believe Virginians can model this change.”

By bringing together strangers of divergent perspectives to have courageous and meaningful conversations about their lives, One Small Step helps to decrease feelings of contempt across political divides, allowing Americans to see one another as human beings.

StoryCorps has developed the initiative over the past three years with the input of scientists, researchers and psychologists. Conversations recorded for One Small Step are not about politics, but rather about who we are as people, what we care about, and our dreams for the future. Every interview becomes part of American history at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (with participant permission).

Richmond is one of four cities in which StoryCorps is anchoring One Small Step; the others include Wichita, Kansas; Birmingham, Alabama; and Shreveport, Louisiana. The organization conducted polling and other research, including a pilot in Richmond in partnership with VPM and determined these cities were particularly likely to carry out the initiative successfully, as residents expressed exhaustion with political divisions and also a willingness to listen across them.

StoryCorps first piloted One Small Step in 2018-19. In the time since, data have shown a widening chasm between Americans. A 2019 study showed that about 40 percent of people view the other party as “downright evil”; one in five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human”; and about 20 percent of Democrats and Republicans think the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition were dead.

One Small Step is made possible by the generous support of the Fetzer Institute, Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg’s The Wunderkinder Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Charles Koch Institute. StoryCorps thanks these donors for their commitment to this project and to bridging divides in America.

To participate, just click here.

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Black Lives Matter renews interest in Richmond’s Black culture and history

The Black Lives Matter movement has helped renew interest in Richmond’s African American culture and history, according to community leaders.

Capital News Service

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By Cierra Parks

The Black Lives Matter movement has helped renew interest in Richmond’s African American culture and history, according to community leaders.

BLK RVA is an initiative launched in August 2019 between Richmond Region Tourism and 20 community leaders to highlight historic African American tourist attractions and engage visitors in events that support Richmond’s Black community. The group continues to promote Black-centered tourism in light of recent events. BLK RVA was recently awarded the Richmond Region Tourism Chairman’s Award in recognition of its contributions over the past year.

Tameka Jefferson, the community relations manager for Richmond Region Tourism and BLK RVA, said the Black Lives Matter movement has generated more interest in African American tourism, which she said is “long overdue.” Although Black Lives Matter began in 2013, the movement gained more support this year.

“Now is the time that we do need to come together as a community to support our businesses, to support our city and our region,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson also said that in the months following the death of George Floyd in police custody, she has seen more people visit the area around the Robert E. Lee statue. The area has been transformed into space used by the community for art, protest and memorial — and even basketball.

She said people are migrating to this area now that there has been a “staple of just coming together and a staple of community and uprising.”

BLK RVA’s mission is to illustrate that the Richmond region has evolved and is now a multicultural hub that specializes in four pillars: arts and entertainment, food and drink, community and history. She said the state capital is often seen through its outdated history–an outlook that needs to change.

In addition to African American-centered events and fundraisers, BLK RVA promotes the patronizing of what they call “rooted and rising” businesses; ones that have been around a while and others that are up and coming.

One established business is the Elegba Folklore Society, which was established 30 years ago. The Society hosts the annual Down Home Family Reunion and Juneteenth Freedom celebrations in addition to guided heritage tours along the Trail of Enslaved Africans and other historic sites. The trail details the history of slave trade from Africa to Virginia, following a route through the area’s former slave markets and also highlighting African American life leading up to the Civil War.

Omilade Janine Bell, president and artistic director of the Elegba Folklore Society, said the company prides itself on educating people because Black stories are often not fully told. She has noticed a renewed interest in learning about Black history in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement. Jefferson echoes that statement.

“His (George Floyd’s) loss-of-life story has opened the eyes of many whose eyes had been shut tightly before,” Bell said. “Now there is a heightened awareness among Black people and others about the lack of equity.”

Jaynell Pittman-Shaw owns Maple Bourbon, a restaurant serving breakfast and lunch in Richmond’s downtown area that is one of BLK RVA’s “rising” businesses. Pittman-Shaw believes there is a new spotlight on inequity in the Black community.

“That is what people are protesting about right now: systemic and institutional racism,” Pittman-Shaw said. “Black business owners do not have access to the same resources that should be available to any business owner,” but black businesses need more support to thrive.

Jefferson said BLK RVA donated money from online merchandise sales to the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, which hosts a week-long event in the spring promoting black-owned food businesses. Over $15,000 was raised and distributed evenly among 35 Black Restaurant Week participants affected by COVID-19. Pittman- Shaw was one of the grantees. She plans to “pay it forward” by using the $500 grant she received to help another black-owned restaurant that did not participate in Black Restaurant Week.

Restaurants such as Big Herm’s Kitchen and Soul Taco used the money to help pay employees who were affected when COVID-19 restructured business.

The Richmond Black Restaurant Experience supports black, food-focused businesses, including restaurants, food trucks and catering services. They have raised nearly $50,000, surpassing their new goal of $25,000 according to the group’s GoFundMe page.

In addition to restaurants, other attractions have made adjustments since COVID-19 began. Many of them have migrated to virtual experiences. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture are offering virtual exhibits, including the All in Together collaborative project and Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality. The Elegba Folklore Society broadcast its Juneteenth celebration on Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo.

The organization also recently promoted the Black is Beautiful beer initiative, a nationwide collaboration created by Marcus J. Baskerville, head brewer and co-owner at Weathered Souls Brewing Co. in San Antonio. Over 30 Virginia craft breweries participated to support people of color and raise funds for police reform and legal defense. Richmond breweries put their spin on the traditional imperial stout recipe to raise money for the Black is Beautiful cause. The Answer, Hardywood, The Veil and Lickinghole Creek were among the Richmond-area breweries that created stouts for the initiative. Each brewery will donate the proceeds to organizations that support the Black is Beautiful cause.

BLK RVA has also highlighted events such as the RVA Black Farmers Market, the Richmond Night Market and events hosted by UnlockingRVA.

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