The single wooden die – perhaps the remnant of a gaming table – is sealed in a plastic bag attached to the wall of the University of Richmond Downtown's gallery. The significance is not what it is but the origin: the label reads, “MURPHY’S HOTEL May 2007.” Murphy's, one of Richmond’s storied hostelries, (though neither as celebrated as The Jefferson nor as nostalgia-inducing as the John Marshall), wasn’t long on pretense, but was recognized for hospitality. During the early 20th century, its saloon boasted of the longest brass bar in the city. Due to its proximity to Richmond’s governing district and the courts, it was the scene of much political horse-trading. The hotel’s Tuxedo Pool Room had numerous games of chance going on. It was something of a Damon Runyon scene.
The architect of Murphy’s, John Kevan Peebles, designed the 1905 additions to the State Capitol Building. The state acquired Murphy’s for use as the Eighth Street Office Building, but didn’t keep ahead of its maintenance issues. The place was dismantled in 2007, over loud protests from preservationists and concerns of what the commotion might do to the nearby St. Peter Catholic Church. A modern office building was slated for that location, but due to the vagaries of funding, it never happened and is unlikely now to occur, since it provides parking so close to Capitol Square. Historian Selden Richardson observed in the Shockoe Examiner blog about this sad situation as "another hugely inappropriate urban prairie filled with surface parking, signaling to all our lack of regard for the past and denigrating Richmond’s grand boulevard."
Items from Murphy's hotel
Artist Caryl Burtner, an inveterate collector of quotidian objects, here brings us in “Missing Richmond” views of the city and its environs that some newcomers may have never seen. These photographs and memories can be experienced in the Wilton Companies Gallery of UR Downtown — in the former offices of Franklin Federal Savings & Loan. The show is part of the Tucker-Boatwright Festival for Literature and the Arts organized by the Department of Art and Art History, in collaboration with University Museums.
Burtner utilizes antique and contemporary photographs, some of which are enlarged to the size of paintings, and meticulously archived pieces and chips of structures, to display some of the structures that we are now deprived of, and the changing character of standing buildings. The exhibition comes at a full moment of Richmond recollecting its stories.
Down the street at the Library of Virginia is an important presentation about the city’s little-understood and massive role in the pre-Civil War domestic slave trade, “To Be Sold.” The central corridor leading to “Missing Richmond” is another exhibition, “Reflections of Sites Along the Richmond Slave Trail,” by University of Richmond students in historian and outgoing UR president Edward L. Ayers' first-year seminar, “Touching the Past: The Purposes and Strategies of American History.” And with all this paired to the re-imagined Valentine, you can take a weekend and get a mind-expanding, spirit-wrenching, heart-filling understanding of what the city was and how it got to be the way that it is.
Of late, Richmond’s made it to this list and that one about our culture and food. And one of the aspects of “Richmond-ness,” if you will, is its built fabric, the architecture that many have fought to save, especially after the spoiling depredations of highways, car lots and Modernist Brutalism that came to characterize much of downtown from the late 1940s onward.
Burtner offers little historical commentary. Three Richmonders from different generations gathered together will provide plenty of insight when standing before, say, the images of the Capitol Theatre at Robinson and Broad.
During its 1926 to 1995 run, the city’s first “atmospheric theater,” The Capitol, with an exotic interior (think: a smaller Byrd), showed the first “talkie” in Virginia, gave entertainment to visitors waiting for train connections at the Broad Street Station and to adventurous Scott’s Addition kids, then years later re-muddling deprived the theater of its tattered glamour, and it became the first home of Ray Bentley’s "Movie Machine" Midnight Movies.
The Capitol Theatre site at 2525 W. Broad St.
They proved not enough and the one-screen theater closed in 1984, and thereafter sat dormant. Given a few extra years, The Capitol might’ve housed an independent film society or live theater, but instead, it was converted to rubble – a piece of which Burtner bagged and tagged for this show.
“I saw Eating Raoul at The Capitol, Burtner recalls. “and some early Woody Allen films, but I always went to the Biograph." That art house’s structure still stands, but, the place long ago faded to black. A tiny piece from that crumbling structure is shown here, too.
The Capitol was swept away, ostensibly for a McDonald's but the community objected to a traffic-blocking drive through and kicked the fast food service to the curb of Broad Street. This proved fertile ground as it super-sized like something out of a 1950s monster movie. Its growth knocked out Rainbow Donuts, which prior to Sugar Shack and Dixie was the best in town. I saw no Rainbow rubble, though, in this show.
The oldest bit of the past that Burtner collected, and perhaps the most injurious part of "Missing Richmond," was the Scottish Rite Temple at 922 Park Ave.. The cornerstone was dated 1905 (completed 1907) and originally served as the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant that burned around 1912. The congregation rebuilt for a merger with the congregation of Grace Street Presbyterian to form Grace Covenant, which then moved to Monument Avenue in 1923. Soon thereafter, the Scottish Rite Masons acquired the building for their uses – giving it the name "Temple." The lodge moved to North Side in the 1960s.
Burgeoning Richmond Professional Institute/Virginia Commonwealth University used the great Tudor Revival arched and stained glass structure for performances (including one by John Cage) and a cafeteria in its basement. Burtner recalls, “They made kooky cookies there and desserts for us out of Twinkies. One Halloween, two people who had access to large quantities of peanut butter and jelly came as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Burtner in 1979 worked as a new graduate at VCU in its Summer and Evening College with Rozanne Epps, of late memory. ”I walked by the Temple’s site every day,” Burtner says. “And I have pictures of them building the next thing, the scaffolding.” She plucked up a shard of stained glass, not knowing that decades later it would serve as a mute testimony in “Missing Richmond.”
Above a wall of bagged bits of buildings is a large color photograph of Broad Street’s East 600 block in 1969. When I first saw it, with the vivid colors, I thought Richard Estes must’ve painted a Richmond street scene. Instead, it was captured by an unidentified photographer and comes from the Virginia Commonwealth University archive.
The Franklin Federal Building is there, as is the Towne (National) Theatre and stores like Grant’s and Woolworths and Wards TV – that grew into Circuit City. Also there: the vanished retailer Thalhimers. Lumbering pre-gas crisis vehicles crowd the street and shoppers clot along the sidewalks. Looming in the near distance is the Medical College of Virginia’s West Hospital – which has thus far survived efforts that would bring a chunk of it into Burtner’s collection. Alas, not so the adjacent A.D. Williams Clinic, though George Murrill's murals were saved.
Standing before this image, one is moved to ask: What happened? And there is no one succinct answer, but plenty to discuss. The renewal of battered Broad, and its ancillary streets, is ongoing as galleries and restaurants open in what a few years ago was a considered a dead zone, and one can see joggers and dog walkers leaving apartments, and carrying take-away meals to their upstairs lofts.
Losses closer to the present include the Ridge Cinemas (where I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and midnight movies including Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Ed Wood), now a Kroger. And then there’s the sad Jackson Ward Eggleston Hotel that in 2009, structurally exhausted by neglect and unable to longer await rescue, collapsed on itself.
“I was really so fortunate to be able to make this work now,” Burtner says. “Some of these buildings could be gone tomorrow."
She retrieved a tile from the former Krispy Kreme doughnut factory and a purple grill ornament from that old symbol of poor civic planning, the Sixth Street Festival Marketplace. They greet a visitor at the front and set the tone.
On the way out, I spent more time with the photographs by Ed Ayers’ students. There is one by Rowland Mayor of a highway ramp that is southwest of the Lumpkin’s Jail site. At this place a century and a half ago, George W. Apperson and Thomas Otey ran their slave dealership. I caught my own reflection underneath the overpass hovering like the ghost of a double exposure.
“Missing Richmond” is on view until Dec. 23, and is free and open to the public. The Wilton Companies Gallery is open Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.