Photo by Elizabeth Humphreys
Where: 508 St. James St.
When it was built: 1915
Why it matters: Designed by Charles Thaddeus Russell, Richmond’s first resident African-American architect, whose legacy transformed Jackson Ward
Now let us look toward that portion of Jackson Ward once known as ’Postletown, for its streets named in the 1830s as St. Stephen, St. James, St. Peter, St. John and St. Paul, all of which intersected with Charity Street. Here, in 1915, architect Charles Thaddeus Russell (1875-1952) designed and constructed 508 St. James for physician William Henry Hughes.
According to historian Selden Richardson’s book “Built by Blacks” (on which this column relies), not only was Russell the city’s first resident African-American architect, but he employed mostly black contractors and artisans. He came into prominence at a time when Jackson Ward was rising as a center of black finance and commercial enterprise.
He graduated in the class of 1899 from the Hampton Institute in Hampton, where, in addition to his academic diploma, he earned a certificate from the carpentry department. Here was a man who worked with his head and his hands.
Russell went on to teach carpentry at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, where he also studied mechanical drawing. He apprenticed in architecture during the construction of the Tusekegee campus and absorbed all the knowledge and skill available to him. In 1907, he joined the staff of Virginia Union University, where he engaged in manual training and, most important, became superintendent of the historically black college's grounds. Thus, Russell was well-positioned to leverage both his education and social standing to solicit work from Richmond’s middle- and upper-class black families.
His first professional commission came in 1910, from entrepreneur and educator Maggie Walker, to design her St. Luke Penny Savings Bank with elegance and efficiency; the upper story included 12 apartments. Another multipurpose Russell building that remains today was for the Richmond Beneficial Insurance Co. (1911) at 700 N. 2nd St., which is now undergoing conversion into lofts.
The house Russell designed for Dr. Hughes at 508 St. James St. is unusual for the neighborhood. The “large four-square style house is more common in …Woodland Heights … or [the African-American middle-class development north of Jackson Ward] Frederick Douglass Court.”
Richardson remarks, “The fact that this house, so much in the style of suburban homes of the wealthy, was placed in the heart of Jackson Ward testifies to the desirability of the neighborhood for Richmond’s black upper class.”
In 1949, the Hughes family conveyed the house to the Negro Training Center for the Blind, the only specialty public school for blacks of its kind in the state. The institution evolved into the Commission for the Visually Handicapped, which remained at the location until 1970. For some years, 508 housed the social services Richmond Community Action Program.
Current owner Zarina Fazaldin first saw the house around 2005, toward the end of a long vacancy, and she is in the process of restoring it. “I didn’t know anything about Charles Russell,” she says. “But I heard about him, Googled him, and,” she adds with a chuckle, “he had such a handsome face. I just liked him. … I’m calling it the Russell House.”
Among Russell’s later efforts was the improvement and expansion of Sixth Mount Zion Church in 1925. By 1930, the worth of Russell’s architectural corpus totaled $1 million. His last major project was assisting in the dismantling, transportation and reassembly of The Belgian Friendship Complex from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City to its new home on the campus of VUU.
For more on the current life of Russell House, see Samantha Willis’ story in the December issue of Richmond magazine.