113 N. Foushee St. downtwon Jordan Kyler photo
Marie Keane Dabney's husband, Thomas Todd Dabney, called her "Mrs. T.N.T." She built, or rehabilitated, 11 houses and laid brick herself. Born in 1866 at her family's estate of Tempsford in present-day Westhampton, and quite a character herself, Dabney performed in Richmond theater productions. Around 1920 she became intrigued by 113 N. Foushee St., "a fascinating wreck," she'd later recall, that for years sat "shuttered, padlocked and deserted." When once passing by it, she pointed to the derelict brick building, asking her husband, "What do you think of that little house?"
He glanced at it indifferently, she recorded in her memoir, saying, "That? I don't think anything. It's just a deserted outhouse. I wonder [why] the city hasn't torn it down."
"But don't you feel the atmosphere?"
"Atmosphere? Umph-humph, it has. I can smell its atmosphere."
Helen Marie Taylor, a doyenne of preservation — renowned for stopping the asphalt covering of Monument Avenue's paving stones — owns the property and chuckles about Dabney's proprietary rationale.
"They'd come downtown to see the opera or the theater and wouldn't want to make the arduous journey back," Taylor wryly explains. "She seems to have thought that she'd have a pied-à-terre where they could stay before resuming their trip home."
Dabney found a brick engraved "1797" and from her assessment the story became fact that "The Little House" was a slave quarters for a plantation built before Richmond or Foushee Street existed. Although architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott gave enthusiastic plaudits to Dabney for what seems to have been the first renovation of a utilitarian outbuilding, she didn't date the building beyond 1840. According to Scott, 113 N. Foushee served as the kitchen for the 1 E. Grace St. mansion of Royal Parrish (ca.1807-1856), a merchant of New Orleans and Richmond.
Slaves would have worked in the kitchen and a few may have lived in a cramped loft above. After the Parrishes moved, the main house became a school and finally the residence of Dr. Harry Baker. It may then have been either converted into or replaced by an apartment building.
Dabney removed the outbuilding's wall partitions to create a 30-foot living room dominated by an ample fireplace, "and where the dump-heap had been transformed into a garden with a central sun-dial, and enclosed with a brick wall." Years of rubbish and thick vines provided a challenge, as did hunting for city building permissions. After Dabney's efforts, the Little House became a garden tour favorite. She added a second story and rear rooms.
In late 1927, property abutting the Little House was developed as an apartment building that remains to this day. Thomas Todd's 1931 death following a long illness left Dabney there alone.
Around 1944, friend Murray Hundley visited with Mickie Magruder, a Richmond Times-Dispatch sports editor. He took one glance around the place and decided he wanted to rent the spare room. He brought home journalists who sat around the hearth until the wee hours. Dabney would make cheeseburgers and coffee and stay up until dawn discussing everything from "religion to labor, from Epicetus to the [Associated Press]." Magruder died suddenly, leaving behind a notebook where he wrote messages to Dabney, starting with polite queries for being wakened and ending with a request for an alarm clock.
Dabney left the house, with an alleged ghost and legend of a buried treasure, to her daughter, Annette.
The brick wall that once enclosed an outdoor space now shields the house from a barren parking lot.
Robert Heim, who represents the house and other historic properties for the Shockoe Company, says the Little House (today not as small, with 3,000 square feet), is one of downtown's unique survivors. "You can really see this transformed into a secret garden," he says.
While far superior to the condition that Dabney found it in, the house — like anyone, really — requires someone who appreciates its qualities.