Our story begins in Paradise -— rather, the Paradise Inn, a roadhouse of the early 1800s situated close to the Brook Road Turnpike and present Westwood Avenue.
Between 1854 and 1860, Hanover County native and attorney James Lyons bought The Paradise and 160 acres and took the place apart to build a house.
Lyons named the house “Laburnum” for an ornamental European hardwood with yellow blooms that turn into pods containing poisonous seeds. It was apparently an impressive place, featuring a broad veranda and columns suitable for the distinguished visitors of later years.
Lyons served in both houses of the Virginia legislature and, prior to the Civil War, was an ardent secessionist who was elected to the Confederate congress. And he owned slaves.
Lyons’ prominent position in Confederate society meant entertaining guests including General Robert E. Lee and Sarah Knox Taylor Davis, the daughter of President Zachary Taylor and the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The house came under cannon fire during the March 1, 1864, raid of Union Col. Ulric Dahlgren but wasn’t damaged. Two weeks later, the entire house burned. A slave was blamed for the fire but not prosecuted. Lyons rebuilt, though on a more modest scale. He then moved to East Grace Street, and the house went to Grey Skipwith, from whom the Bryan family purchased it in 1883.
Joseph Bryan achieved great success in postwar Richmond; a Confederate veteran, on money earned from a business that traded surplus government mules, he studied law at the University of Virginia. He married Isobel Lamont Stewart of Brook Hill in Henrico County in 1868. He developed multiple commercial concerns: locomotive construction, short line railroading and newspaper publishing. He got into newspapering after his friend and fellow magnate Lewis Ginter sought to rid himself of the small Daily Times. Bryan turned it into a major Virginia newspaper on par with the rival Dispatch, and in 1903, Bryan merged the two as The Times Dispatch.
Bryan planned a home worthy of a Richmond merchant prince. Scottish immigrant architect John Gibson designed an exuberant brick and stone essay on wealth and taste, with mansard roofs, pointed exclamatory dormers, elaborate ironwork and a balconied Italianate tower. David S. Hess of New York designed robust woodwork, frescoes, inlaid flooring and stained glass, and ebony mantels with hearths of Mexican onyx.
In his memoirs, Joseph Bryan III recalled his childhood there, growing up among grandparents, parents, unmarried uncles, “and assorted relatives, friends, servants and dogs. The big old house had room for us all, and there was room around it for stables and barns, gardens and orchards, pastures and cornfields, with blackberry bushes for the summer and chinquapin trees for the fall. Only two miles down the road was the city of Richmond, but it held no attraction for me. I was happy and complete at home.”
But this idyllic situation ended in a 1906 fire. The event injured no one but destroyed the house and most of its contents, two exceptions being a Civil War sword and a pistol. Bryan rebuilt, commissioning the New York City firm of Parish & Schroeder, which was known for institutional and academic buildings. Laburnum III resembles more of a public place than a home, with its imposing limestone columned entrance, a total of 50 rooms and 17 baths, and an electric elevator. The elaborate interior features mahogany woodwork, marble mantels, parquet floors and dramatic cornices.
These features are built within a fire-resistant structure of steel and concrete. From the rear terrace, one would have viewed acres of gardens and outbuildings. Laburnum had all this, but, according to Isobel Bryan, a lack of broom closets.
The expensive enormity of the house caused Joseph Bryan to ruefully reflect, “If as president of a corporation I had made such a mistake as to cost and time of construction as I have made in the matter of Laburnum, I would have lost my job, and I ought to have lost it.”
Bryan died shortly after his house’s 1908 completion. His son, publisher John Stewart Bryan, lived there until his 1944 death. Visitors included New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lady Nancy Astor, a native Virginian and the first woman to serve as a member of the British Parliament; and British Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
David Tennant Bryan donated Laburnum and its 13 acres for the site of Richmond Memorial Hospital, for which he led the funding drive. The open-staffed, nonprofit center was created to address the lack of medical facilities for a growing population. In 1947, the hospital and Laburnum were designated a public memorial to Richmond’s 984 dead of World War II. The gardens of Laburnum became parking lots.
The hospital closed in 1998, and Laburnum stood empty. Ginter Place Associates bought the house, the old hospital and its 14.5-acre campus in 2002 for $1.55 million. The partnership sold off pieces of the property over the years, including the hospital building, which was developed as condos by Ginter Park Associates, a separate, unrelated local investment group. Ginter Place Associates retained Laburnum and adjoining properties, and in 2004 the intention was to repurpose Laburnum as a meeting and events venue. But by 2009, the group was not maintaining its mortgage payments. The house and nearby buildings went to Oregon-based StanCorp Mort-gage Investors.
The first floor parlor and other rooms were redressed for scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Today, Laburnum remains empty and awaits new owners to cross its grand threshold.