Dated Feb. 29, 1928, this photo shows the houses soon after they were built on Idlewood Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Virginia)
Following the brief post-World War I economic downturn and prior to the Great Depression that detonated the market in 1929, developers spread out small one- or two-bedroom houses along Rosewood, Maplewood, Idlewood and Parkwood avenues. Before the Downtown Expressway’s brute interruption cleaved through Byrd Park and Randolph, and removed hunks of Oregon Hill and downtown, these were cohesive neighborhoods.
The houses, built with slight design variations, measured on completion between 700 and 900 square feet. Their layouts are similar: a front room, a small bedroom or parlor on the left, a combined kitchen and dining space, perhaps another two rooms joined by a bath, a utility space and that’s about it.
Subsequent additions of back rooms and second stories have, in some cases, almost swallowed the initial structures. Their materials of wood, plaster, lathed walls, glass and porcelain were inexpensive in their day, as was the labor.
The houses weren’t expected to last long — but they’ve persisted in many of those communities. They supply the same opportunity for people as when they were first built, though for a much greater price. The buyers may be seeking a first house or downsizing — really downsizing.
The cottages resemble Monopoly board playing pieces — the little green houses. One part of town where they cropped up in great number is along Idlewood Avenue from McCloy Street to Freeman Road. The north side of this array is long shorn off as though by seismic activity; instead, it’s the recessed 195.
A fascinating image survives of this portion in the archives of the Library of Virginia. The picture is dated February 29, 1928 and the cottages resemble military post housing without the greenery. It is the dead of winter, though a year ahead of the Great Depression and the place looks down at the heels, despite being brand new.
The caption, misspelled, says it’s Idlewood and “Carrolton.” Below that, however, is written “IDLEWOOD & BOUMONT” meaning Beaumont. Carrollton was the street name prior to McCloy. Another clue given is the apparent agricultural buildings that the woman and children are passing.
According to the city directory of the time, these probably are the green houses of Mallory and Wyatt florists. Ardie F. Mallory and George T. Wyatt ran the business at 3200 Idlewood, near Carrollton/McCloy, for a number of years. Ardie and Annie V. Mallory lived at 3305 Ellwood and George and Margie G. Wyatt at 3133 Idlewood.
Wyatt was also the name behind George T. Wyatt & Son, “wagon and commercial auto truck bodies, special designs built to order, general blacksmith and horse-shoeing,” located at 1000 Brook Road.
This part of Idlewood is typical of Richmond’s newer neighborhoods then — dirt and mud and few trees planted. Spades lay on mounds of fresh earth where the laborers dropped them. A “For Rent” sign is shoved in front of the fourth house from the left. Beyond the rise of the hill are the posh brick houses of Rothesay.
Over on Maplewood Avenue near Meadow, opera singer and Virginia Commonwealth University English language instructor Jessica Wakelyn and actor and musician Nicholas Batten moved in August 2014 into a wee cottage nearly identical to those on Idlewood.
The small size was appealing, as were its open plan and full renovation. Prior to their purchase, the house had been gutted and fitted out with new electrical, plumbing and fixtures. Little of the original interior remains. The place has a tidy, ship-board feel. Everything must have its place.
Wakelyn grew up in a 19th-century house in Seaford, Virginia, near Yorktown. “We were constantly upgrading that house,” she says. “We built our own addition, so, even when I was really young I learned how to do roofing, how to hang drywall and install insulation. I was able to cut tile with a wet saw by the time I was 10.” The two put in their own kitchen backsplash and intend to make further improvements.
The past residents, dating back to 1928, stayed for a year or four before going onward to larger rooms. They worked in the trades and offices; plumber, painter, bookkeeper, baker, salesmen and by the 1960s, one of the longest residing couples, a chauffeur butler and his wife. By the late 1990s, though, the house stood empty and remained that way for most of a decade. It turned into shambles. “Neighbors told us devil worshipers lived here and all kinds of things,” Wakelyn says.
She says she possesses a sensitivity to spiritual energy and cannot even enter some houses. “But this place, devil worshipers, crack addicts, whatever, what I feel here is hope and home,” she says. “I think it must’ve been a place for starting a life, for many people, and that’s what overwhelms any negativity.”