Photo by Isaac Harrell
At 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22, 1881, a small wood-framed house, set on 22 acres fronting the dusty extension of Grove Road, went on the auction block. John Fleming Wren had defaulted and was in severe financial distress. Dr. Richard A. Patterson, a prominent physician and tobacco manufacturer who owned adjacent land, purchased the property. It came with a clapboard house sitting atop a brick English basement.
Except his acquisition didn't quite work out. That's but one of many tangled tales associated with what is now 3923 Grove Ave.
The house is notable at first sight. The clapboard-sided structure sits further back and higher up than the other houses surrounding it. Magnificent trees provide shade.
Former owner and state senator George Edmond Massie represented Richmond in the Virginia State Senate from 1952 to 1956. His second wife, Melba, began researching the property to determine its age, but a bewildering assortment of trusteeship and lawsuits apparently stymied her. Realtor John Thomas has resided there since 1990.
I turned to the sleuthing skills of Henrico County archivist Pamela Greene, whose knowledge of the back files of the deeds office far exceeds my own.
Tradition pegs the house's construction to 1775. While that date seems improbable, a structure may have been situated there once. The nearby Reveille House, associated with Reveille United Methodist Church, is of unspecified mid-18th-century age, and the families of the Brick House (Reveille) have some intertwining by community association and marriage.
Greene says, "Melba Massie may have been researching the whole Reveille/Southall property, which has a murky early deed history."
The 1775 date may have been assumed from the chronology of Turner Southall, one of the property's early owners. Southall inherited from his Irish immigrant father, D'arcy, 417 acres in western Henrico. Turner Southall served in the Virginia legislature and the county vestry. During the American Revolution, he commanded Henrico County militiamen. His complicated estate (11 children) ultimately resulted in an 1831 court-ordered public auction.
The property's house was purchased by Poitiaux Robinson and wife Mary Enders, both of prosperous families.
Wren came into the property in 1842 through James M. Boyd and Philip Tabb Jr. He paid taxes on the parcels for about a quarter of a century "by virtue of an agreement" with Tabb and Boyd. The details of this understanding weren't apparently official.
Wren took out an 1863 mortgage near this property, on which he built "a large number of houses and now resides thereon."
However, he experienced post-Civil War money troubles. Court records indicate his non-payment of taxes from 1874 to 1880. Archibald Patterson, writing in the 1920s, referred to the Wrens as threadbare and thriftless, though possessing "enough blue blood in their veins for the old lady to splatter it all over you in a five-minute conversation."
Lineage goes only so far.
The published 1881 auction notice describes the property as extending south to the Old Westham Turnpike or Plank Road (today's West Cary Street). The improvements on this tract included a frame dwelling and other buildings "somewhat out of repairs." The land was "of excellent quality and being elevated commands a fine view of the surrounding country."
The auctioneers were sued because another group of trustees claimed that Wren never actually owned the land by legal deed, thus, it wasn't theirs to hold in trust or sell. James Patterson, a son of Dr. Patterson, ultimately bought the house — again at auction — in 1904. The house was at the edge of a development first called Henry Place in 1909 and later Warwick Place, a group of smaller lots between Floyd Avenue and Cary Street, east of Reveille. By then, the Massies had purchased the house and added a rear portion.
A 1914 Richmond annexation of more than 12 acres from Henrico and Chesterfield counties brought this part of Grove into the city.