The second of a three-part series on historic Jackson Ward’s pivotal past and its future.
(Illustration by Shawn Yu)
Ghostly gray concrete columns are rising at Second and Leigh streets. Shovels and pieces of plywood litter the construction site, lined by a fence covered in graffiti-spattered banners.
“What’s this place supposed to be?” a curious young man with flaming red hair and matching beard asks as we look at the scene while hard-hatted construction workers on their lunch break look at us. When I tell him that it’s the bourgeoning Eggleston Plaza, he doesn’t recognize the name, but he gets excited when I mention that it might house a new Croaker’s Spot restaurant. “The food there is fantastic,” he exclaims before sauntering off.
The development encompasses the former location of the Eggleston Hotel, the most prominent of Richmond’s historic black lodges and a haven for African-American travelers and celebrities during the Jim Crow years. It was more than a hotel: It offered customers a safe place to lay their heads and, moreover, a promise to treat them with the dignity denied them in the wider world.
The hotel’s story nearly ended with its collapse in 2009, but now, a New York-born Richmond developer, inspired by three generations of Eggleston entrepreneurship, is writing its next chapter through a project that he hopes will rejuvenate, not gentrify, Jackson Ward.
Kelvin Hanson (left) and Neverett Eggleston III on the Eggleston Plaza site (Photo by Jay Paul)
HOSPITALITY WITH A CAPITAL E
“Sit anywhere you please,” says Neverett Eggleston Jr. on a scorching July afternoon at Sugar’s Crab Shack. His demeanor is grandfatherly, his voice courtly. He orders a glass of iced tea for me and asks, “Have you eaten yet? Anything you want, you order” — as though he knows me, but this is our first meeting. “It’s my birthday,” he mentions casually, with the hint of a smile. “This is a pretty good way to celebrate, talking to you.” His make-you-feel-at-home manner is an inherited gift; it mirrors a family dynasty built on service. His father, over a 40-year career, developed the Eggleston Hotel’s glamorous reputation.
Though the broiling sun makes it feel as though we, not the seafood, are being cooked, the 80-something gentleman doesn’t seem to notice the heat, his mind roving through memories as he sits at one of the stone tables outside his son’s restaurant on Chamberlayne Avenue.
“Daddy came over to my service station a few days before he died,” Neverett Jr. says suddenly. He was working at one of his businesses, Eggleston Auto Diagnostics and Service Center on North Second Street, when his father pulled up on that December 1996 day.
“ ‘Put some gas in the car, boy,’ he told me, and I asked him where he was going — he was still driving at 100 years old, you know. He told me to just hurry up and put the gas in the car … we laughed about it. A few days later, he was gone.”
Neverett Jr. credits his work ethic to his father’s example. “He taught me everything I know about business,” he says.
Neverett Sr. was born just before the turn of the century in Henrico County. As a young man, he left home for New York City, where he witnessed the birth and bloom of the Harlem Renaissance as he worked as a server in a hotel. Almost certainly, it was there that his vision for an Eggleston Hotel was conceived. Moving back home in the early 1920s, he started working as a cook at the Lakeside Country Club and married Richmonder Sallie Robertson. “She was a very sweet woman, but tough, too,” Neverett Jr. says of his mother. The couple had three children, Neverett Jr., Jane and Aurelia, and raised them with a sense of security.
“We never wanted for anything,” says Neverett Jr. “I always had that sense … Mama and Daddy made sure we were doing well.”
Eggleston Sr. opened his first business, The Lafayette restaurant at the corner of Second and Clay streets, in 1928. The restaurant didn’t last long, but that didn’t stop Neverett Sr. from pursuing loftier goals.
In 1935, he bought Miller’s Hotel at Second and Leigh. While he and his wife raised their family in Washington Park, they also worked together to build the Eggleston Hotel into a gathering place for Richmond’s black elite, a comfortable retreat for African-American travelers and a favorite stop for celebrities.
“THE FINEST ESTABLISHMENT IN TOWN”
While working as a waiter at the Murphy Hotel in 1899, William “Buck” Miller threw a coffeepot at prizefighter John L. Sullivan after the drunken boxer threatened to kill him. The altercation netted Miller the community’s admiration and enough cash to open his own hotel, which he named Miller’s, at Second and Leigh streets in 1904. A new historical marker at the hotel site recognizes “the entrepreneurial and professional efforts of the residents of Jackson Ward, widely considered The Birthplace of Black Capitalism.”
Miller’s Hotel, as shown in a 1907 book, Souvenir views: Negro enterprises & residences, Richmond, Va. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)
In Eggleston Sr.’s hands and under his name, the hotel would become a travel destination for black people from all over the country and a favorite stop-off of the stars,
“My father bought Miller’s Hotel at a very good price,” recalls Neverett Jr. “And he worked to make it the finest establishment in town. And it was.”
Who came to Eggleston Hotel? “Everybody,” says Neverett Jr. He rattles off a dizzying list of celebrity guests, including legendary comedian Redd Foxx, jazz singer and Broadway actress Ethel Waters, and the “Godfather of Soul” — James Brown. A 1955 photo taken at the café inside the hotel shows baseball pro Joe Black wearing a wide smile. Black became the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game in 1952.
“[My father] worked to make it the finest establishment in town.” —Neverett Eggleston Jr.
One frequent guest brought the magic of the Harlem Renaissance to Richmond’s “Harlem of the South,” Neverett Sr. wrote for the Richmond Free Press in January 1992.
“Duke Ellington stayed at the hotel here — because there was nowhere else to stay, with segregation. His whole band stayed here when they played programs in Richmond.”
“The Negro Motorist Green Book,” first published in 1936, aimed to “keep [the black traveler] from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.” The 1947 edition features Eggleston Hotel and two other well-known lodges, Harris’ and Slaughter’s, all on the same block.
Slaughter’s, built in 1930, was a hub for civic activities in Richmond’s black community, including staff meetings for the Independent Order of St. Luke — which Richmond’s Maggie Walker bolstered from a debt-laden burial society to a prominent fraternal organization with more than 50,000 members that offered life insurance and other services denied by white businesses.
THREE GENERATIONS OF INFLUENCE
Neverett Sr. was politically active in a quiet kind of way, joining the Richmond Democratic League by the 1950s, an organization that registered African-American voters.
“During the 1960s [Eggleston Sr.] became involved in anti-segregation efforts in Richmond, albeit behind the scenes, posting bail for a number of demonstrators arrested in local sit-in protests,” says his entry in the “Dictionary of Virginia Biography.”
“Actually, he was in front of the scene all the time,” Neverett Jr. corrects me when I read him that passage. “He just had a business to run, and a family to raise.”
And, indeed, he raised his son and his grandson to be serial entrepreneurs.
Attendees at the grand opening of Neverett’s Place included, from left, disc jockey Allen Knight, Sallie Eggleston, center, her husband, Neverett Sr., their son, Neverett Jr., and their daughter Jane. (Photo courtesy Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia)
Neverett Jr. served as the general manager at his father’s hotel from 1955 to 1964. “I did anything that needed doing, from sweeping and on up,” he says. “My mother and father, they were strict, and they were hard workers. They expected everyone to do their best, and we all did.”
Neverett Jr.’s first franchise business was the beloved Golden Skillet restaurants. Also an active civic leader, he was one of the founding members of the Metropolitan Business League and ran for City Council in 1964 on a ticket with Ronald Charity. With Charity and L. Douglas Wilder, Neverett Jr. formed the African-American political action group Voters Voice in 1964.
In turn, Neverett III, now in his mid-50s, is the mastermind behind soul food chain Croaker’s Spot, which was birthed in Jackson Ward. The restaurant serves up its signature fare on Hull Street, and in Petersburg and Norfolk. Construction is now underway on the restaurant’s Fredericksburg location. In addition, there is his new walk-up concept restaurant, Sugar’s Crab Shack, where I met up with his father, who is there every day, overseeing the frying of the fish and greeting customers. “That son of mine, his ideas are just unreal,” Neverett Jr. says, his face beaming with a father’s pride.
Neverett Eggleston III is a solidly built man with a shy smile, a short, salt-and-pepper beard and a penchant for privacy. He usually lets his dad do the talking, saying he prefers to stay “more underground,” but he speaks up when it comes to his family’s legacy.
“One hundred years later, I’m doing business in a historic neighborhood, in Jackson Ward, just like my grandfather did. There’s pride in that,” he told me in early August.
The Eggleston Hotel saw a slow demise, starting in the late 1960s. The civil rights acts and subsequent desegregation of Richmond’s public spaces were victories for African-Americans, but those triumphs also led to the downfall of the establishments built by blacks for blacks, including hotels. Since black people now could eat and sleep anywhere, they did, and what was once a steady flow of guaranteed clientele slowed to a trickle by the 1970s.
As its guests dwindled, the hotel resorted to renting its 30 rooms by the week, and by the 1980s, the building was vacant. In April 2009, the Eggleston Hotel partially collapsed and the ruins were razed by the city.
“One hundred years later, I’m doing business in a historic neighborhood, in Jackson Ward, just like my grandfather did.” —Neverett Eggleston III
The Eggleston family itself had come to legal blows. After Neverett Sr.’s death in 1996 at age 101, his three children became entangled in a dispute over their father’s will, with sister Aurelia Eggleston Ford claiming it was forged because she’d been all but cut out of the will. In 1999, a jury invalidated the will, Aurelia wasn’t disinherited, and the family tried to move on. The court case threatened to not only split the family, but also overshadow the hotel’s legacy — a story, many presumed, that had come to a sad end.
Last October, bulldozers and construction crews appeared on the dormant Eggleston Hotel site at Leigh and Second streets and broke ground, thanks to the efforts of developer Kelvin Hanson.
In 2012, Hanson brought a proposal before Richmond City Council outlining Eggleston Plaza, a 30,000-square-foot mixed-use center featuring 31 apartments, retail units and a space on the bottom floor to house a restaurant, which initial plans said would be a new Croaker’s Spot. The project would also include 10 townhomes, dubbed the Jackson Street Row Houses. Hanson says the project, which costs $5.8 million, is the culmination of a seven-year endeavor that began with his desire to renovate the original Eggleston Hotel building before its collapse.
“I want to see the history told correctly.” —Kelvin Hanson
“This project is essential for me because I have a sentimental value tied to it,” says Hanson in the conference room of his Hull Street property management company, Full Occupancy. “For me, there’s pride in being able to take my skill and apply it to reviving Eggleston Hotel’s legacy. The Eggleston family, their hotel, it’s a very important piece of Richmond’s history, as is Jackson Ward, and I want to see the history told correctly.” When the project is completed, he says, signs bearing names of the Eggleston Hotel and Miller’s Hotel will be on both sides of the building.
Hanson, who says Neverett III is a dear friend, is no stranger to Richmond revitalization projects. Hanson grew up in a New York City community similar to Jackson Ward, and, after moving to Richmond in 1990, he lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. “It was actually Neverett [III] who inspired me to go into business for myself here, and to help restore Jackson Ward properties.” Hanson and developer Alex Alexander completed an overhaul of the old Booker T. Washington School at East Clay and North First streets in 2010, transforming the building, originally built in 1871, into an apartment community for those who are 55 and older. His company also completed the renovation and build out of new eatery, Jacksons Beer Garden & Smokehouse, just across the street from the new development.
Artist’s rendering of Eggleston Plaza (Image courtesy Kelvin Hanson)
In April 2015, the city approved a $250,544 grant for Eggleston Plaza — a grant that will be disbursed over seven years through the city’s Economic Development Authority. The grant also came with stipulations: Hanson’s project must produce at least $44,000 in annual tax revenue for seven years. Additionally, the project must create at least 17 new jobs by June 30, 2018. “But I think we’ll create at least 30 jobs,” Hanson says, optimistically.
He also received a tax-exempt, $3.82 million Virginia Housing Development Authority loan, which closed in May 2015, says David White, VHDA’s senior development officer. Low-income housing tax credits also were applied to the project. Apartment rents will be capped at a below-market rate and be monitored by the VHDA.
The first phase of the project, the neutral-colored, brick-front row homes at First and Jackson streets, was ready to welcome its first residents in early August.
“Three units have been rented,” project superintendent Glen Mackey said then.
Hanson says the townhomes are targeted to families with annual incomes of $29,000 to $39,000, a plan that ensures long-term residents of Jackson Ward won’t be excluded from residing in the units because of overblown rents. It serves as a “gentrification-gap filler,” Hanson says.
ENHANCE, NOT ERASE
Gentrification is a loaded term, “painted alternately as a destroyer of neighborhoods or a savior of cities,” Lance Freeman, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, writes in a June Washington Post article.
In cities such as Chicago, New York and, yes, Richmond, developers build shiny, new urban dwellings and business spaces in depressed city neighborhoods. If existing residents can’t afford the higher rents or mortgages, they often get pushed out of their neighborhoods by an influx of more-affluent newcomers. It’s an issue Damon Harris, who with his wife co-owns Richmond-based Tarah and Damon Real Estate Sales and Consulting, sees unfolding across the region.
“As a real estate professional, it’s hard,” Damon says. “Because when we have clients that we show homes in [Jackson Ward] and Church Hill and Varina, places like that, sometimes they don’t know the history. They don’t know anything about the neighborhood’s dynamic, and neither do the developers, and they don’t care. Those are the mindsets that encourage gentrification.”
Harris and his family moved to Richmond from Rhode Island eight years ago. Previously, he owned Wercycleit, a community-focused company that served local businesses and recycled up to 20 tons per month. It also employed mostly at-risk local youth and ex-offenders. Harris says gentrification is an ugly word, “if you think about the displacement of families.” Development itself isn’t the problem in historic neighborhoods, he says; it’s when developers gear their efforts only to newcomers, not the people who already live there.
“You think, ‘How can anyone be mad when dilapidated homes are being renewed, when whole neighborhoods are being refreshed, when there’s actual commerce going on in the community now?’ But for places like Jackson Ward to evolve without gentrifying or sacrificing their character, the existing community has to be included in the [development] discussion and plans.”
That belief is reflected in Hanson’s vision for the Jackson Street Row Houses. “Jackson Ward is hot right now, from a development standpoint,” Hanson says, his voice measured as he thoughtfully chooses each word. “So, doing it this way allows the seasoned residents, the people who have always been in Jackson Ward and who stayed there during the tough times, to age in place, if they wish.”
Michael Lemon has owned Tight Cuts, a barbershop within walking distance of the new townhouses, for 16 years. He believes the homes and other new developments in Jackson Ward have “enhanced” the community, but urges residents to get involved if they have concerns about new projects.
“I would say that things are better here, but I think people should find out more for themselves. Go to City Council meetings; go to neighborhood meetings to see what’s being planned. Just ask and you’ll find out a lot.”
Neverett III says he’s glad to see the community come alive again, but the new developments shouldn’t erase the character of the neighborhood or ignore its golden past. “The people who develop here and who want to live here need to be concerned about the history of Jackson Ward, period.”
The main criticism of the Eggleston Plaza project centers around parking, says Hanson, which is reflected in a Jan. 23, 2012, City Council meeting, recorded by The Richmond Telegraph. While several people voiced support for the project, especially its inclusion of a Croaker’s Spot restaurant, one Richmond resident took issue with a special-use permit requested by Mayor Dwight Jones and enacted by Council that waived parking requirements for the new development.
The May 2015 minutes of the Historic Jackson Ward Association meeting show residents’ continued concern about parking for the 10 Jackson Street Row Houses, noting that the 20 allotted parking spaces for those homes also have to serve the development’s 31 apartments. It’s an issue Hanson says his team is working to address.
“I think it’s a beautiful problem to have,” Hanson says as we looked over the construction site alongside Neverett III and Mackey last month. “It means that this area is coming alive again, and that people want to be here. Also, I think, just as in many cities with revamped urban areas, a lot of people living and working here like the pedestrian aspect to the neighborhood, to be able to walk to restaurants and shops, and talk with people they meet along the street.”
The second phase of Eggleston Plaza — the apartments and retail shops — should be finished by year’s end. And Croaker’s Spot? “Well, it may or may not be a Croaker’s Spot,” Neverett III says mysteriously. “We just might mix it up a little bit on everybody, put the spoon in the pot and stir it around,” he says, hinting that the plaza may house an entirely new restaurant concept. Whatever the eatery will be, “it will need a complete interior build-out, so that probably won’t be open until March 2017 or so,” says Hanson, whose business partnerships with the Egglestons include the newly opened Croaker’s Spot in Norfolk, which his company developed.
If a Croaker’s Spot is indeed built at Eggleston Plaza, it will return the eatery to the neighborhood where it first opened in 2001 and closed in 2010.
Marilyn Milio, president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association and an 11-year resident of the neighborhood, says the organization met with Hanson prior to the development’s approval.
“As a resident, I believe that it’s important to turn vacant lots or properties into something productive for the community,” she says. “In light of what happened to the [Eggleston Hotel] and its legacy, naming the development after the family is important. And I think the mixture of business and residential units is important.”
Developer Ron Stallings of Walker Row Partnership is heir to a large Jackson Ward real estate portfolio built by his father, the late James Russell Stallings. The younger Stallings has, arguably, the most experience revitalizing Jackson Ward properties of any developer in Richmond. In 2011, he completed a massive, $12 million renovation of one of Jackson Ward’s most recognizable landmarks, the Hippodrome Theater.
In October 2015, a historic marker went up that recognizes both Miller’s Hotel and Eggleston Hotel. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“The Jackson Ward area is the largest collection of African-American architecture and history, and it was important to preserve it,” he says of why he continued his father’s tradition of bringing dilapidated properties back to life. “That, and to make a living,” he adds wryly. “One of the main places Dad wanted us to make sure we revitalized is the Hippodrome Theater. He thought that by revitalizing that, it would get a lot more people to come [to Jackson Ward] than just single-family housing.”
Stallings realized his father’s vision of returning to its former glory The Hipp, which was built in 1914 and has hosted Ray Charles, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Ella Fitzgerald. The revamped theater, with its trademark art deco façade, attracts a bevy of diverse guests every week. The Speakeasy Grill, housed in a renovated 1907 mansion next door, is a restaurant offering Southern-style dishes during the week and a Sunday brunch.
“Since we’ve been open in October 2011, we’ve hosted 1,125 events and well over 300,000 guests have come through the doors,” says Stallings, who received a $600,000 grant from the city for the project. The venue’s storied entertainment space is now being used for more community-focused events.
This summer, the Hippodrome played host to “Secret Stories of Self-Determined Change,” an event created by Free Egunfemi, founder of Untold RVA, an organization that celebrates Richmond’s lesser-known history and black excellence. Egunfemi partnered with Radio IQ/WVTF producer Kelley Libby’s UnMonumental project and curators Kathleen Brady and Colin King of the storytelling entity Secretly Y’all. The event celebrated the lives and works of Jackson Ward heroes such as the Rev. W.L. Taylor, Francis Foster, John Mitchell Jr. and, of course, Maggie L. Walker.
Egunfemi says she and Libby chose the Hippodrome because, as a piece of landmark Richmond architecture, it matched the theme of the event. “We thought of a place that was historical and had its own story. Of course, The Hipp!”
Stallings looks at the Eggleston Plaza project with a hopeful eye, believing that it, along with the revival of the Hippodrome and other historic attractions, could position Jackson Ward again as a flourishing arts and entertainment district with the potential to attract tourists from around the world.
Neverett Eggleston Jr. agrees that Eggleston Plaza is a step forward. “I can’t think of anything but good things about it. And if it will help people learn about the hotel, that’s even better,” he says.
Before we wrap our interview at Sugar’s, which takes its moniker from his wife’s nickname, Neverett Jr. sends me home with a little container of bread pudding. He grins at me as I crack the plastic lid and sniff the sugary treat. “That’s my grandmother’s recipe,” he says, “we still make it the way she did and my father did.”
The impact of Hanson’s Eggleston Plaza dream remains to be seen, but the project has stoked excitement in those awaiting a successful second act for Jackson Ward, and it echoes the sentiment Neverett Eggleston Sr. shared with the Free Press in 1992.
“I believe that 2 Street will come back.”