The partially completed toll bridge of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike over the James River, 1957 Photo courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
During the summer of 1956, the support struts for what would become the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike section of I-95 marched across the James River toward Shockoe and Main Street Station.
In the photographs, they appear as implacable as the Imperial Walkers from Star Wars. But unlike in the cinematic fantasy, these sturdy legs wouldn’t be halted.
Toward the late 1940s, Richmond underwent a series of convulsions that sent the city and region careering toward a future whose consequences few people could adequately understand.
In 1946, the city endorsed its first long-range master plan created by St. Louis planning consultant Harland Bartholomew. The post-World War II building boom had left too few trained land-use planners to go around, so Richmond — like many cities — was defaulting to engineers, builders and outside consultants, many of whom were recommending the planned demolition of their own city centers. Bartholomew called for clearing “slums” and dealing with the impact of greater numbers of automobiles congesting the city’s streets.
That same year, triggered by Bartholomew’s wide-ranging plan, R. Stuart Royer and consulting engineers Consoer, Townsend and Associates brought out their Report on Express Highways, Through and Between the Cities of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. The document called for cutting an expressway through Shockoe and old Jackson Ward. It was the first of three separate studies that made a case for the “Y” incision of the interstate and the Downtown Expressway.
Then in 1948, the 61-year-old electric streetcar system was scrapped. During this period, too, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad considered replacing the Beaux Arts-style Main Street Station, thought obsolete. Yet underneath the rail viaducts bustled a city neighborhood of small shops, restaurants and the 17th Street Market, then still enclosed.
The next year, the city charter was rewritten to end the cumbersome two-chamber city legislature of 32 (white) men headed by a strong mayor. The mayor’s position was reduced to a ceremonial role, and the administrative structure transformed into a nine-member council elected at large and entrusted with hiring a professional city manager.
These elements set the stage for the decade-long debate over where the roads should roll.
The highway plan split the city into three opposing camps: those who resisted it altogether; those who called for it to bypass the city; and those who favored running it across Shockoe. The latter group didn’t want to disturb settled suburban communities, while they saw nothing wrong in plowing through the densely populated center of town. The residents here were mostly black and poor, and thus, the highway debate was in the potential position of becoming Jim Crow by asphalt.
“Planners in Richmond devoted more attention to the highway issue between 1946 and 1956 than to any other element of the master plan,” writes Christopher Silver in his Twentieth-Century Richmond Planning, Politics and Race. However, little attention was given to congestion following the highway alignment, the downtown revitalization it was supposed to spur or the neighborhoods in the turnpike’s path.
In 1950, City Council hired Cincinnati planner Ladislas Segoe to draw up a revised highway plan, giving special attention to the location of an expressway system to serve the central business district. Segoe was brought to Richmond because of his work in Cincinnati with Richmond City Manager Sherwood Reeder.
Reeder, the first with his title in the new government, was bullish on redevelopment. He wanted, as Silver puts it, an “urban renewal strategy to effect neighborhood development” — that is, bomb the village to save it. Segoe’s revision moved the highway’s entrance point three blocks, to bend around Main Street Station. The consideration was practical, not aesthetic. Few citizens liked the idea.
Two public bond referendums, in the summer of 1950 and the fall of 1951, sought to delay and reconfigure the plans. Four-hour City Council meetings, during which residents and small-business owners declared the plan injurious to their lives and livelihood, made headlines. On Aug. 24, 1953, Council voted to create a special authority to build the highway as a toll road, thus shifting the controversial issue from City Hall to the General Assembly.
The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike Authority was quickly approved by both houses in April 1954, thus squelching the possibility of further disruption by the citizens. Two years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordained the U.S. interstate system.
Louisville, Ky., journalist Grady Clay, who wrote on landscape architecture and municipal planning, worried in 1957 that the highways would become “a monstrous dragon let loose on the American landscape.” A wing of that dragon comes to within 30 feet of grazing the Main Street Station clock tower.The highway through Richmond eventually took 180 acres of city-owned and 210 acres of privately owned land, including 726 homes and businesses. Architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott noted more buildings were lost than those destroyed by the April 3, 1865, Evacuation Fire.
Like that conflagration, the turnpike was yet another disaster Richmond brought on itself. The turnpike became I-95 when tolls ended in 1992.