View of Barton Heights, showing the viaduct leading to it (courtesy The Valentine).
Barton Heights started as a real-estate scheme, but due to the advancement of the electric streetcar, it prospered as an independent Henrico town until its 1914 annexation by Richmond. The boundaries are generally agreed as Fendall Avenue to the west and, to the east, the jagged Richmond-Henrico Turnpike. Its northernmost extension has been variably considered Ladies Mile Road and Brookland Park Boulevard. To the south is an industrial park, the First Tee of Richmond and the historic Barton Heights Cemeteries.
Barton Heights has endured the typical inner-city cycles of domesticity and difficulty, and is today one of the city’s most character-filled neighborhoods, being home to long-timers, rehabilitators and anti-establishmentarians.
In 1804, the city’s mayor, attorney Major William Duval, sought to take advantage of the Virginia capital’s growth. Duval petitioned the General Assembly for a lengthening of the city’s western boundary to the union of Brook and Westham roads. He surveyed “Duval’s and Coutts’ (pronounced Cut’s) Addition,” which lay east and north of Brook Road. The properties of merchant Patrick Coutts abutted Duval’s.
Then in 1813, developer William Mitchell acquired a high point of land, where he laid out 102 acres in a street grid that correlates to today’s Barton Heights. At first the streets received the bucolic names of Pine, Oak and Poplar, before founding-father developers enshrined them as Barton, Lamb and Monteiro avenues. Bacon’s Quarter Branch ravine, though, impeded Mitchell’s plans. Mitchell’s Springs became a site for socializing, due to its cool, pure waters and shade. It later provided the town’s water supply.
This sylvan setting also brought cemeteries. The Burying Ground Society for the Free People of Color established the Phoenix Burial Grounds (later named Cedarwood) north of Bacon’s Quarter Branch. Gabriel Hunt, the blacksmith and hero of the 1811 Richmond Theatre fire, is there. Six African-American graveyards eventually evolved into the Barton Heights Cemeteries, a complex that was the resting place for numerous prominent blacks. The proximity of black funereal activity disturbed Barton residents, who sought tight regulation and even closure. The sites suffered considerable neglect, but, through a project of renovation begun in 1992 by neighborhood activist Denise Lester, they are today state and national historic landmarks.
After the Civil War, the opportunistic Pennsylvanian James H. Barton came to Richmond from
Little Rock, Arkansas, where his service in the Union Army had brought him. On July 3, 1889, Barton bought 20 acres of Henrico County cow pasture near the remnants of a Civil War battery north of Duval’s Addition. The impressive heights provided a grand panoramic view of the Shockoe Valley. Barton arranged rent-to-own terms of property and commissioned a viaduct across Bacon’s Quarter Branch to link the Heights to First Street with an electric streetcar that ran every 20 minutes to Broad Street. He sought to attract, as a history of the community describes, “a newly rising class of clerks and professional people.”
Barton called his own elaborate Queen Anne mansion “Corner Minor.” After its 1892 completion, he invited all the Barton Heights residents to attend elaborate receptions. But he didn’t stay there long.
First, the national economic collapse of 1893-1897 — the worst until the 1930s — crushed credit. Barton got caught short and skipped town one night, leaving lawsuits and jilted tenants behind. W.P. Veitch, a granolithic paving contractor, moved into Corner Minor; it variously became a home for unwed mothers, a polio treatment center and a home for the elderly. Abandoned for years, it recently underwent renovation.
Despite Barton’s hasty departure, the community remained attractive. It incorporated as a Henrico County town in 1896. A 1906 brochure extolled the idylls of living in Barton Heights, as opposed to other unnamed neighborhoods: “Barton Heights is a model residence town. It has no saloons, no slaughter houses, no manufactories, no dirt-bleeding or disease-breeding nuisances of any sort …The householders are all white people.” Rental covenants and property value calculations maintained the color line.
A sweeping Richmond annexation in 1914 took in Barton Heights. The neighborhood held its own parades and festivals, and its organizations met at the Battery Park Stonehouse. Businesses opened, as noted at a 1926 community minstrel show, when a comedian sang, “Barton Heights ain’t what it used to be — we’ve got a Piggly-Wiggly and an A&P.”
The first blacks to move in, during the 1940s, were Virginia Union University professors. Whites often took whatever they could get for their houses and fled. With desegregation, many members of the black upper-middle class left their old houses behind after the 1960s. The construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) during 1957-58, which city authorities considered a solution — through demolition — to the dilapidated living conditions in old Jackson Ward, forced black families to leave. Many moved to Barton Heights.
The large lots of the Colonial Revivals, Queen Annes and Four Squares were sold off to build smaller infill houses. From 1946 to 1985, the city maintained a landfill near Fells Street and Chamberlayne Avenue atop a major sewer pipe.
In 1999, the Neighborhood in Blooms program directed federal aid to six neighborhoods, including Southern Barton Heights. The 2006 remnants of Tropical Storm Ernesto, and another storm a short time later, flooded Brookfield, South Barton Heights and Battery Park. A dam of refuse from the old landfill prevented the drainage of sewage. The flooding displaced 79 families, and A.V. Norrell Elementary School was closed. After more than a year, $21 million in aid was secured from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to construct a bypass line from the Bacon’s Quarter Sewer to the southern end of Battery Park. The tennis courts of Battery Park, where Wimbledon winner Arthur Ashe started learning the game because blacks weren’t allowed on the Byrd Park courts, were refurbished. Neighborhood newcomer Adam Longest now sometimes plays there.
About 19 months ago, he moved into a 1927 Craftsman-style house from an 800-square-foot bungalow in Carytown. The house had already undergone a sensitive rehabilitation — a trend on Graham Road. “The house across from me is getting gutted and redone and is getting moved into, and the guy next to me is gutting that house,” he says. Longest is enjoying homeownership, though it comes with occasional perils. His house was robbed not long after he moved in. Originally from Hanover County, he never locked his doors. Of the robbery, he says, “They only took cash. I lock my doors now, and I got a security system.”
The fifth iteration of the Valentine Community Conversations series, co-sponsored by this magazine, continues with Barton Heights at the Valentine on May 5 from 6 to 8 p.m. A walking tour will take place on May 9 from 10 a.m. to noon. For information, call 649-0711 or visit valentine.org.