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Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Leary
Aerial view of Richmond, circa 1934 (pictured)
*Mann & Brown property and greenhouses
*P.M. Tabb's "Blandon" and William Rueger's mansion, "Idle Hour"
*40-foot-wide oval speedway
*Herbert Brown's mansion
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Photo by Chenla Ou
*John B. Cary Elementary and Rueger Playground
*Baseball fields, tennis courts and Mr. Tennis' "gatehouse"
*Blanton House (pictured)
When ambling about the leafy corner of Richmond past the Downtown Expressway, or rounding the bends as Boulevard wends toward its bridge, you see joggers on the Vita Course track and enthusiasts on the tennis courts. But in this part of town 100 years ago, carriages and bicycles raced, and the air was filled with the surprised screams of riders on the “switchback.”
Writer Elizabeth O’Leary has explored the intriguing relationships among the people and places of this community in her The Carillon Neighborhood history, on which much of this article is based.
Our part of the story begins with Phillip Mayo Tabb Jr. — whose family ran a slave trading business before the Civil War — and his wife, Williana. Tabb and his father operated their business out of the basement of the luxurious Exchange Hotel at 14th and Franklin streets. The Tabbs’ corner on the market, so to speak, was an insidious temp agency for skilled slaves, whom they rented to factories, mines and private households.
From 1849, the Tabb family’s country place was called “Blandon.” At this house, where the Rueger Playground is now, the family had room for seven children and at least eight documented slaves. O’Leary notes that additional slaves were probably brought there, as portions of the 100 acres were farmed and “kept in a high state of cultivation for a number of years.”
North of the Tabb property, after 1859, was land belonging to flour and milling magnate Bolling Walker Haxall, whose city house is now the headquarters of the downtown Woman’s Club. It isn’t clear whether Haxall ever lived among an assortment of structures in what’s now the 3100 block of Bute Lane, but he rented them out, and he called the place Beechwood Farm.
The war wrecked the Tabb and Haxall finances. The April 1865 Evacuation Fire destroyed the mills. Haxall sold his downtown house in 1869 and relied more on Beechwood for income. He scrambled back from the brink with the rebuilt Haxall-Crenshaw mills before his 1885 death.
Tabb junior was blighted by lawsuits generated by public debt caused partly by the war and then the subsequent national economic crash in 1873. The Tabbs moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and tried to sell Blandon from there, but the straitened circumstances affected potential buyers. Tabb’s financial situation was left unresolved when he died in 1888.
During this time, dynamic and visionary city engineer Wilfred Emory Cutshaw was putting together nearly 300 acres for “New Reservoir Park” around the relocated city water plant, and designing the linden-tree-lined Boulevard. Cutshaw established the first city tree nursery there, and in 1906 it became known as Byrd Park.
In the 1890s, concessionaire William Snelling operated a private pleasure grounds called Blandon Park using land leased from Tabb descendants. It included picnic places, a pavilion, baseball diamonds and a skeet-shooting field. There was also a “switchback,” an early type of roller coaster.
Blandon Park closed in 1902, when William Rueger, who operated the Hotel Rueger, purchased the remnants of the former Blandon estate. He razed the old residence in favor of a mansion he dubbed “Idle Hour,” which was ultimately replaced in the 1950s by John B. Cary Elementary School.
Cutshaw’s attractive Boulevard proved irresistible to bicyclists and carriage drivers, who jockeyed for supremacy on it. The city created a 40-foot-wide oval “speedway” on the site of a neglected track from earlier in the century, where today the tennis courts are. A 1902 newspaper article offered, “While, of course, the speedway is intended for fast horses, it is open for the public’s use and will be available to any who desire to drive upon.” Those with the need for speed could fly down Boulevard, make a circuit and shoot out into the roadways of the park for an exhilarating ride.
During the 1880s, Thomas L. Blanton purchased the large former Haxall acreage. Blanton, a co-owner of the Richmond Dairy Co., quickly sold much of the property, which in later years became the William Byrd Parkway, the Brockenbrough estate and Kanawha Trace Condominiums, and the now-vanished mansion of Blue Shingles. The remaining parcels he used for one of his dairy farms, which supplied milk to the processing plant in town, where Blanton lived.
In the 1890s, British-born commercial florist Herbert Brown constructed a frame farmhouse across from the reservoir. From massive greenhouses behind his house, he and partner William A. Mann built a business, based at 3 E. Grace St., on florals for social occasions. Brown eventually could afford to move the entire house to 822 Walpole St. to serve as the residence for his greenhouse manager. For himself, Brown constructed a mansion in 1920 at what is now 700 Blanton Ave. (Until circa 1914, it was Blandon Street, named after the Tabb house.) The American Legion occupied the house from 1950 to 1957, when the city acquired it for use by Richmond Public Schools. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities has kept offices there since 1991; it is now somewhat confusingly named the Blanton House.
The speedway was reclaimed in 1909, according to the late Tyler Potterfield in his Nonesuch Place, for the city’s first public athletic field. The 16 acres ultimately included tennis courts, baseball diamonds and football fields, but by 1915 the conditions there were generating complaints in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. An editorialist stated that Richmond needed to “spend a little of its loose change in getting its public places in shape for use. The backstops and other facilities around the [tennis] courts are a disgrace to the city.”
A “gatehouse” to the recreation center, which remains near the present tennis courts, was built in 1922, providing restrooms and changing rooms, as well as lodgings for park manager Samuel Baker Woods. A plaque by the courts’ entrance honors the man who became known as “Mr. Tennis” by offering coaching to players, including 11 state championship teams from Thomas Jefferson High School. The park’s courts were off-limits to African-American players in segregated Richmond; future Wimbledon champ Arthur Ashe learned on the courts of Battery Park.