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Photo courtesy of the Cook Collection
Highland Park from atop Highland Park Public School, early 1900s
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Photo courtesy of the Cook Collection
Intersection of Milton Street and Maryland Avenue, Highland Park, early 20th century
"Annexation Decree Marks New Era In City’s Progress” blared the June 28, 1914, Richmond Times-Dispatch headline — the same day that Austria-Hungary’s heir apparent, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo. The large above-fold type would soon carry news of European war.
The decree of annexation, which took effect after Sept. 1, gave Richmond independent communities that included Highland Park, Ginter Park, Barton Heights and Sherwood Park. Richmond also expanded beyond the James River by absorbing Woodland Heights, Forest Hill, Oak Grove and Swansboro, more than doubling the area south of the former city of Manchester (consolidated with Richmond in 1910).
Electric streetcars ran across the Fifth Street Viaduct, operated since its 1892 completion as a toll bridge by the Virginia Railway and Power Co., and made possible an extensive planned community. The suburb grew along the heights overlooking downtown Richmond. Highland Park was defined on the west by Cannon Creek, to the east by Shockoe Creek, and in the south by the confluence of the two. Magnolia Street formed the northern border.
In 1908, Chestnut Hill’s association voted to unite with its northern neighbor, and the combined communities became the independent Henrico County town of Highland Park. Many of the houses built in the expanded neighborhood used lumber supplied by the Chestnut Hill company of Thomas C. Ruffin and Joseph M. Fourqurean. Fourqurean was a member of both the Chestnut Hill and Highland Park development companies. The firm, later known as Ruffin and Payne, moved in 1966 to Laburnum Avenue.
The development ultimately included the 1909 Charles A. Robinson-designed, Mediterranean Revival-style Highland Park Public School and the columned, 1915 building called Chandler Middle School, now Richmond Community High. Highland Park even had a gambrel-roofed town hall, below Brookland Park Boulevard, at 2915-2917 Fourth Avenue (later converted into four apartments that burned in 1956).
Alluring advertisements promoted Highland Park’s open air and its convenience, with a less-than-15-minute ride by trolley to Seventh and Broad streets.
Builders constructed residences that were elaborate variations on Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival and American Foursquare styles.
Wallace Bryan Stockton, a member of Mizpah Presbyterian Church, recalled in a 1975 church history that as Highland Park grew during the 1920s, it “became neat, with mixed architecture. The citizens were of mixed economic strata, from one end of the spectrum to the other, but basically they and their community were modest … board fences abounded. There were chicken lots in backyards and barns for horses and cows. There were chicken thieves, too, and Gypsies from the C&O tracks. The community abounded with vacant lots for ball games and lots of ice houses for boys on hot summer days.”
At Six Points, an intersection that knits together Highland Park and the Chestnut Hill/Plateau sections, commerce took root. Brookland Park Boulevard thrived with grocers, restaurants, clothiers and the Art Deco Brookland Theatre. But like many of the mushrooming suburban trolley-dependent enclaves, residential prohibitions blocked blacks from living there.
The electric streetcars that birthed and nurtured Highland Park were destroyed in 1948 in favor of buses and cars. The community was further altered by the construction of public housing and school integration that started in 1960 at Chandler Middle. Outgoing whites rented their former homes to whoever came next, usually blacks. Absent landlords were often poor property managers.
A 1964 Richmond planner called Highland Park an “almost ideal community,” then 14 years later, a city redevelopment official in the News Leader described the neighborhood as “sliding fast.” By 1978, planners labeled Highland Park a “transitional neighborhood,” possessing a stock of solid houses suitable for repair instead of demolition.
The Highland Park Restoration and Preservation Program (HP-RAPP), led by future City Council member Ellen Robertson, formed in 1988 to maintain the community’s involvement with its own revitalization.
In 1994, HP-RAPP renovated a century-old Queen Anne residence at 2400 Third Avenue for its own offices, and named it for neighborhood activist Naomi Hall. The group restored houses and pressed for decrepit apartments to be demolished and replaced by Victorian-style townhouses. Its name changed to the Highland Park Community Development Corporation (HPCDC), and in the early 2000s, it partnered with the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods to promote Highland Park’s impressive housing stock. During this time, too, murderous gangs like the Meadowbridge Boys and Poe Street Boys were broken up by convictions.
In 2002, the industrious Martha Rollins founded the Boaz & Ruth nonprofit, which provides training and employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. The abandoned and blighted Firehouse 15 at 3011 Meadowbridge Road became a mini-mall with a restaurant. Revitalization hit a snag when the HPCDC ran afoul of then-Mayor Doug Wilder in a property dispute as the organization sought to acquire and renovate the blighted Matthew Heights apartments. The group’s properties were split with two other nonprofits, Boaz & Ruth and the Southside Community Development & Housing Corp.
The longtime eyesore of Dove Court began a phased renewal in 2013. Small commercial enterprises are on the rise.
Having come through its belly-of-the-whale experience, Highland Park is in the process of determining what comes next.
The Valentine’s Fifth Community Conversation series, in collaboration with Richmond magazine, begins with a discussion of Highland Park on Jan. 6, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St.; a bus tour takes place Jan. 10. There are five other locales: North Church Hill, Feb. 3 (tour, Feb. 7); Old Town Manchester, March 3 (tour, March 7); Carver, April 7 (tour, April 11); Barton Heights, May 5 (tour, May 9); and Forest Hill, June 2 (tour, June 6). For further information, call 649-0711 or visit thevalentine.org.