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Linden trees at Boulevard and Idlewood, 1914. Photo courtesy of Cook Collection,Valentine Richmond History Center
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Wilfred E. Cutshaw around the turn of the 20th century. Photocourtesy of Velntine Richmond History Center
A one-legged Confederate veteran named Wilfred Emory Cutshaw took an inspiring tour of Europe and Northern U.S. cities in 1879 and returned to Richmond full of ideas that influenced his 34 years as the energetic city engineer. The reality of his situation, however, as noted by Tyler Potterfield in his book Nonesuch Place, was "meager budgets and painfully slow progress."
As city engineer, Cutshaw oversaw the construction of roads, parks and public buildings, including schools for white and black communities, armories, Old City Hall and the Byrd Park Pump House. He created "promontory parks," as Potterfield calls them, atop Chimborazo, Jefferson, Libby and Gamble's hills. He improved Monroe Park and, by relocating the city reservoir and landscaping the countryside, he created Byrd Park. And he did it with tiny budgets.
In a 15-year period, Cutshaw planted 50,000 trees in a then-much-smaller Richmond and established the city tree nursery. "He's an unlikely candidate as a tree hugger," Potterfield says. "But there's not been as massive a campaign of tree planting since his time." His book, Trees of the City, served as an arboreal spotting guide.
A testimony of Cutshaw's impact on the city comes from an 1896 article in John Mitchell Jr.'s African-American weekly paper, The Richmond Planet. Mitchell seldom spared Richmond's white officialdom from justifiable criticism, but The Planet described Cutshaw as "one of the most remarkable characters in the city government," whose "power as an organizer and his abilities as a city official are conceded…he stands forth as the power behind the throne, a tower of strength in any contest."
One of Cutshaw's many projects was Boulevard. It began as bucolic Clover Street, a country lane. With the advent of New Reservoir Park (now Byrd) and the ornamental grey stone Pump House of 1884 behind Byrd Park came the need for a more efficient way to get there.
Potterfield terms Boulevard the city's "first parkway," transformed during 1874-1883 into a 92-foot-wide, sophisticated street. Cutshaw doesn't appear to have considered the generic name a placeholder.
Cutshaw fused the practical with the ornamental. He installed a water main within a central median. South of Broad, he planted three rows of linden trees along Boulevard. It is not known whether he was inspired by Berlin's (shorter) Unter den Linden boulevard or London's parks. Due to a shortage of funds, it took 12 years to plant the leafy canopy along the entire length of Boulevard. The commercial north Boulevard didn't receive the same attention to style, and it became a forest of advertising signs with a parking lane in the middle.
Monumental public architecture came in time. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was given property on the southeastern corner of what was the Confederate Soldiers' Home and in 1936 opened its neo-Georgian building. The former Robinson House there is undergoing renovation for a regional visitors center and VMFA offices, to be completed in 2015. The Confederate Memorial Institute, or Battle Abbey (now the Virginia Historical Society), was built during 1912 to 1921, and the National Headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy between 1955 and 1957.
Boulevard's architectural halcyon days were squeezed between the end of the 1910s and the Great Depression. The avenue embraced a variety of styles for private homes, apartment buildings and institutions including Boulevard United Methodist Church and the Gothic Revival Grace Baptist Church of 1923, which became Beth Israel Synagogue, now Tikvat Israel. The grand porches, balconies, columns and bays, finials and knobs form a splendid whole.
Cutshaw died in 1907, before Boulevard's full evolution.
By the time of its 1986 state and national historic landmark designations, the street's luster had dimmed. Boulevard's residents gathered together, and realtors, investors and entrepreneurs arrested the slide. Dozens of dilapidated buildings were overhauled.
Cutshaw Avenue is named for the city planner; the triangular public space at Meadow and Park was originally named Cutshaw Place. Otherwise, his legacy is acknowledged only on a small plaque inside the eastern entrance of Old City Hall. Potterfield and historian Selden Richardson both would like to see a 100-word historic marker about Wilfred Emory Cutshaw placed toward the Byrd Park end of Boulevard — but not in the median.
"We'd like to put it in a place where people won't risk death and dismemberment if they stop to read it," Potterfield says drily. The projected cost of a new marker, about $1,500, might make the old man wince, but, as Richardson says, "We're thinking the American Society of Civil Engineers, Richmond branch, might possess a natural interest [in funding]. As it isn't an organization that is often given attention, this could be their place to shine." And it shouldn't take a dozen years.
Community Conversation: Up and Down the Boulevard
Thursday, May 1, 6 to 8 p.m.
Join us as we collaborate with the Valentine Richmond History Center on its "Community Conversations" series. This month's topic is the development of the Museum District and public access to cultural, historical and athletic institutions along the Boulevard. It will be held in the Claiborne Robertson Room at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Blvd. Free and open to the public. For information, call 649-0711 ext. 322. Pre-registration is not required. Admission is on a first-come, first-served basis.