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July 5, 1887: Confederate and Union veterans gather on the lawn by the Robinson House. On the far right, two former enemies clasp hands. Photo courtesy the Library of Virginia
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“The Grove,” home of Anthony Robinson Jr., 1880 Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
When Bank of Virginia officer Anthony Robinson Jr. built his Italianate country cottage on the western outskirts of Richmond in the late 1850s, little else stood nearby on the earthen Clover Road, which was the pre-development Boulevard.
He eventually amassed 160 acres into a working farm-estate. There he built a summerhouse for the family that ultimately numbered 11 children. He named it The Grove for the old grove trees surrounding the house. The property extended to present-day Scuffletown Park, to Carytown and along Robinson Street and Davis Avenue. The Grove's formal entrance was at the present Virginia Museum of
Fine Arts loading docks. Grove Avenue is named for the estate.
Robinson's wife, Rebecca Webb Couch, was born in Goochland County of parents who'd moved from Philadelphia, converted to Quakerism and freed their slaves. As Rebecca Robinson, however, she became a slave mistress for almost 40 years. Slaves probably cultivated The Grove's fields; the house, which grew in phases, was likely also built in part through slave labor.
The Robinsons had sold their city house by 1860 to make The Grove their permanent residence. Anthony died on June 28, 1861, at age 69. He left Rebecca 48 acres, including the house and farm, and divided the rest among their children.
The Civil War had started three months earlier. Sons Samuel, Starkey and Edward served in the Confederate military. The teenage Channing, sidelined from combat due to a misshapen arm, worked as a War Department clerk. He became his mother's primary caregiver.
The war left the Robinsons in dire financial straits. Rebecca Robinson died July 4, 1879. Her bequest to Channing was The Grove. The dutiful son, age 40, married in 1883. The next year, he sold the remaining 48 acres to the R.E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Veterans organization.
Those capable sought to prevent their former comrades from living out their days in the Richmond almshouse or worse A national campaign aided by the Northern Grand Army of the Republic chapters bolstered fundraising.
Lee Camp directors purchased The Grove and grounds from Channing and Judith Robinson for $14,000. On Jan. 16, 1885, The Grove opened as the Confederate Soldiers' Home, and by June the house held 16 "inmates," as the residents were called. Demand grew the original home into a campus of 35 buildings that stretched in a gentle arc toward the Confederate Memorial Chapel near the entrance. Marion J. Dimmock, a renowned Richmond architect and Confederate veteran, designed the residential cottages, chapel and mess hall.
Running out of space, the home was spared potential demolition with the addition of a third floor and other renovations by architect and benefactor Robert I. Fleming. The house became Fleming Hall and contained administrative offices, a museum and the infirmary.
In a letter to a friend, resident Benjamin J. Rogers described it as "an ideal spot for an old Confed to spend his declining years at." Rogers deemed the place "a home in the true sense of the word for the old boys."
During its 56 years, the Confederate Soldiers' Home cared for approximately 3,000 veterans from 33 states, though at its peak census it housed 300 veterans. Beth O'Leary, project historian for the house's modernization, notes that it simultaneously functioned "as an artificial city, military camp, museum and a shrine." (Little Sorrell, the mount of Stonewall Jackson, was preserved for display in Fleming Hall's museum after its death in 1886.)
The state, which provided a partial subsidy for the home for most of its existence, in 1934 designated the property as the Confederate Memorial Park.
The VMFA, by permission of Gov. John Pollard, constructed its main neo-Georgian building in 1936 at the southeastern corner of the Soldiers' Home campus.
The last veteran resident, John "Jack" Blizzard, died Jan. 29, 1941, but Fleming Hall remained open as the R.E. Lee Camp Museum. The collection was dispersed in 1949 to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Little Sorrell went to the Virginia Military Institute.
Renamed the Robinson House, it housed the labs and offices of the Virginia Institute for Scientific Research from 1949 to 1963; afterwards it housed VMFA offices, studios and galleries until 1993, when the state transferred the building directly to the museum. It was then leased, from 1995 to '96, to the Virginia Association of Museums. State appropriations in 2001 replaced the roof and windows and carried out other needed improvements. It was used for storage awaiting a new purpose.
The long vacancy is to end in late summer 2015. The Robinson House, recently bestowed National Historic Landmark status, is to serve as a state visitors center and a museum dedicated to the home's history.
When visitors glide off the interstate into the revitalized Robinson House, they'll find an introduction to Richmond embracing war and peace, slavery and freedom, and a history of architecture and art.