Photo courtesy The Cook Collection, The Valentine
Spring awakening on Forest Hill Lake
You might’ve heard the orchestra of merriment before you saw it, especially if you were rambling along Forest Hill Avenue on a summer Saturday afternoon in the early 1900s.
You’d also have seen the vividly painted Forest Hill trolley easing into its station at the Old Stone House. Canadian-born Holden Rhodes, a prominent attorney and businessman, built the structure between 1836 and 1843 out of rock that originated from one of the 15 nearby quarries. He graduated in 1820 from Vermont’s Middlebury College and soon came to Virginia to tutor the sons of Judge Samuel Taylor, whose house stood at 915 Porter St. Rhodes called his own 103-acre estate “Boscobel,” taken from the Italian phrase “bosco bello,” meaning beautiful woods.
After his June 2, 1857, death, his will conveyed to his second wife, Susan, and adopted son, Charles, the household belongings including “a View of Richmond” and “4 shelves of novels” and 9 1/2 gallons of 30-year-old Madeira wine. Estate records also list 51 slaves. The site of Rhodes’ burial on the grounds isn’t clear, though Lynne Ann George, who wrote An Illustrated History of Forest Hill Park, ascertained from contemporary description that it could be in the maintenance portion of Forest Hill Park.
The house passed through various hands, but by 1890 it had been vacant for 18 years. Boscobel underwent transformation into the arrival center for the Forest Hill Amusement Park, developed as part of an effort to attract residents south of the James River. Easily reached by electric streetcar from downtown Richmond, the park offered a roller coaster, nickelodeon, bowling alley, dance pavilion, swimming lake and other diversions. A bell tower was rather incongruously added to the house, along with a large wrap-around porch. A number of distorting funhouse mirrors were installed beneath.
A water-turbine generating plant on Belle Isle powered the street cars. The Richmond & Manchester Railway Co. purchased the power plant, car line and equipment from the Southside Land and Improvement Co., for $150,000 on Oct. 7, 1890. The transportation company saw the neighborhood potential of the South Bank of the James River because of its sylvan setting, away from the crowded central city. Visitors often loved Forest Hill and its environs enough to buy a house there, and the South Side communities grew.
In 1914, like a kid winning in a game of jacks, Richmond annexed the independent Henrico County towns of Highland Park and Barton Heights, as well as Forest Hill and Swansboro.
By 1932, however, diversion seekers could drive their automobiles farther afield than the trolley went. The rickety park amusements were dismantled. Southside Land, with forethought, deeded the 97 acres as a park in perpetuity, and the city acquired it at no cost in 1934. City renovations of the Rhodes house proceeded. Forest Hill grew into a choice suburb, but its expansion caused the demolition of four mansions on Forest Hill Avenue for apartments and smaller residences.
Among its residents, Forest Hill was home to sculptor Frederick Sievers (1208 W. 43rd St.), who created both the Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury statues on Monument Avenue. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. grew up at 4103 Forest Hill Ave.
At the park, silt flowing down from development along Reedy Creek filled the lake, turning it into a wetland where trees not suited for marshes rooted and died. Periodic plans to excavate the lake got nowhere. In 2009, then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and the City of the Future plan ran funds through the pipeline to renew the lake. J.R. Pope, the city’s director of recreation and parks at the time, said it was the proudest he’d ever been of such a project.
Biking trails and paths have threaded Forest Hill into the larger James River Park System. The neighborhood association and the Friends of Forest Hill Park hold concerts and other events there. One of the largest public draws, though, is the South of the James Market, which first opened in 2008, took root, and through Karen Atkinson, blossomed into the GrowRVA network.
Celebrating 30 years of operation, ceramics artist Robin Cage and her 43rd Street Gallery rehabilitated the former Uncle Earl’s Trash and Treasure. In 1991, the first 43rd Street Festival of the Arts began in the parking lot of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. The event benefits CARITAS, an organization that works to break the cycle of homelessness.
One commercial anchor, in operation since 1982 on Forest Hill Avenue, is Stories Comics, a ga-ga trove of comics and alternative fiction. TaZa Coffee ’n’ Creme opened nearby in 2010, then moved to a first-floor space in 2013. Other recent additions include The Nest antiques and gallery, and coming soon to 3410 Semmes Ave. is the White Horse Tavern. A decade ago, residents Olivia Patrick and Will Herring opened Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream, ideally situated and appropriately named at the intersection of Forest Hill and Semmes avenues. The building had been at times a Texaco gas station and an adult bookstore. Today it’s a welcoming community space offering coffee, treats and frequent live music.
There have been challenges with new suburban-style stores along Forest Hill Avenue and Westover Hills Boulevard fitting into the neighborhood, and a heated controversy about the opening of the charter Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts. The National Register of Historic Places recognized Forest Hill in 2012.
Forest Hill is the final installment of the Valentine’s fifth series of Community Conversations about neighborhoods in transition; a presentation takes place at the museum from 6 to 8 p.m. on June 2, with a walking tour scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon on June 6. 649-0711 or thevalentine.org.