One of Richmond's greatest parties started on Easter Sunday 1973, with a loan of $250, broken cookies from the nearby FFV factory and several pitchers of lemonade. The primary organizer, resident Zayde Dotts, with like-minded others, wanted to prevent Monument Avenue's slide into decrepitude.
Her vision was for an Easter festival. She recalled in a 2002 Richmond.com interview that officials were "scared to death" by the prospect of masses of people converging on Monument Avenue. Skeptical city authorities grumped to Dotts: "You've got to have something for people to do, or we might have a riot."
Roughly 10,000 people showed up on an exquisite Richmond springtime afternoon — and no riots erupted.
But Monument Avenue wasn't the glorious street it had been in earlier decades. The former residences of Gilded Age millionaires required millions in upkeep, and for most Richmonders, they didn't reflect modern life, having been built to house servants and extended families.
Grand houses underwent conversion into apartments, boarding houses, nursing homes and doctors' offices. Architect John Russell Pope's 28,000-square-foot Branch House at Davis and Monument became the Richmond United Way headquarters.
In 1950, the Lee Medical Building arose on a wedge-shaped vacant space by Lee Circle, along with a modern office building erected in 1955 that didn't exactly fit in with its neighbor, a structure dating from 1915.
By the mid-1960s, city proposals included adding seven more monuments, installing a reflecting pool by the Davis statue, cutting down trees and even remaking the avenue into a six-lane highway. It was clear to the residents that they needed to get involved — and one did physically.
In 1968, Helen Marie Taylor stood in front of an asphalt truck to prevent the covering of paving stones; the truck and the city both backed off. The following year, Zayde Dotts formed the Residents and Associates for the Preservation of Monument Avenue, and the city created the Monument Avenue Commission to "preserve and foster the historical and aesthetical values of Monument Avenue." In 1971, City Council designated the Monument Avenue Old and Historic District that brought it under the purview of the Commission for Architectural Review. Busting old houses into jackleg apartments was no longer permitted.
The stage was set for the Easter parade; only the inspiration was needed. During a visit to Rome, Dotts visited the Piazza Navona, a 15th-century public square. "There was this little place there that served the best ice cream in the world," she recalled in 2002. "And that was the year they had taken all the traffic off the piazza."
While enjoying the ice cream, Dotts and her party observed kites flying, artists painting and kids playing ball. She said aloud, "You know, if we took the traffic off Monument Avenue, the city would have a million-dollar park immediately."
When she returned to Richmond,she gathered together the "residents and associates" and asked City Council for permission to hold an Easter festival. They gave a rather grudging go-ahead to block off the avenue between Meadow and Robinson streets.
Jennie Knapp Dotts, daughter-in-law of the late Zayde, recalls, "She borrowed $250 from her cousin, Elisabeth Scott Bocock." At another house, volunteers fixed lemonade and cookies.
Local residents ran Easter on Parade until 1986, but by then, liability costs and burnout had taken their toll. Downtown Presents, the predecessor of Venture Richmond and organizer of the June Jubilee and the Big Gig festival, stepped in — and moved it away from Monument, with the blessing of the neighborhood.
Chris Risatti, then with Downtown Presents, was among those who thought moving the event from Monument was counterintuitive. "But as with everything that's volunteer-run, a corps of people would do it, and nobody else stepped up," Risatti recalls. "But I was surprised when [the neighbors] said, ‘Here, take it. And take it away.' "
Although the parade shifted to Third and East Franklin streets, where thousands gathered, Monument was still the scene of some counter-parties. The last downtown event of 1990 was prematurely canceled due to threat of rain. Not everybody got the word — including the rain, which stopped early that morning, and folks still converged on Franklin Street.
Downtown Presents head Nina Abady issued a public apology in the Times-Dispatch, writing, "Now I have joined the Grinch who stole Christmas as the person who stopped the Easter on Parade."
That cancellation, along with the momentum from Monument Avenue's 1990 centennial and the efforts of avenue resident Millie Jones, brought the event back to Monument in 1991: An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 revelers (and their dogs) promenaded last year in their bonnets and costumes. One modern-day difference: Fresh lemonade cost about three bucks.