Editor’s note: This is the third in a five-part commentary series by Edwin Slipek on historic preservation issues in various Richmond neighborhoods. Here is part 1 and part 2.
In the eyes of many locals, the lush and lively surroundings of Libby and Grove Roads are a reassuringly relaxing blend of golf, gastronomy and god. The Country Club of Virginia’s sprawling greenery, selection of casual restaurants, and two architecturally impressive Gothic-style churches, St. Bridget Catholic and St.
Dozens of picture-perfect villages adorn the communities of the East Coast. In East Hampton on Long Island, New York, the Atlantic-facing links of the Maidstone Club, a few fine dining restaurants, and the castle-like sanctuary of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church are within walking distance of each other. Farther north on Cape Cod, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, are the golf courses of Hyannisport Club (village and club are spelled differently), along with several freshly harvested lobster options, and the looming stone tower of St. Andrews. . -Sea Episcopal Church, exude a similar elan.
While many are comforted that architectural and social change is happening slowly in such mud pockets, it is at Westhampton that they are looking again. A recent study of windshields in blocks near the junction of Libby and Grove Roads indicates that rapid physical and visual change is under way.
At 5605 Grove Ave. On a plot alone worth $898,000, a century-old farmhouse that housed Kim Faison Antiques for 20 years was recently demolished. In its place, a modern, architecturally undistinguished two-story office building would be built on a mostly residential block. Up the street and on the corner in Libby Street near Carey Street, a grand Italianate (or is it Provincial French?) residence is the newcomer to a stretch of well-kept, unpretentious former farmhouses and cottages.
However, the rustic allure of Libby Lane belies the recently built home at 113 Libby. This is a 5,000-square-foot structure (from “modern industrial design” according to the marketing materials) with an outdoor pool, a dog run with a “live turf path” for pets, and shoelaces in its slim site. It is for sale with an asking price of $3.8 million.
Nearby, while the expensive new homes are being built on nearby Maple, Granite and Westview streets, there’s nothing quite as dramatic as the modestly priced addresses. At 325 Granite, in a deep and narrow lot where a modest sized home was demolished, contractors are completing a pool at the rear of the property so they can return to the street as construction of the new home continues. Building at 510 Westview, one mid-20th century home is the sole survivor of 10 adjoining homes that are now dusty. We can assume that first time homeowners cannot settle here.
As The New York Times recently wrote about similar situations that have changed the face of many neighborhoods nationwide: “All of these scenes are taking place in … desirable locations with good jobs and high home prices. It could mean that a tiny two-bedroom house has been sitting on dirt.” Once worth $10,000 and now sits on $200,000 worth of dirt.”
Historically, according to The Times, land accounted for 20 percent of the total sale price of a new home: “That means today that a $200,000 parcel of land might warrant a new home that sells for $1,000,000.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with expensive housing options; It’s great for the local tax base. But the special texture and small-town allure of Westhampton, with its modest homes located within easy reach of a range of businesses, well-priced old homes, and excellent private schools, created a social and economic dynamic that was, well, kind of perfect. During the past decade here, demand has intensified to transform the early 20th century apartment blocks, where the working class could once live, into something grander. It seemed remarkable that the modest houses were so close to the great houses on Three Choupt Road and Curry Street. In many Anglo-American cities, these thoroughfares are often known as “Main Street”.
On the 300 block of Maple Avenue in the early 1930s, for example, there were working-class families. Lawrence Misko was a firefighter, James Hubbard was a barber, and Everett Clayton was a baker. Robert Detrick was then west in Libby living above his hardware and paint shop while Jack Basinger was a blacksmith and Hugh Gentry was a fireman. Neighbors down the street ran a shoe repair shop, a Westhampton pharmacy, and a billiards-saloon, respectively.
During the Great Depression, on the northwest corner of the Grove in Libby, the confectionery occupied the building in which Peter Blair’s haberdashery now operates. By the 1960s that address was a popular watering hole, the Tempo Room. The crossroads became gradually more upscale by the 1970s when Virginia Wortham, an elegant and feisty lady, moved her venerable downtown operation, E.P. Taylor, which specialized in fine china and crystal, to 5720 Grove Avenue.
Consider a Westhampton cinema. For 80 years until recently, the elegant theater was an anchor of Grove Avenue as well as a popular destination for movie lovers. The Richmondians felt quite comfortable (despite the uncomfortable seats) in the hall decorated with Chinese Chippendale wallpaper. The lobby was a salon, really. It was furnished in 18th century American antiques and accessories acquired by seasoned theater owner, Morton J. Thalheimer, and his wife, Ruth.
But just recently, in the well-heeled West End, a beloved and historic movie mansion will be demolished and replaced with an expensive structure, whose façade, mixed-use, apartment complexes, and gleaming Colonial Revival façade recall the ruined landmark.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” But this economic adage is an exception to the new rules for the booming neighborhood of Libbie and Grove. Many people who could otherwise afford to live there will be left out as the charm and diversity of the local village WASPY in Westhampton is lost. So raise your cups and mugs to the latest Tempo Room and, more recently, Phil’s Continental Lounge.