by Charles McGuigan
Bellevue has a soul. It has trees. It has architectural integrity. It has diversity both in terms of the people who inhabit it and the houses they dwell in. There are no restrictive covenants here. You can paint your house whatever color you choose.
Bellevue is a neighborhood of sidewalks and meandering alleys. It combines the convenience of the city with the natural beauty of the country.
As with every other residential development in Richmond’s North Side, Lewis Ginter, cigarette manufacturer and local philanthropist, was the prime mover behind Bellevue.
With good friend (and life partner) John Pope, the tobacco mogul purchased Westbrook plantation—some 400 acres—in the early 1880s. By the time Ginter and his partner purchased the plantation, the mansion had slid into disrepair. Pope enlarged the existing structure, purchased another hundred acres and began planning the development that eventually became Bellevue. He built the road that would be named after him, which served as an entrance to Westbrook. He lined both Pope and Bellevue avenues with sugar maples, built the stone arch, but died before making any further progress.
Pope’s brother, George, inherited the property. On the original plans drawn up for Bellevue Park, Virginia Avenue, which was renamed Princeton Road, was inked in, along with a street that was never constructed—Regetree Avenue. Under George’s direction, development of Bellevue crept along at a snail’s pace: By 1913 only one house had been built and four lots sold.
Several years later, after George’s death, his sister Margaret inherited the land and in 1919 she sold it for $100,000 to J. Lee Davis and C.W. Davis. Lee Davis, incidentally, built a home for himself on Hermitage Road. Because of the profusion of willows growing on the banks of Princeton Creek which ran through the property, Lee called his home Willowbrook. Today the house and surrounding land make up the New Community School.
By the time the Davises bought the land from Margaret Pope, a portion of the property had already been fitted with sewer and water lines. About half of the parcel had been sub-divided into good-sized lots, “for a high class suburban development”.
The brothers Davis were no slackers. They immediately went to work developing the streetcar suburb of Richmond.
The area bounded by Bellevue, Laburnum, Hermitage and Brook was not part of the original Bellevue. This area contained three separate developments—Brookdale, Monticello Place and Virginia Place.
Bellevue residents of a certain age are sticklers on this point. Some years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Oscar and Elizabeth Reynolds who moved into their Stanhope home almost 70 years ago. Of the area to the south of Bellevue Avenue, Oscar said, “We still don’t call that Bellevue.”
When the Reynolds moved into their home all of North Side was still part of Henrico County. “The (the city) didn’t annex it until 1940,” Oscar remembered. “Back then we had a private sewer system and didn’t have the gutters.”
Aside from that not much has changed in Bellevue, the Reynolds told me. “It’s just like it was when we moved in,” Elizabeth said. “Today there are a lot of young folks with children. That’s just the way it was when we moved in. We raised two children here.”
On about the time I talked with the Reynolds I also spoke with Wayland Rennie, a real estate agent whose name is linked with the North Side. One of its streets actually bears the family name.
“Bellevue has a wonderful texture,” Wayland said. “A wonderful architectural fabric from the Italianate to the Spanish influence with tile roofs from the Arts and Crafts to the kit-built Sears home and the American four squares. There’s something for everyone.”
Bellevue was built in protest, if not outright antipathy, to the movement in the late 1800s which saw the construction of vast homes, emblematic of the conspicuous consumption of the Guilded Age. They were more like monuments to the industrialists that owned them than comfortable and manageable homes.
The Arts and Crafts cottages in Bellevue were much more practical and offered simplicity and comfort over ostentation and grandeur.
“There’s a misconception about these cottages and bungalows you have in Bellevue,” Robert Winthrop, an architectural historian, once told me. “People think these cottages and bungalows were second best houses. Not so. In fact, they were very sophisticated homes for people of refinement. It was avant-garde. The aesthetic was to build a charming house nestled in a garden.”
It was a sort of marriage of the indoors and the outdoors and the interface between the two was not sharp or angular, it was blurred and curved.
“Back when the area was developed, the idea was to have a garden and to do meticulous landscaping,” Robert said. “The emphasis was on gardening and the introduction of exotic and unusual plants. Bellevue is loaded with them. You see deodar cedars and red leaf Japanese maples.
And the houses were constructed in a fashion that would use the landscaping. “That’s one of the reasons you see the large window areas and the great porches and verandas on practically every home in Bellevue,” said Robert. “Merging with the outside was the idea. That’s also why you’ll see the pergolas or arbors and the dooryards and entrance courts. When we talk about these kinds of cottages we’re talking about the same sort of aesthetic and style that Frank Lloyd Wright employed.”
He mentioned some of the features of Bellevue homes that were given sharp focus by their designers. “Note the roofs and the hearths, which are both prominent,” he said. “They were important symbols of the home. You’ll sometimes see the hearth on the front elevation. And the roofs are gently sloping and shallow-pitched, for the most part.” Robert also noted that many of the houses in Bellevue are built on man-made high ground. “They simply built it up to make the houses look less impressive. Remember, modesty was an admired trait.”
Some of the traits of the houses in Bellevue universally admired by contractors are the quality of workmanship and the material used in construction. Houses in Bellevue were built about ten years after most of the homes down in the Fan district were constructed. Bellevue houses are superior in their construction.
An old friend of mine told me as much. He’s both a general contractor and carpenter and has done renovations in both areas of town.
“Starting from the ground up,” he told me, “you have to look at the foundation. Houses in the Fan have the joists sunk directly into a pocket in the foundation where water seeps in and then rots the joist out. That’s why you’ll see sagging floors in Fan houses. But in Bellevue, houses are built with deep foundations on which a wood sill is placed. The joists rest on top of that sill.”
And take a comparative look at the brick work in both the Fan and Bellevue. “Back when they built the Fan they didn’t have Portland cement,” my contractor friend said. “The mortar was just sand and limestone and it tends to powder and fall apart after awhile. As a matter of fact, you could use a simple claw hammer to disassemble one of those houses.” Which is not the case in Bellevue, for when this neighborhood was built out Portland cement had become a construction standard. “The mortar in these houses in Bellevue is good and strong,” my friend told me.
Along with that, all structural members, including studs and floor and ceiling joists are 16-inches on center, making for sound and solid construction. In the Fan these members are straddled at different widths. “By having everything standardized you’ve added strength,” my friend explained. “You’ve distributed the load more evenly.”
Even the floors in Bellevue homes are of a greater quality than those in Fan houses. In the Fan, floorboards were often nailed directly to joists. “But in Bellevue they would run pine sheathing boards as a sort of sub-layer to the floorboards,” my friend said. “And the floors on the first floor were generally made of good quarter-sawn heart pine or oak.”
Supporting the weight of floors and walls in full basements in Bellevue you often find sold steel I-beams supporting the load. Upended I-beams in turn are employed as columns to support the load of the horizontal members. “You seldom see that in the Fan,” said my friend.
Even the roofs in Bellevue, because of their design, are generally more enduring than those found in the Fan. “In Bellevue they have pitched roofs of various materials instead of the flat tin roofs in the Fan,” this friend of mine said. “Water sits on flat roofs. Peaked roofs shed water. And they’re also stronger because their framing is not straight across but angled upward.”
A neighborhood’s not a neighborhood without a business district and Bellevue has two: one on MacArthur Avenue and the other on Bellevue.
At one time there were three grocery stores on Bellevue Avenue alone—Safeway at the Lamont corner, Lukhard’s at the Brook Road corner and a place called Wood’s Store in the middle of the block. And occupying the space where CVS now sits was one of Bellevue’s mainstays—Willey’s Drugstore, famous for its limeades.
“I even jerked soda for Willey’s during the Second World War,” Oscar Reynolds told me. “It was a place all the children went to after school. Many kids who grew up here, later worked at the fountain there.”
Next door where Shanan Chambers runs her remarkably successful Northside Grill there used to be a variety store. “They had a little bit of everything,” Elizabeth Reynolds told me. “And they sold candy for a penny a piece, but the owner was a crabby old man who didn’t seem to like children and at Halloween the children would soap his windows.”
Along with Northside Grill, which established its reputation upon opening for serving up great food at affordable prices in a very comfortable atmosphere, a number of other shops seem to be flourishing on Bellevue. There’s Nicola Flora, which takes advantage of its store front windows with inspired seasonal dressings, and a new consignment store called the ReFinery, owned by Linda O’Neal. There’s also Classic Touch Cleaning Service, owned and operated by Joe and Brenda Stankus, hard-working philanthropists.
MacArthur Avenue supports an even more eclectic mix of businesses from Dot’s Back Inn, the neighborhood’s cantina, to Once Upon A Vine, which is one of the largest independent sellers of wine and beer in all of Virginia. Owner Bob Kocher, who’s always good for a couple of quick jokes at the counter, stocks hundreds of different wines and beers. There’s Nutall’s Market, a community grocery store run by Eddie Chang and his wife; Stir Crazy, an un-Starbuck’s coffee shop; Decatur’s Garage; Carytown Books; Rich’s Stitches; Zorba’s, owned by Tommy Tolias and specializing in pizzas and subs; a yoga place; and a honky-tonk bar that brings in some class-A musical talent. There’s also an ice cream parlor—We All Scream—that also serves up deli-style dishes.
And then there’s Tastebuds American Bistro in a class all its own. This cozy and intimate dining room offers some of the finest food in the entire Richmond area. And the prices are unbeatable. There’s nothing else like it in the city.
Before World War II, MacArthur Avenue was called Rappahannock Avenue. There were two movie theaters—one located in Samis Grotto, the other on the site of Once Upon A Vine. There was a hardware store, yet another grocery store, a Sinclair Service Station and a U.S. Post Office. “Moving the post office was the worst thing that ever happened to Bellevue,” Elizabeth Reynolds had told me years ago.
Her husband Oscar said this: “For all Bellevue’s changed, it hasn’t changed a bit. Not really. And when people move here they don’t want to move out.”