By Charles McGuigan
Scott’s Addition exemplifies the very best of what it is to be an American—independence. Independence in thinking and independence in pursuing what it is that makes us truly happy. For several days I walked every square inch of Scott’s Addition and met scores of entrepreneurs. From Noel Dempsey’s unique machine shop, to a taxidermist who creates waterfowl so lifelike in their postmortem poses you’d swear they’d been reanimated. On a Saturday afternoon I met a woodworker and an upholsterer at Harrison Higgins, Inc., a workshop that specializes in handcrafted furniture, and where the air is heavy with the smell of sawdust. On a Monday I talked with a group of tattoo artists who make skin come alive in a way a still life never will. All of it was refreshing, for in these odd post-American years, when we’ve outsourced virtually everything we ever manufactured and sold our very birthright to mega-corporations, Scott’s Addition glows with more than a faint glimmer of hope. People here run their own businesses and make products that are American made. But Scott’s Addition is much more than an old industrial district. It’s a city within a city. There’s nightlife here and a slew of restaurants to tickle every taste, a movie theater complex, an ABC store, a taxi service, a pharmacy and banks. And people live here—in the newer loft apartments, as well as the old row homes that could have been scooped out of the Fan. On the back end of Scott’s Addition, near the railroad tracks, there are even encampments of crusties.
At night, on the summit of the Boulevard hump that crosses the railroad tracks just south of the Greyhound Bus Station, Scott’s Addition glows with the golden neon of City & Guilds and the ruby neon of Mincz Tire. The railroad tracks under this span fed life blood into this industrial district in the early decades of the 20th century.
But the history of Scott’s Addition dates back more than a century earlier. Colonel John Mayo, who owned Mayo’s Island and the bridge that traverses it, also had in his possession a vast estate of more than 600 acres, which extended from the land now occupied by the Science Museum of Virginia all the way out to Hamilton Street. It was called the Hermitage and in 1818 the land was given to Mayo’s new son-in-law, a fellow Virginian by the name of Winfield Scott who had recently distinguished himself in the War of 1812. He would become the longest serving general in American history, ending his career with his death shortly after the Civil War began, and Scott’s Addition would bear his name in perpetuity
It wasn’t until 25 years after the death of “Old Fuss and Feathers” (as General Scott was known) that Scott’s Addition was developed. The initial subdivision of the property called for residential development. A number of homes were built and then, as passenger and freight rail along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac line increased, the city rerouted the tracks so that they ran along the western and northern edges of Scott’s Addition. And that changed everything for good and all.
The focus then became industrial and in short order small factories began springing up. The railroad extended spur lines into the heart of Scott’s Addition that pumped out a steady stream of goods to be transported across America. And then in 1927 the city adopted a zoning ordinance that designated all of Scott’s Addition for industrial use and that opened the flood gates, and one manufacturing concern after another built its headquarters there.
Curles Neck Dairy, Sealtest, James E. Crass Coca-Cola Bottling, Binswanger Glass. Dr. Pepper Bottling Company, Bond Bread Bakery, Carter Brothers Trucking Line, Nabisco and Stork Diaper Service, to name a few. Scott’s Addition was the place to do business in the city of Richmond.
And people didn’t merely work in Scott’s Addition; they lived there as well. There were two churches—Roseneath Presbyterian and Boulevard Baptist. There were grocery stores and a skating rink, ice cream parlors and, of course, Moore’s Field, home to the Colts, Richmond’s Class B baseball team. The stadium became a center of activity from the day it opened in 1943 and hosted even the Richmond Giants of the Negro League when the Colts were out of town.
But Scott’s Addition was first and foremost a hardcore, blue collar, white neighborhood, and blacks, unless they were working there or playing ball at Moore’s Field, were not welcome. Rule of thumb: if you were black you were out of Scott’s Addition before the sun set. In that regard, it was pretty much like Oregon Hill during that same period.
Ken Woodcock, who was born, bred and buttered in Scott’s Addition, remembered a group of men who wore dark clothing, black hoods and carried baseball bats. At night they patrolled the streets of Scott’s Addition searching for African-Americans who had missed curfew. “We kids never knew who they were, but we heard stories of how colored men would be caught in the neighborhood at night, beaten up and disposed of on the sidewalks of either Broad Street or the Boulevard,” Ken said.
He recalled a contemporary of his named Sammy, who he worked side by side with cleaning up the bleachers at Moore’s Field after the games. One night, Sammy, who was black, had to work late and tried to get out of Scott’s Addition on foot. “Nearing Leigh Street, a figure wearing black stepped in front of him, blocking the way,” said Ken. Sammy was beaten by the group of men, who all wore black hoods and wielded baseball bats. After the beating, which Sammy survived, the men dragged his body over to Broad Street where he was dropped in a gutter and warned never to appear in Scott’s Addition after dark again.
Early one morning in late June I leave my office at Highpoint and West Clay and begin a slow trek of Scott’s Addition. From where I stand I can see the WTVR tower rise above the Comfort Inn on Broad Street and in the opposite direction the home of Napoleon Taxicabs, co-owned by Jonathon Trainum and Christopher Brevard.
The morning fairly hums with activity. Two trucks from Hamlet Cleaners head south along High Point as I make my way to the back entrance of Frozen In Flight Taxidermy. Robert Olson is busy at a workbench with the carcass of a wood duck. He’s already extracted the interior flesh and has worked the skin and is now putting the finishing touches on a form that will fill the vacant cavity of the duck. “I’ve just made a mannequin,” Robert says, then points at what looks to be partially frozen meat. “This is the actual body that came out of the bird and I cleaned it and I did a lot of processing to get the skin up to this point and I’m pre-fitting the bird right now. “
Robert has been doing taxidermy for a little over eight years and it is a labor of love. “It stems from my love of birds,” he says. “I’ve always bird-watched and I’ve hunted birds, as well, and recreating the actual birds in lifelike poses is something that I really enjoy.”
All around him are examples of his work; birds caught permanently in flight, lifelike as the real thing. There’s one in particular, solid white, with a wingspan of more than five feet, that seems to be in motion. Robert tells me it’s a tundra swan. “I can match any pose that people want for their bird,” says Robert.
Robert shares his space with David Morrison, founder of the Billboard Art Project. Though the use of billboards to display fine art is no new concept, David was the first to use digital billboards to display art. “We essentially get art from different artists all over the country and put them on digital billboards,” David tells me. “It started in October of 2010 with a billboard here in Richmond and we’ve had a show in Nashville and one in Savannah and we have six upcoming shows starting in Duluth and ending in San Bernardino, California this year.”
Back outside the sidewalks are already baking as I make my way down West Moore Street past Mercer Rug Cleaning and the four well-appointed row homes next to it, homes that could have been lifted out of the Fan and slapped down in Scott’s Addition.
I stop by H.J. Holtz and Son, a family owned and operated painting and wallpapering business that started 75 years ago. Dick Holtz took the business over from his father Herman and passed the company along to his son, Rick, just two years ago. He loves being in Scott’s Addition for the same reason many other business owners will tell me. “We picked it because it’s close to where we live and we can get on the turnpike right at Hamilton Street and we can get right on the expressway,” Dick says.
H.J. Holtz employs 36 painters along with six office workers and has a fleet of 20 vans. They specialize in high end paint jobs—think Windsor Farms and River Road. “We also do a lot of faux finishing,” Dick says. “We do marbleizing, graining, and we do Venetian plaster.”
Later, as I head down Rockbridge and make a sudden left on Summit, I stop dead in my tracks. Between the buildings that flank the street there appears to be a mother ship out of a sci-fi movie, hovering above the rooflines. It is the Diamond, home of our Flying Squirrels.
From there I wander through the area that houses the majority of the residents of Scott’s Addition in loft apartments and condominia. And then I head over to the offices of Henry Briggs and Associates Realtors.
Judging by the plethora of his signs throughout Scott’s Addition, it’s obvious that he owns and manages the lion’s share of properties here—like Franco Ambrogi and Peter Francisco in Lakeside. “Our business has been back here for 42 years,” says Henry Briggs. “So we’ve seen a lot of changes back here and witnessed the transformation of the neighborhood.”
About ten years ago property owners formed the Scott’s Addition Business Association and that began the revitalization of this area. “One of the first things they did was to get a historic designation for Scott’s Addition which then enabled renovations to take place with the help of historic tax credits and so forth and that helped bring money into the neighborhood,” says Henry.
When things really started moving, Henry was somewhat skeptical about the creation of the loft apartments. “I was afraid that it was going to change the dynamics of the neighborhood and the commercial side,” he says. “But the people that are moving in here know that they’re moving into a city industrial neighborhood, they’re accepting of the neighbors and the businesses are doing the same.”
Business owners and residents alike gravitate to this area because of its location, Henry believes. “It just lends itself to convenience,” he says. “We’re in the heart of the city and we’re right at the intersection of 95 and 64 and the downtown expressway so you can get to anywhere you need to be quickly.”
The following Saturday my daughter Catherine accompanies me on a four-hour walk through Scott’s Addition. We pay careful attention to the architecture which is stunning if you stop to study it. We walk past the Handcraft building on Roseneath which used to house Binswanger Glass. It stands like an ocean liner on a sea of concrete and asphalt, deck after deck sheathed in massive panes of glass. And it is one of the premier Moderne style buildings still standing in Richmond. Ships—steamboats and ocean liners—were frequent themes used in this architectural style. Just up the street we stop in front of Infuzion which again is Moderne style, architecturally a first cousin of Art Deco.
As we walk, we talk, and Catherine gives me her take on Scott’s Addition. “It sketches me out a little bit because it looks really run down,” she says. “But it’s got this really cool feel to it. It’s got an old timey kind of feel. It’s got a history to it.” And I know what she means. There are beautiful rough edges to it all and I hope it never becomes so polished and gentrified that it becomes another Shockoe Slip.
On our way back east we drop by Dempsey and Company, 17,000 square feet devoted to machinery. A long-time customer, Mike Rainer, is fishing through parts. “I don’t think I’d be in the business if it wasn’t for this place and what the owner does down here,” he says. “I own a machine and welding shop. “
I meet up with Noel and Judy Dempsey who own the property. He’s an engineer and started buying old machines almost three decades ago. “I ended up selling machines,” he says. “And people come from all over. About ten cents on the dollar is what we charge.”
Frequently, on Saturdays, machinists, an increasingly rare breed, come out to Dempsey’s to browse the machinery and exchange ideas. “It’s like women in a shoe store,“ says Judy.
Noel shows me the prototype of an invention he’s working on. It’s really remarkable; a self-winding garden hose reel that operates off the water pressure in the hose. “You really have to use your imagination,” Noel says and I do and I can see these things selling like hotcakes at Lowe’s and Home Depot.
Back outside we encounter Junie Brunson, for my money one of the best postal carriers in the city. He’s been delivering in Scott’s Addition for the past seven years and seen significant changes in the area. “It used to be almost all business,” he says. “Now there’s a lot more residential and it’s been great to see how it has blossomed.”
A lawnmower starts up just down Leigh Street in front of the row homes there. These are the remnants of the old Scott’s Addition residential area when the population here was about 800. A man pushes a mower across a postage stamp front yard and a few houses down from him another man sits on a porch bench.
This man’s name is Carl Livesay and he’s been a resident of Scott’s Addition for almost fifty years. He worked most of his professional like as a mining engineer in coal mines and he sees Scott’s Addition as relatively immutable. “There ain’t nothing going on around here, never has been,” he says. “It’s quiet and it’s convenient.”
We make our way to the Moore Street Café, home of the Early Bird Special and probably the safest spot in Richmond on any given weekday morning. City cops come here in droves for breakfast at a bargain–$2.22 gets you two eggs, two slices of bacon and two pieces of toast. We stroll along the Boulevard—home of Buzz and Ned’s, the Lotus Restaurant, Stronghill Dining, The Flower Market, Discount Medical and Bowtie Cinemas. And then we make our way over to Harrison Higgins. Inside we visit a showroom that features some of the handcrafted furniture this shop is known for. There’s one woodworker here along with David Cox, a former employee and upholsterer, who owns Period Restoration Upholstery right next store. Of Scott’s Addition, David says, “It’s a nice little niche corner of the city with lots of professional people.” The woodworker nods.
Next door to Period Restoration I visit Dixie and Bruce Hornstein, owners of Pyramid Studios. They’ve been working out of Scott’s Addition for 28 years now and it was Dixie, a former president of the business association, who really got the wheels rolling. She pushed for the historic district designation from both the state and federal government. And she and her husband are visionary about the area. “It was still kind of sketchy when we moved over here,” says Bruce. “This was a bizarre place to be. Most people didn’t even know that it existed.” But Dixie and her husband, Northsiders to the core, could see the raw potential. “We saw that it could be like a Soho, a neat urban kind of place,” Bruce says. And gradually that’s what it’s become.
Dixie tells me their son Noah now lives in a loft apartment not a hundred yards from Pyramid Studies. And bit by bit the pieces are falling into place. With the opening of Bow Tie Cinemas, which is undoubtedly the very best movie house in Richmond, the effect is nearly complete.
Dixie would like to see something on the order of a Whole Foods Market to the east of the Boulevard near the cinema, along with retail shops, perhaps even a pared down version of Target—but no WalMarts, please.
“I can see it happening,” says Dixie.
“So can I,” says Bruce.
Last summer, my kids and I walked over to Bowtie Cinemas from Bellevue and caught a late afternoon showing of “Up” then ate dinner at Buzz and Ned’s. By then it was late and we lingered on the Boulevard train overpass that would take us back to Northside. We watched swirls of orange light climb the night sky and erupt in successive stages of colored fire, a seeming endless display of fireworks, compliments of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. And it wasn’t even the Fourth. We listened to the reports like distant cannonade and saw the sky explode in showers of molten metal, all freely given. How lucky could we be? I looked from my children’s faces, blushed green and blue, and then back to the neon, gold and red, above Scott’s Addition. I’d live there in a heartbeat.