History and Mystery in Richmond's Church Hill

Sunday, December 14, 2008

WHERE: Richmond.

WHY: Patrick Henry's cry, here lies . . ., and macabre french fries.

HOW FAR: About three miles from start to finish, and about 108 miles from Washington.

Church Hill is changing. The historical Richmond neighborhood -- site of old mansions, cast-iron work on porches, cobbled streets and the church where Patrick Henry made his impassioned cry for liberty or death -- deteriorated rapidly in the mid-20th century. "Church Hill was the drug-infested shooting gallery" of Richmond, says John Johnson, president of the Church Hill Association. But in the past few decades, an aggressive historic preservation effort (and tempting tax breaks) have spurred revitalization and development.

A mile east of downtown, the mostly residential neighborhood now has a few cafes and coffee shops sprinkled among its brick Greek Revival, Federal and Italianate homes.

Much of the area's history involves gruesome topics, such as Civil War medicine (never a pleasant subject) and a murderous grandnephew who offed Virginia's first signer of the Declaration of Independence. Add to this Edgar Allan Poe's association with the neighborhood (the writer spent much of his youth in Richmond and entertained a forbidden courtship with a Church Hill girl), and you have the makings of a creepily entertaining stroll.

Those with tamer tastes can distract themselves with a reenactment of Henry's speech at St. John's Church while their dauntless friends wander the cemetery, which contains 400 visible headstones for the approximately 1,600 people interned.

-- Rachel Kaufman

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