"You're going to Richmond?" the friend asked, unbelieving. "To Richmond itself?"
At first blush, it did seem odd to those of us who have, more times than we care to remember, started out down I-95 toward Richmond on the long trek to Williamsburg, or downshifted our way through Richmond's delightful series of toll booths on the way to North Carolina. Viewed from the Interstate, Richmond always seemed too industrial, too grubby.
So it was a special treat, on a two-day visit, to find that Richmond offers a trove of small treasures for everyone: historical landmarks, craft galleries, grand old houses, a canal, tiny neighborhood pubs and rollicking night spots. This comes as no suprise to Richmond natives, of course; they speak of their city and its history with pride and humor.
Part of the town's appeal is its smaller scale. You can visit the state capitol and many historical points during an afternoon walking tour. You can drive from downtown to an elegant residential district called the Fan in a matter of minutes, and find a parking place on the street. The city is animated, but not mobbed. We had little trouble finding parking spaces and didn't have to wait in lines. With a six-year-old in tow, that makes a big difference.
And with distances so manageable, the city shows itself as a meld of identities: govermental, historical, commercial, industrial, residential. It's refreshing to wander through a city where everyone doesn't process papers for a living.
Starting out from Richmond's downtown, we stroll over to the Capitol Square, a cluster of buildings. First on the agenda is the capitol itself, inspired by Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to copy the Maison Carree in Nimes, France. Here magnolia-voiced hostesses take groups through the old House chamber, where Aaron Burr was tried and acquitted of treason and where Robert E. Lee accepted the command of Virginia's armed forces.
In the rotunda stands Houdon's status of George Washington, the only one done from life. The guides are especially proud of it, and take care to explain every symbolic detail. Above is Jeffeson's dome - not visible from outside because Jefferson didn't want to spoil his classical design with a dome. But every capitol has to have one, he reasoned, so this dome is covered by a pitched roof.
A boy in the group asks if this capitol was copied after the one in Washington. Why, no, the docent explains sweetly, Richmond's came first, and it was the Washingtonians who sought to copy it. She adds that the plans were sent to Washington and when the Capitol builders there decided not to use them, they were somehow lost. Washington was inefficient even then.
From there it's a short walk to St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where Jefferson Davis and Lee worshipped. Nearby is the Old City Hall, an 1890s riot of Gothic architecture that now is closed down while the city ponders how to revamp it for 1980s living.
At this point, one can contiune to Davis' residence, now the Museum of the Confederacy, or go to the home of Chief Justice John Marshall. But wiht the steamy afternoon slowly turning into a steamy evening, it's time to explore some of Richmond's watering spots.
The trial leads to East Cary Street at the Kanawha Canal, roughly three blocks from downtown. The area, called Shockoe Slip, used to be a warehouse. It still is - some of the warehouse along the sloping cobblestoned streets are still in operation - but the neighborhood has become an in place to go. Restaurants has craft galleries are moving into the old warehouses. Some of the restuarants' names reflect the buildings' heritages: Sam Miller Exchange Cafe (an old grain warehouse) and the tobacco Company.
We wander into the latter (no reservations needed) and find a splendid spectacle: three levelse of dining space centered around a huge atrium. Lots of exposed brick and beams, hanging plants, wicker and bentwood. A pianist and a harpist.Young, friendly, frest-scrubbed waitresses inwhite gowns. An open wrought-iron elevator takes up to a third-floor vantage point, where we feast on mushrooms tuffed with crabmeat, salad, salmon and scampi. Drinks are good and ample, and dessert is all you can eat from the pastry table.
Outside, the damp night air carries the aroma of tobacco up from the factories by the James River. We walk down Cary Street, finding dilapidated warehouses next to newly spruced-up one. One boasts fine antiques, another paintings and crafts by regional artists.
We walk into one, the Harold Decker gallery, where B. Louis Briel Jr. tells us the building used to be a meat warehouse. The rough-wood pillars have been repainted,but you can still see the gashes from meat hooks. The shop offers a small but appealing selection of ceramic pieces, paintings (a striking one of a local codger is $400), objets (a stunning mirror framed in curved wood at $250) as well as $7 carved wooden toys. Briel tells us Shockoe Slip is becoming a fashionable place to live; a coffee warehouse on the triangular plaza near his gallery has been coverted into luxury condominiums.
We return the nex the morning to explore Shockoe Slip. It has undergone a character change. No longer a Georgetownesque haunt for the trendies, it's a bustling work place. Parked trucks block the narrow streets and men josh passersby as they hustle crates in and out of warehouses. The scene is reminiscent of Les Halles.
But the restaurants are dormant. The morning sun has begun to penetrate and, hoping someone can point us to an open bar, we wander into the Slip Shop. This craft gallery is a renvoted produce warehouse, and Carol Womack, who works there, shows us more pottery, carved wood and locally made fabrics and clothing. She also calls up a friend across they way at Sam Miller's.It's an hour away from opening time, but he'll serve us Cokes, anyway. Shockoe Slip is that kind of place.
If Shockoe Slip is still in the midst of its rejuvenation, the Fan district is already there. It gets its name from way the neighbohood's streets fan out from Monroe Park and downtowm streets. This is a sophisticated residential district in every sense: Huge tress frame the elegant streets, and the residences are huge, gracious turn-of-the-century townhouses and mansions. The area went through changes familiar to many city neighborhoods: from posh to run-down to renovated. Not all the homes have been fixed up; tricycles on the sidewalks and bright colors indicate young families moving in and putting their stamp on the neighborhood.
The fan is also university quarter. Walking down West Franklin Street, we see that many of the elegant mansions have been converted into administrative offices for Virginia Commonwealth University. The styles range from Italian Villa to gables but inside most feature elaborate woodwork and stairways.
This neighborhood also offers boutiques and vest-pocket bar-delis. For lunch, we stroll back to the edge of the Fan, to Mad King Ludwig's on Grace Street. This restaurant consists of tiny, tucked-away booths, rich wood paneling and a greenhouse-like, glassed-in front porch where the street life passes by while you quaff draft beer and eat german fare - or, more appropriate for summer, huge salads and generous slices of quiche. An upright piano is there for anyone who gets the urge to play. We go to freshen up; my father returns informed of the latest news. Seems Mad King Ludwig's tacks up Page One of the day's Wall Street journal in the men's room. No such luck for the women.
There are too many things to see. We are urged to visit the Virginia Museum, with its Gobelins, its Faberge jewelry and eggs, its Goya. There's a science museum in an old railroad station. There are battlefields.
But time's running short, so we head for Church Hill, to see St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry made his famous "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech.
On the way, we stop to take in the Edgar Allan Poe museum on East Main Street. The central building, the Old Stone House is Richmond's eldest standing building and shows how the people lived. The guide recounts Poe's unhapy life - from his actress mother's death, to growing up in a Richmond foster home, to rebellion, to brilliant editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger, to tragic marriage, to hard times and death. She advises us to check out the St. John's cemetery for the grave of Poe's mother, unmarked until 20th-century actors pitched in for a memorial.
At Church Hill, we find an 18th-century neighborhood that is now beginning a resurgence like Washington's Capitol Hill. The church, St. John's, sits surrounded by tombstones.
We are met by guide John Daicre, who tells us his association with the church goes back to 1920, when, fresh off the boat from England, he was married there.
He plays a tape of the history of the 1741 church, then points out where Patrick Henry sat, the Pocohontas Baptismal font, the Tiffany windows. On summer weekends, he say, costumed actors re-enact the 1775 Virginia Convention, bringing the history alive. Daicre describes the scene, his blue eyes blazing as he recites Henry's famous lines. Later, he takes us out to the churchyard, pointing out the old slave school building and the impressive graves of the notables and the small, worn stones of the not-so-notables. No one really knows how many people are buried here, he says; in fact, the yard is so crowded that when Bishop Blankingship was buried here in 1975, gravediggers unearthed someone else's skull.
The guide regales us with stories about St. John's famous parishioners, and talks of Patrick Hentry, and the patriot's marital woes, as if he were a next-door neighbor. But in Richmond, where the past blends so smoothly into the present, it seems only natural. CAPTION: Picture, A STREET IN OLD RICHMOND. By Bob Burchette.