RICHMOND -- A century ago the Robert E. Lee statue was erected on Monument Avenue, a boulevard called "the most beautiful street in America" by some Southerners and "Losers' Lane" by some Northerners.

Today, the 140-foot-wide thoroughfare lined with statues of Confederate heroes symbolizes both the scars of slavery and the elegance of a time long ago.

Edwin J. Slipek Jr., director of Monument Alive!, the avenue's centennial celebration, said Richmonders are "passionate about remembering all their history," but added that Monument Avenue is "more than a Confederate Valhalla."

"It's a linear Central Park or town square, tracking the development of an American city," he said.

Norrece T. Jones Jr., professor of Afro-American history at Virginia Commonwealth University and a black resident of Monument Avenue, said he thinks what the monuments embody is "abominable."

"The Civil War, in essence, was fought to preserve a certain culture -- that culture predicated on the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African Americans," Jones said.

A 62-foot-tall statue of Lee on his horse was the first to go up on the avenue, on Memorial Day in 1890.

Statues of other Confederate heroes followed. Jeb Stuart and Jefferson Davis went up in 1907, Stonewall Jackson in 1919 and Matthew Fontaine Maury, "Pathfinder of the Sea," in 1927.

By the 1920s, Monument Avenue was Richmond's most prestigious address. Douglas Southall Freeman, the Richmond historian whose writing about Lee won a Pulitzer Prize, doffed his hat whenever he passed "Marse Lee."

Today, joggers and children often fill the center of the avenue.

A typical home on the avenue is 5,000 square feet, has half a dozen fireplaces, four bathrooms, maids' quarters and a dozen rooms on three floors. Some of the houses have been sold to new owners who find them too large to handle and turn them into offices and apartments. Some have been purchased by newcomers eager to buy a mansion for a relatively cheap price.

Ceci Amrhein, a real estate broker who is also co-chairwoman of the centennial, said a house in need of major renovation is on the market for $250,000, and one completely renovated sold for $775,000.

The avenue has a grassy, tree-lined strip running down the middle. As part of the celebration of its centennial this year, a croquet festival, billed as "the world's largest croquet match," was held on the lawns. Amrhein said most people see the statues as works of art, not as tributes to Southern demigods.

And there have been signs of change. The Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a mock competition for a new sculpture on Monument Avenue. The most popular subject among 250 architecture students was Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor.

Hints of racism have cropped up through the years.

When the first majority-black City Council was elected in the late 1970s, the outgoing white government deeded the Lee monument to the state to prevent it from being moved or torn down.

But those fears proved to be unnecessary. Henry Marsh, the city's first black mayor, laid a wreath at the Jefferson Davis monument, assuring the United Daughters of the Confederacy that he was "mayor of all the city."

Today, Marsh said the problem then was more confusion, not racism.

"The city had never experienced what they perceived as black control and didn't know what to expect," Marsh said.

Marsh called Monument Avenue "one of the great boulevards in the world."

Problems have emerged even during this year's celebration.

As part of the celebration, a jazz group was invited to play. The black youths in the band refused to perform under the statue of Lee, Jones said. The band moved the show a block away.

Jones, who came to Richmond in 1983, moved to an apartment building that overlooks the statue of Jeb Stuart.

Stuart, one of the heroes of the Civil War, is renowned as one of the best cavalry commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Jones said he enjoys living on the avenue. He lives in a building designed by William Lawrence Bottomley. Bottomley's Richmond houses are the subject of a coffee-table book that is popular among homeowners on the avenue, which is on the Virginia Historic Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

"The first thing that struck me about Monument Avenue was a maquette of a Claes Oldenburg sculpture sitting in a front yard," he said. The sculpture was a large metal clothespin parked on the lawn of Sydney and Frances Lewis. Things like that just weren't done on Monument Avenue.

Over the years, additional statues of people have been proposed, including Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, William Henry Harrison and Edgar Allan Poe.

Architects, historians and Richmond natives have varying opinions of the avenue.

John Zehmer, executive director of the Historic Richmond Foundation, said he thinks Monument Avenue is not so much a commemoration of Confederate heroes as a display of fine art.

Robert Winthrop, an architectural historian, said the avenue is simply part of a nice residential neighborhood.

"If the city government was focused on a memorial to the Lost Cause it might be different," Winthrop said.

He said the row of statues grew "piece by piece."

"They didn't start out by saying, 'We're going to dedicate a street to the men who lost the Civil War,' " he said.

Slipek said it is part of Richmond's history.

And history is still big in the South. Jean Baker, professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, said there has been a resurgence of interest in the Civil War. In war, it is more difficult for the losing side to forget, she said.

Robert Strohm, associate director of the Virginia Historical Society, said the South is the only portion of the United States that has been defeated and occupied, and is still going through a "healing process" of sorts.

George Callcott, professor of Southern history at the University of Maryland, said: "One of the things American historians have noticed is the South's preoccupation with the past. Monument Avenue is an indicator of that."

Slipek said Monument Avenue's centennial is just an expression of neighborhood pride. Jones said the centennial is positive and that he appreciates the beauty of the avenue.

But Jones said he feels something else too.

"When I see those monuments, I think of people who enslaved African Americans. I can never look at them dispassionately or indifferently."