Author Tom Wolfe grew up in Richmond in the 1930s and ’40s in a small frame house that his father built and his parents lovingly landscaped with boxwoods and magnolias. It stands today at 3307 Gloucester Rd., beneath towering shade trees, in a neighborhood that may have grown more crowded but no less comfortable than in Wolfe’s youth.
If an unhappy childhood is supposed to be a gift for a writer, it was one of the few that Wolfe lacked. In 1991, a man who bought Wolfe’s childhood home sent the author a picture of it, and Wolfe responded with a beautiful, wistful reminiscence of his time there.
“To this day I dream about that house,” Wolfe wrote at the start of three-and-a-half typewritten, single-spaced, hand-corrected pages. He apologized several times for rambling but seemed carried off by memory. He was 61 at the time, the same age as the house.
“It was always a beautiful setting, chiefly because of the trees and of what my parents did with the yard,” he wrote. “I can remember the beautiful maple in the middle of the backyard towards the rear. I had a swing on the big limb to the left as you look out towards the alley, and later a chinning bar.” He remembered “a beautiful black-barked honeyshuck tree,” and the two magnolias his parents planted and their “stunning white blossoms.”
His parents “loved boxwood,” he said, and at one point his mother created a formal garden out by the garage, “and a row of hollyhocks, evergreens, and an apple tree, at the rear of the garden along the alley. They planted wisteria that grew over the front of the garage in a very picturesque way, providing beautiful lavender blossoms in the spring.”
Wolfe’s father, who at the time was editor of the journal the Southern Planter, had built the house for less than $10,000, he said. Labor was cheap because of the Depression. But if Wolfe’s family felt the rough economic times or the racial tension of those days in Richmond — the former capital of the Confederacy — he made no mention in his letter.
“In the summer I used to go to sleep listening to the sounds of the trains in the Acca yards, which were about a mile to the west,” he wrote. “I used to find the sounds very romantic. In September the State Fair used to come to the area where the baseball stadium now stands. In the evening I would stand at the west window and watch the fireworks that the Fair set off every night.”
Men used scythes to cut the tall grass in the meadows between his neighborhood and the fairgrounds. In mornings, the neighborhood children would head off to the fair with instructions to be home by supper. Wolfe’s parents gave him 12 nickels to spend there.
Horse-drawn wagons tooled down his street, vendors calling out the vegetables for sale, and neighbors would hand out sandwiches to hobos who wandered over from the tracks.
“I remember the neighborhood as absolute paradise for children,” he wrote. “One of my fondest memories is of my friends and I riding our bicycles, balloon-tire, of course, along Loxley Road at night while the fireflies twinkled among the mimosa blossoms.”
On the day Wolfe died, it may have pleased him to know that much of what he remembered carried on. More houses had filled in the neighborhood — but that was underway during the 27 years his family lived there. He played in the construction sites.
The interstate cut through those nearby meadows in the 1950s. The train yards are still there, though. The alleyways still make shortcuts between the old garages, and the homes are well-kept, azaleas lush, magnolias bigger than ever. There’s still a baseball diamond where he described playing neighborhood pickup games.
And even though the old fairgrounds are gone, the professional baseball stadium that replaced them is still a magnet for kids all over town. On warm nights in spring and summer, you can still hear the crowds, and see the lights and the fireworks.
“That’s all you can ask of your old stomping grounds — assuming you enjoyed them,” wrote the man who gave electrifying voice to the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s — “i.e., that they not change too much.”
Read more Retropolis: