How One Ugly House Can Save a Neighborhood

 

At Risk 7It was no secret that the house at 133 West Jackson Street was ugly. It was a lopsided and ramshackle disaster. Few people saw potential. To most of Richmond, the 200-year-old structure was simply an eyesore living on borrowed time. Someday soon a stiff breeze or a bulldozer would put it out of its misery.

But underneath all that rot and decay, behind those slabs of graffiti-covered plywood was a history. And somewhere deep inside 133 West Jackson Street beat the heart of a house that still had the potential to be a home.

For Historic Richmond, saving the Meredith House from ultimate destruction was about more than just keeping four walls from falling in on themselves. It went beyond simply holding on to an important piece of architectural and cultural heritage. Saving the Meredith House was about saving Jackson Ward, sparking change in downtown and preserving the authenticity of Richmond.

Part of our ultimate goal in revitalization is to start a “chain reaction” of renewal. We believe that once the community and the city see what is possible, the idea of redemption is contagious. Revitalization is how all great cities are built. You save some of the old and add some new and work every day to make sure that neighborhoods evolve, and adapt to stay vital. It’s the same mix that keeps cities like New York, New Orleans and Rome authentic, growing, and always worth a return visit.

There are two important factors that made the Meredith House such a great candidate for restoration. First, it stood at a prominent gateway off Interstate 95 into the Jackson Ward Historic District. Revitalizing the house meant that the district would get a second chance to make a first impression.

Second, the structure itself was rich with Richmond history. Built in 1813, it holds the distinction of being the second oldest house still standing in Jackson Ward and its two century-long roster of owners and occupants is even more impressive. After serving as home to original builder William Mann, it earned its current name from coachmaker William Meredith who lived there with his family until 1897. In the 20th century, the house earned its place in history as the address of several prominent African-American business owners.

Until 1913, it was the home of James and Virginia Forrester. The Forresters were part of a family of influential African-American community leaders. James’s brother, William M. T. Forrester, was the founder of the The St. Luke Bank, headed by Maggie Walker, the first American-American woman bank president in the United States.

In 1940, Doris C. Ford and her family moved in. Ford used the house as both a residence and beauty shop. As Secretary of the Association of Black Beauticians for Virginia in the 1940s and 1950s, she held the record for the size of delegations brought to the annual convention. Ford remained a beloved figure in the neighborhood and her church until her passing in 1988.

That rich past makes the Meredith House more than just a two-story, frame building designed in the Federal style. It’s an important piece of Jackson Ward that would have slipped away without attention and action from Historic Richmond.

As the 20th-century came to a close, the condition of the house deteriorated. A fire in 2004 added insult to injury. Preservation attempts floundered. In 2008, with encouragement from Historic Richmond, the City of Richmond filed a petition to take the property for “spot blight abatement.” Then two years later, the City of Richmond and the house’s owners settled for $76,800.

You don’t have to be a financial genius to realize that the Meredith House was not a bargain. It wasn’t much more than a free standing pile of architectural rubble with a collapsed roof. But as a result of a high property assessment by the City of Richmond and complicated procedures in regards to obtaining blighted properties, Historic Richmond had a narrow window of opportunity.

We acquired the property and our partners at Ark Construction & Development Corporation immediately went to work restoring the house to its former glory. After months of massive effort, 133 West Jackson Street has been reborn as two, completely renovated 2-bedroom apartments. The hard work of preservationists, contractors and Historic Richmond transformed a neglected eyesore into an elegant introduction to the Jackson Ward Historic District.

The Meredith House represents the best possible result for Historic Richmond’s ongoing revitalization efforts. It is what happens when everything goes right. When the community collaborates to help preserve the authentic character and irreplaceable history of Richmond neighborhoods, we all win. And in the end, that old place that everybody used to call “the ugliest building on the block” has become someone else’s brand new “home sweet home.”

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