Posts Tagged ‘Chris Hull’

Quoit Club discovers treasure at Pump House

James River Park System's Pump House in Richmond, Va.It is rare when “architecture” and “James River” can be used in the same sentence. That is the unique appeal of the Pump House.

I tagged along with the Historic Richmond Foundation‘s Quoit Club on a tour of the Victorian Gothic treasure, which is located in the Byrd Park District, west of the Boulevard Bridge on the Kanawha Canal. It was designed and constructed in the 1880s under the leadership of the great Richmond city engineer Col. Wilfred Emory Cutshaw.

A description of its original functions from the National Park Service:

A municipal industrial building whose purpose was to house the Richmond city waterworks. The building, which served as the city’s waterworks from 1883 until 1924, is conveniently situated to draw water from the James River and Kanawha Canal as well as its own smaller canal. The facility pumped water uphill from the canals to the Byrd Park Reservoir, the city’s main water supply. Far from being entirely utilitarian, however, the pump house was also a popular gathering place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ralph White at the Pump House in Richmond, Va.Park manager Ralph White was the official sponsor of the tour, teaming with Chris Hull of the James River Outdoor Coalition and Tricia Pearsall of the Friends of the James River Park to guide and educate the crowd of nearly 50 people on an hour-long tour of the park and the ancient civic landmark.

The Pump House has been under renovation for the past decade, mostly by volunteers. Hull explained that the Pump House had been in disrepair for years. Vandals had been breaking in and stealing, burning and smashing whatever they could get their hands on. Eventually, a hole in the roof threatened to destroy the building.

Volunteers donated their time and more than $40,000 to repair the roof, block the windows with plexiglass and to purchase lumber used to build walkways and staircases to improve visitor access.

“The work has been done by people like you that care,” White said to the Quiot Club crowd. “It is one of the most lovely buildings left in the city…the last thing of beauty owned by the city, after they sold City Hall…It captures the essence of what it is to be in Richmond.”

Balcony and dance floor at Pump House in Richmond, Va.A dramatic feature of  the Pump House is the old open-air dance floor — an open space with a balcony above the pump room on the top floor of the building. Many of the Quiot Club members took in the view and wondered about the storied high society events that took place there in the late 1880s and early 1900s before the automobile replaced batteau boats and the need for the Pump House diminished.

The plan is that it will one day make its grand return as the new home for the park system visitor’s center or a James River museum. It could also be a learning center, host weddings, parties, meetings, events and the batteau rides on the Kanawha Canal could again be a feature.

Walkway inside pump room at the Pump House in Richmond, Va.Though the Pump House is “still considered a stabilized ruin,” according to White, the inside of the building has passed safety inspections and has had some lighting added, though more is needed. An elevator and running water to the building are next, which could cost an estimated $75,000, according to White.

The Pump House has already played host to a few events. White said the best story was an “unwedding” — a jilted bride-to-be had a party with all her girlfriends toasting good riddance to her fiance who supposedly cheated on her. There was also a ghost hunting event in March, though White said he didn’t plan to encourage more events like that one in the future.

Interior of the Pump House in Richmond, Va.The architectural plans have been drawn, but funding is the next big step, White said. The project could call for more than $8.5 million. The most costly items could be shoring up leak the canal walls above the Pump House to stop leaks; enclosing the building to add air conditioning and heat; and installing utilities, including water and power.

“If the city is going to compete with the surrounding counties, it’s the preservation of our abundant historic resources that makes living in the city worthwhile,” White said.

A renovated Pump House could ideally be “an extension of the museums on the Boulevard,” White said, noting that respected public landmarks like The Carillon, Dogwood Dell and Maymont are all in the neighborhood. The building could be a hub for information about the James River or even all city parks.

Newly installed wooden bridge at the Pump House in Richmond, Va.Renovations could eventually include the park being a key to the Richmond greenways effort, Pearsall suggested. With all of the surrounding bike & hiking trails, the James River and Kanawha Canal flowing through the park, it is the ideal spot for something remarkable to be developed.

Want to be involved? Contact the James River Outdoor Coalition (JROC), Friends of the James River Park or contact director J.R. Pope and his people in the Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Facilities.

This was the Quiot Club’s first visit to the Pump House and my first official chance to meet face-to-face with members — many of whom said they have been reading this blog. Here’s what they are all about:

Named for Richmond’s most popular 19th century social club, the Quoit Club is Richmond’s premiere organization for people who enjoy experiencing history and architecture with a social twist. Today, the Quoit Club supports Historic Richmond Foundation’s mission to preserve the area’s unique heritage by promoting social and educational gatherings at historic sites.


James River Journal: Night of river stories

I attended the Night of Storytelling and book signing for the James River Journal: A Year in the Life of a River last week, and it was great to reconnect with Richmond Times-Dispatch friends, meet some new ones and learn a little more about the James.

Writer Rex Springston (left) and photographer P. Kevin Morley

Writer Rex Springston and photographer P. Kevin Morley of the RTD are former co-workers of mine, and men I look up to in the media profession. They are in the business for some of the same reasons I am — one of them being the love of storytelling.

Of course, another is a love of the James river. I enjoyed the monthly James River Journal series and hope the Times-Dispatch learned their lesson and continue to allow their journalists to do enterprise work.

The night had six speakers, not including Rex and Kevin. All had their hand in the newspaper series that was repackaged for the book. All had different stories to tell, but the theme of the night could easily have been “The James Is So Much Cleaner Now.”

I’ve read several history books on Richmond, and none of them touch on this dark side of the history of the James — at least not in-depth. Maybe I just haven’t read the right books.

When I came to Richmond in 1988, the river was relatively clean by sight and smell and I have never had this fear of the “dirty old James” that so many speakers brought up. I’ve certainly read newspaper and magazine articles, but Richmond’s history books seem to ignore this long and shameful period that lasted more than six decades. The trashing of the James had as much to do with shaping the history our city as the Falls of the James did in forcing Capt. Christopher Newport to stop at Shockoe Valley when his ships could sail no further up river.

Richmond used the river as its sewer in those days. Storm drains ran into the creeks and streams that feed directly into the James. Industry was largely unchecked. Fishing regulations weren’t strict. We had dams blocking fish from their spawning grounds. It was a mess, and we were killing all the nature that lived off and around the river.  We were killing the perception of the river too — people didn’t respect it or protect it and no one wanted to play in it.

Bryan Watts, a biologist, spoke of the numbers of breeding eagle pairs being up to 130, osprey pairs up to 500 and great blue heron pairs up to 1,500. Those numbers are up from zero in the 80s. He would know — it’s his job to count and study them. The big cause for the loss of the birds was the chemicals DDT and Kepone.

Photographer David Everette was good to hear from and meet. He said he has been photographing the James since the 70s and he seldom goes to the river without his camera. He lamented that he chose not to photograph the bad things he had seen in the James in 70s and 80s and he wishes now that he had — for context — to emphasis just how good we have it these days.

People protect it now. Worship it even. Paddlers, bikers, bird watchers, fishermen, adventurers, businessmen, educators, fathers, mothers, children….so many levels of people appreciating and helping keep the James clean.

Snorkeler Chris Hull had some creative ideas to enhance the river. He suggested the City of Richmond should acquire Mayo Island and add it to the James River Park System. The city should complete renovations to the Pump House and reopen the canal to cruises from there.

Click for larger image

This bridge over the Manchester Dam is ripe for creating a fantastic walkway between Brown's Island and Manchester

My favorite idea of his was to fix what would be a footbridge between Brown’s Island and the Manchester climbing wall. There is a rusty old bridge there now, but only maybe 15% of the bridge is accessible as a walkway. Extending it could create many more ways to enjoy and view the river and the downtown skyline. The multiple usages for this walkway with all the adventure games that Richmond hosts are exciting. So brilliant an idea that I’ve already walked across it many times in my mind.

Ralph White, manager of the JRPS, described the park as “wilderness in the heart of a city, managed by citizens….you.” He emphasized that how volunteers and communities manage the JRPS “is what defines us as a community.”

Ralph White, manager of the James River Park System

Ralph depends on an army of volunteers to keep the parks clean. He told a story of when he first was hired as park manager in the 80s, a time when the park was new and not respected like it is now. He encountered some very embarrassing graffiti in front of a class of children and called the city department in charge of having it removed. He was told it would take at least two weeks for them to get to that. Unacceptable. It had to come done immediately.

Ralph decided to do it himself, and from then on decided he would have volunteers get the job done if he couldn’t rely on help from city departments. He hasn’t looked back, and the JRPS has never had to take a step back either.

If you are reading this, then you have likely been to at least some part of the James River Park System or some spot on the James. On any weekend, no matter where you are, someone is working on a project to help the river. Volunteer to help, even for just an hour. You will feel better, and the river will be better for everyone.