Victorian Gothic Castle on the James River
Elegance and utility come together in Richmond’s very own castle on the river, where Richmonders can take a step, or minuet, rather, back in history to where water once pumped under dancing feet.
Among myriad projects fronted by the mostly-single-man show that is the James River Park System, one of the latest in the works is the restoration of the historic pump house that sits on the periphery of Byrd Park near Dogwood Dell and the Nickel Bridge. The man with the plan and director of the park system, Ralph White, paints a beautiful picture of what is to come if all goes according to plan.
“My dream is to have tiki torches. You’ll have a glass of wine and go by electric motorboat that looks like an old bateau…You go up the river and come back,” White says as he waves his arm over the wooden railing of the ramp to the pump house toward the water.
The experience White wants to provide with the pump house is of a more mature nature, making the park very different from the others that line the James. Most cater to the younger, more athletic crowd, and, by making the pump house a place for nostalgic social gatherings, those interested in less active activities can come together.
“Imagine this. You come here for coffee. Then you walk up the hill to catch a show at Dogwood Dell,” White says smiling. “And then you come back and go for a boat ride.”
Historic tourism, White mentions, is something that does not need to be traveled far for.
“People go to Europe all the time to look at old castles and they don’t expect them to be modern structures…and this is our old castle,” White says of the Victorian Gothic structure.
Getting Richmond’s old castle to function in a friendly manner will take some work, such as minor construction completed largely by volunteers, and the addition of a water fountain and bathroom to get the building up to regulation. After that, hopefully, the rest will be history…or more like walking, drinking and dancing in a piece of history.
The pump house, in its heyday, was the pumping station that supplied all of the drinking water for the city of Richmond, and was the second one ever constructed. The impact of the pump house was great. Where fires would once turn residential blocks to ash in a matter of minutes, now there was a hydrant system in play that greatly affected the insurance rates and safety of the city.
Lyn Lanier, the Saturday morning tour guide and of whom White describes as a “depository of knowledge of [pump house] history,” has been working in the pump house park for 12 years. According to Lanier, the original water pumps installed in the house were too weak, and thus steam power was soon utilized.
Before and after the decommission of the pump house as a pump house, though, the building always emphasized public use. Colonel Cutshaw, war hero and architect, designed the building so that it could have double use–as a place for function and for entertainment–thus the sophisticated design of the building. This public utility was as literal as that.
“The public walk way is where the public could view their utility,” White says, pointing toward the ceiling in the pump room. The tour of the pump house leads from the furnace room to the main pump room, the building like “layers of an onion,” White says, but it is in this room where things get interesting–and where the emphasis on elegance begins.
“Designed for the public to view in awe of what the government is providing its citizens,” White says, “People were invited to come and ladies would dress to the nines with their long, flowing skirts and their whale bone corsets and their little parasols. They’d come by in boats in order to see the pumps.”
This is where White’s imagination is again taken to the future, in an attempt to tie in the sentimental history with a modern use of the building.
“Now imagine the entire ledge lit with candles…floating candles in the water…and either a radio, or a legitimate guitarist or flutist in the corner…sounds echoing off the stone walls along with the dripping water,” White says poetically.
“Wouldn’t this be a cool place for a cocktail party?” A smile breaks across the wistful face done realizing the pump house’s future in words.
Now on to the center and final layer of the onion that is the pump house–the dance floor. A brief walk up a flight of stairs above the utility is a place for the public to cut the rug in a 40-foot wide, 80-foot long open-air room overlooking the river.
According to White, in the 1880s and 1890s, Richmond's upper-crust would don their ball gowns, the women in their bustier and faux beauty marks, the men in their cuffs and lace. The dance of the time, the minuet, was an imitation of the aristocratic European dance.
“They came for elegant things…and then in the late 1890s the trolley system was extended to here and that changed everything,” White says. “Ain’t no woman in the world gonna [sic] get onto the trolley with a bustier and a big hoop skirt, so the clientele changed and it stopped being the richest of the rich.”
With the turn of the century and with newly created accessibility for the middle class to the dance hall, there was a call for practicality over elegance. In 1905, additions were built to both ends of the hall, and a back wall was created to block the rain and wind–natural elements that had been normal hindrances of the hall. Out was the original design created by Colonel Cutshaw that embodied the forests of Europe with elaborate lancet arches, bare stone and wood in grays and browns. In were walls for the weather and colored glass.
“This is king’s dominion. This isn’t elegant anymore. This is now middle class. It's functional, realistic, and you know what, you control access, weather and you have brilliant colors,” White says of the wall with glass panes in raspberry, gold and red.
Other American milestones, such as the days of speakeasies and World War II, added to the slow digression of the pump house dance hall clientele. In the '30s speakeasies popped up along the road toward the pump house, where, according to White, men could get a shot of “Dutch courage before trying out their two left feet dancing.”
“The reason for a dance floor was to have a legitimate place where a respectable woman could come to meet a man and touch. Where you could hug, whisper…where you could court…All in the safety of the public,” White says. “But with the advent of the automobile, there were backseats and privacy and there was no more need for dance floors.”
In 1952 the last public dance was hosted and the pump house was then abandoned to gracefully deteriorate. Weather beaten with a saggy roof and fixtures stolen for scrap dealing, the James River Park system adopted the pump house in the late 1980s, around when White began his lifelong venture to preserve the natural and historical assets of Richmond.
With the help of Lanier, Bill Trout, Chris Newcomb and various volunteers, the major repairs, such as the stabilization of the floor and roof–what White says is “the stuff of legends”–were done, to the chagrin of the local government, without contractors. The unconventional repairs made by the park system with virtually no funding actually worked, and now the dreams of White are even closer to realization.
“That’s the story of the salvation of this building and of the future for opening it up for public use. Then bring on the cocktail parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs….” White says.
**White says that October is the best time to come see the pump house, the “glory days” so to speak, in which you can see the building surrounded by golden leaves, and with the light slanting in just right Richmond’s castle is beautifully illuminated. To set up a tour, please call (804) 646-8911. The pump house will be closed to tours in November.**