Thursday, April 25, 2013


Shafer Court as the Hibbs Building was being completed
First sudents of the Richmond School of Social Economy, 1917 (VCU Archives)

A little late, but our warm-weather travels are now planned.  Gardeners plot out their summer projects and order seeds in late winter; we, having only pots on the deck to plant, get serious about where to go and who and what to see.  And it's always that stark choice:  try some new adventure a little further out than we've been before, or go back to those favorites that only become dearer to the heart as layers are revealed over the years.

The old faves win in 2013.  Brother Ron called and asked us to house-sit and care for the new kittens while he and Claire explore the U.K. for a few weeks.  Glad to, bro!  We would have never gotten to know California's Central Coast without them; and there's always more to explore.  A page-long list has already been prepared.  It will all start as they catch a plane at the beautiful new Santa Barbara airport (across the US and the Atlantic?? a flight that long would end up with me in a straitjacket!), then begin the next morning at Java Station, finest coffee stop in the world.

Again thanks to a generous invitation, we travel to Richmond later in the summer to attend Joel and Margie's annual all-day-and-night outdoor party, the BARF (Bon Air Recreational Foundation).  We're going to make it a little longer visit this year and try to see everybody we can.  Again, a long list of new places to check out -- can we fit in all the old, well-loved ones too?

Recently, Cliff sent me a link to a book, now digitized in the VCU Archives, that I'd not heard of, but enjoyed so much I read it through in two days:  Dr. Henry Hibbs' 1973 The History of RPI.  It's the story of the little school that could, the runt of the litter who grew and thrived despite all the odds to the contrary.  Amazing what I did not know about that predecessor of VCU (a Frankenstein created by the merger with the Medical College of Virginia in 1968 to create a university)...  I can't decide to revisit the old city campus or not when we're there, because the big, shiny new buildings stretching miles out from the old, well-worn and compact center feels like being dropped in Beijing or someplace equally foreign.

Some things don't change, though.  This old editorial in the Richmond News Leader could be printed without much amendment today:

Those who live in Richmond's Fan District...are aware of RPI's vitality.  The red-headed stepchild of Virginia's higher education program is leaping toward university status...There are times when RPI gets a little too beatnik for the local tastes, and there are times -- especially when homeowners in the Fan are searching for a place to park -- that RPI gets to be a headache.

When it began in a few cold rooms opposite the State Capitol downtown, with a handful of students, early in the 20th century as a specialist professional school of social work, who would have predicted its association with prestigious William & Mary from 1925 through 1962, its gradual acceptance by the state system (and that long before any actual state funding came its way), and its sudden achievement of university status, all grown from one idea that occurred to Dr. Hibbs while in a Brown University class?  What he observed was that the sociology program he was in oddly enough made almost no use of the city's resources through field work. When some citizens of Richmond (later formally the RPI Foundation) saw the need for training public health and social work professionals, Henry Hibbs' idea found its place.  Despite ongoing discouragement of the idea of an urban campus, the Ginter mansion at 901 West Franklin Street became the core of a cluster of funky little schools in converted Victorian homes -- and even several stables -- which turned out teachers and practicioners who uniformly came from nowhere and went somewhere.  Art history professor Maurice Bonds (not only my, but every one's favorite teacher) said

Henry Hibbs invited experimentation and innovation in the classroom and frequently defended his staff and students against conservative outrage.

RPI boasted the largest enrollment of any Virginia college when I entered in the fall of 1965: 7,855.  Small by today's standards, but it was an exciting time when off-center but dedicated teachers and youthful energy burst out of the old buildings and swept along the cobblestone and brick streets and alleys.  And it wasn't just the usual academic beauty contest:  no perfect SATs, family connections or loans were needed.  One blogger said her four years (1963 to 1967) cost her $5,000, which she earned in the summers.  I worked all year, paying for tuition, books, a car or motorcycle and two raucous homes with roommates, graduating with no debt and memories you can't put a price on.  At the time, I felt I'd found life (conspicuously absent in the far suburbs whence I came) in the self-organized, anarchic community of students and their nearby hangouts, and was little interested in the history or direction of the school until the announcement of the merger in 1968.  That cold change was not our idea but came from above and beyond, and it was as inevitable as it was sad.

Several years ago, I revisited the two or so blocks of Grace Street between Harrison and Laurel which once was the irresistible commercial and social scene, and it looked dead beyond hope even as towering, shiny new university buildings blocked the sun in every direction.  So I'm ambivalent about visiting again this year -- even cozy Shafer Court has expanded beyond recognition.  It used to feel more like home than home.  I don't want to see if the cobblestones are gone.  Maybe there's no there there anymore.

(Update:  Cliff alerted me to the $100 million development of West Grace Street that is now going on.  I think the above "West Grace North" building going up is at the northeast corner of Grace and Shafer, where the Lum's (frosty mugs!) used to be.  Five-story buildings just don't seem to fit any more there than in your backyard, but this train ain't stopping.  Two more buildings are on schedule for next year, with the old Ukrop's lot beyond Harrison to be built on in 2015.  Sunless, hard urban canyons are the model now, replacing the old mode of reusing classic one- to three-storey buildings.  Even the ghosts of our memories are being chased out.)



1 comment:

  1. The "there" is still there but only in the last century. Our memories of a passing time can be good or bad but it was a transition between an institute and a university. I remember the struggle the teachers had upgrading their game and later referenced it when the digital age arrived.