Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Call It Home

Who would think a radical idea in housing would have been adopted so successfully in very conservative (until recent decades) Richmond, Virginia?  They not only built co-op housing in several neighborhoods in the late teens and twenties of the 20th century, but they did it so well they are thriving today, if not a big news item anymore.

The main place we think of as the place for this social experiment is New York City, and that mainly in the form of extremely exclusive and crazy expensive co-op high rises, but the idea was originally developed, along with co-op farm enterprises and co-op banks, to benefit the working classes who were not exactly getting a fair shake back before those days (T. Roosevelt and Wilson finally did give them a couple breaks, and social activists and writers brought awareness to the nation).  Richmond being itself, though, built English Village for the upper middle class.  Of course, there's more money there.


English Village, 3400 block of Grove Avenue

Completed in 1927, this group of 17 attached townhomes built around a U-shaped courtyard and set back from the street was modeled on rural English Tudor and built for economy of living and durability (a concept lost on homebuilders since).  It was not an apartment building, but a multi-family planned community, featuring individual garages, ample common and smaller private spaces, with a central shared boiler room to provide radiant heat and hot water.  The by-laws are still in force, and the "corporation," that is, the owners' association, is by charter not to make a profit.  Slate roofs, board-and-batten heavy wood doors, stone decoration and stained glass all make a strong Arts and Crafts impression.  Except for the loss of the courtyard fountain the Village remains well-maintained and unchanged today.

Last year a two-bedroom, 1 1/2 bath unit of 1536 square feet sold for around $230,000, which is unfortunately no longer in the upper-middle class stratum.  Unfortunately, the Depression put an effective end to the co-op projects in Richmond, and only one of the original owners did not lose his home there by 1934.  The commercial condominium developments of today, the heirs to this excellent idea in housing, do not measure up to the original, but the spirit is alive in university towns in places like upstate New York and the Pacific Northwest.

Other co-op neighborhoods in Richmond include Ingleside (1916), Byrd Park Court (1922), and Laburnum Court in the Northside (1919), which is as well-kept and attractive today as English Village, but consists of 24 individual homes instead of one building.  It too originally shared a radiant heating plant and even a discounted central electricity system, but these were abandoned in the 1970s as too expensive to maintain.  It is still a co-op corporation, though, built not in one but in several styles such as Colonial, Mediterranean and Arts and Crafts.  Common purpose must continue the feeling of neighborhood through the succeeding generations of owners and families.


Laburnum Court home


I used to think the name "Laburnum," which is used for this neighborhood and the area's main thoroughfare, was an unpleasant-sounding word and not a great choice, but found out that it's the name of the lovely Golden Chain Tree, which has cascades of yellow flowers and a beautiful and useful dark wood.  So, with that association, it seems pretty attractive.  Now I have to find out why in the world they named a town in Louisa County "Bumpass" ....


Pretty, but it is poisonous


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