Interactive map from 1889 reveals Richmond's rich architectural history
March 3, 2015
Researchers and others interested in the history and architecture of Richmond can now explore the city as it was at the end of the 19th century, thanks to a newly digitized map from 1889 that Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries has posted online and made fully interactive.
The map is from the “Atlas of the City of Richmond,” which was published in 1889 by the Philadelphia firm of George William Baist. The original Baist Atlas is made up of 20 panels, each 18 1/2 inches tall and 28 inches wide, mapping all areas of Richmond, including parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties, as well part of as what was then the city of Manchester on Richmond's Southside.
VCU Libraries spent several years preserving and restoring the fragile map held by James Branch Cabell Library Special Collections and Archives and photographing and digitizing the entire atlas. Over the past several months, the VCU Libraries web team also built an interactive website that allows users to explore the city's urban archeology and architectural history.
"It's a learning tool, a way to explore Richmond, a way for people to do research on different parts of the city, and, due to the fact that it is in the public domain, to use in ways we haven't even thought of yet," said Lauren Work, digital collections librarian with VCU Libraries.
The interactive Baist Atlas site features an in-depth contextual exploration of each area of the city, information on various points of interest located within each panel, a number of historical illustrations and photographs from other VCU digital collections, and a street index.
The entirety of the map is juxtaposed over the modern Richmond map in Google Maps, showing both how the Richmond area was outlined by Baist and how Richmond has changed, grown and evolved. Geospatial data used to create the modern day map overlay is also available for download and use.
"We've created a whole new way for people to interact with the map," Work said. "It's also fully downloadable so people can use it on their own. We also see this as a nice segue into other VCU Library special collections – because you can click through and keep exploring other VCU digital collections."
For example, a visitor might be interested in exploring the Jackson Ward neighborhood. The website shows several points of interest, such as the Richmond Almshouse, which was built in 1860 to 1861 as a refuge for the city’s poor, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was built in 1873 and replaced the original church and was the city's first public school for African-American children.
Images of the points of interest link to VCU Libraries' Jackson Ward Historic District collection of photos documenting the historic neighborhood, as well as its Richmond Commission of Architectural Review Slide Collection of more than 7,000 color photographs of Richmond.
The overlaid maps also show how Richmond's urban planning significantly impacted Jackson Ward.
"There are buildings that are still there, but a lot have disappeared," Work said. "You can really see the impact of modern day Richmond – for example, you can see [Interstate] 95 coming in through Jackson Ward – and a lot of other things that weren't there before."
John Kneebone, Ph.D., chair of the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said Baist Atlas project holds interest "because it reminds us that the landscape is evidence of our history, too, and in Richmond one can certainly read the past on the landscape."
Kneebone added that "the site uses images from existing image collections that VCU Libraries digitized and made available some time ago, but now the images are connected with their locations on the map, making those collections even more useful for teaching and for study."
The Baist Atlas links with several digital collections held by VCU Libraries, including its Rarely Seen Richmond collection of more than 600 vintage postcards of Richmond from the early-20th century, and Richmond Illustrated Imprints, a new collection of illustrations and photos from books published in the late 1800s and early 1900s to sell Richmond as a destination.
"VCU Libraries has rich and diverse special collections, and the interactive 1889 Baist Atlas is only the beginning of the type of research and digital resources these collections can provide to our community,” Work said.