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Explore and learn about architecture and art of Franklin Street Artistic Mansions

February 21, 2018
Charles Brownell

Spend an April Saturday afternoon learning about three historic buildings, once private mansions and now VCU offices, on West Franklin Street with VCU Libraries and popular speaker Charles Brownell, Ph.D., April 7 from 2 to 4 p.m.

This free program includes a brief lecture and a walking tour with Brownell, emeritus professor of art history at VCU. He will talk about the architecture and interior design of these three historic sites in the heart of VCU's Monroe Park Campus. Following the talk, Brownell will lead a tour of these mansions. A reception follows. There is ample seating for the lecture. The tour and reception are limited and require a reservation no later than Friday, March 30. Details and to sign up 

Ginter House, Drawing Room fireplace, detail
Ginter House, Drawing Room fireplace, detail

The structures on the tour are:

  • Ginter House901 West Franklin Streetbuilt in 1888-92 for Richmond’s chic philanthropist Major Lewis Ginter, features lavish woodwork, ornate fireplaces, stained glass windows and rich wrought iron details. Today, it houses offices for the provost and other administrators.
  • Millhiser House916 West Franklin Street, erected in 1891-94 as an exotic showplace by merchant prince Gustavus Millhiser, features a splendid stained glass dome, superb ironwork and a secret passage. Today, it contains the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute and other offices.
  • McAdams House914 West Franklin Street, constructed in 1891 for the McAdams family of clothiers, whose firm is remembered by its later name of Berry-Burke, features outstanding fireplaces, with interpretations in cast iron of famous works of art, and exceptional stained glass and “Art Tiles.” Today, it is home to various offices.

“Historically, many wealthy and stylish Richmonders built their city mansions on a line running west from Capitol Square,” says Brownell. “This was the natural development, given the increasingly flat terrain to the west. The prime locations tended to be along Franklin Street, until Monument Avenue upstaged its parent thoroughfare in the 20th century.”

In 1893, the writer of a Chamber of Commerce book entitled Richmond, Virginia suggested that West Franklin Street had become "the Fifth Avenue of Richmond." The writer was comparing West Franklin to the Manhattan avenue where the mighty, including the Vanderbilts, had built palatial houses.

McAdams House, Hall fireplace with
McAdams House, Hall fireplace with "Art Iron" and "Art Tiles."

“The Richmond mansions are modest by comparison, but many of their creators, like their New York counterparts, responded to an international development, the Aesthetic Movement or ‘Art Movement,’ says Brownell. “That movement, shaped by such figures as the writer Oscar Wilde and the painter James McNeill Whistler, rested on the idea that one could make the world a better place by irradiating homes with art.”

According to Brownell, one of VCU's great treasures is the group of historic dwellings that it acquired in the 20th century on West. Franklin Street. “For over 20 years my graduate students, my undergraduates, and I worked to document these rare survivors. My April presentation, distilling my pupils' work as well as my own, focuses on three examples of what were called "Artistic Houses" during the Aesthetic Movement: Ginter House, Millhiser House and McAdams House. Each of these dwellings, in different ways, illustrates how Americans embraced the movement to elevate daily life with art.”

What does Dr. Brownell hope attendees will take away from his presentation? “The greatest lesson is to learn to look at architecture and the decorative arts, rather than just glancing at these things, and to draw delight from them.”

Brownell is a respected authority on RVA architecture and decorative arts. “I don’t think there is anyone in Richmond who knows as much as Charles does when it comes to understanding Richmond’s architectural history,” says Ray Bonis, senior research associate in Special Collections and Archives at Cabell Library. “From the work of Robert Mills on Monumental Church in the 1810s to that of the builders and architects of the early 20th century, no other architectural historian in the area has the depth of knowledge that he has. I think his peers would agree.”

Millhiser House, Hall fireplace with the Three Witches from Macbeth
Millhiser House, Hall fireplace with the Three Witches from Macbeth

“His research and that of his students have broadened our understanding of those buildings, the architects who designed them and the men and women who lived in them.”

Brownell has done much to help VCU Libraries build its collection documenting the decorative arts and architecture of the city in Special Collections and Archives. He has donated publications. “But what might be his most useful and significant donation was that of his collection of graduate student papers, nearly 400 of them, which were researched and written under his direction,” says Bonis. “They cover architectural history topics from around the state on numerous topics. If someone is doing research on a builder, architect, or building here in Richmond, they should start with this collection of papers which are cataloged and accessible to researchers.”

Brownell also offers this list of

Suggested Readings

Culhane, Kerri Elizabeth. The Fifth Avenue of Richmond': The Development of the 800 and 900 Blocks of West Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia, 1855-1925. M. A. thesis, VCU, 1997. Available online from various sources, such as

O’Leary, Elizabeth L., and others. American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in association with University of Virginia Press, 2010.  General Collection   N6505 .V55 2010  

Shifman, Barry, with Celeste Fetta. Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco: Selections from the Sydney and Frances Lewis Decorative Arts Galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2015.

Zukowski, Karen. Creating the Artful Home: The Aesthetic Movement. Layton, Utah : Gibbs Smith, 2006. Cabell Library N6512.5.A37 Z85 2006

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