Monument Avenue


Sunday's Travel section incorrectly stated the battle in which Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson died. He was shot accidentally by one of his men at Chancellorsville, Va.

The Sun regrets the error.

I took the slow roads to Richmond, bypassing the breakneck pace of Interstate 95 for a more restful and scenic route. On a two-lane bridge, I passed over the broad sweep of the Potomac, decorated with gray ribbons that marked the shallows. Later came the Rappahannock, red and swollen from the rains that had beaten Virginia's red clay.

The back roads -- which took me near the birthplace of Robert E. Lee -- seemed a fitting entry to the stately, timeless city that he defended more than a century ago, and to Monument Avenue, the grand thoroughfare that the Confederate general helped define in death.

Today, the statue of Lee, erect and proud, still sets the tone for the mile-long stretch of road highlighted by heroes of the Lost Cause. As I drove along the avenue, the tires of my car gave off a soothing hum, and I passed small islands that held statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury.

Richmond, the former capital of the Confederate States of America, jealously guards its historical distinctions. And sometimes Richmond time seems divided into two eras: the War of Northern Aggression, as it's called there, and Everything Before or Since.

But Monument Avenue -- one of America's most beautiful streets -- isn't a sterile, outdoor museum to a lost cause.

It's a gateway to the city's best museums and to the trendy cafes, restaurants and bars of the neighboring Fan district. Each spring, it's the route for the Easter parade, a festival for thousands of bonneted Richmonders. And it offers a parade of joggers, dog-walkers and strollers who use the grassy median strip as a park.

"I like to think of Monument Avenue as being alive." Sylvia Summers told me as we sat in the living room of her restored, 85-year-old home. "When I think of Monument Avenue, it's not as a stuffy, old historic street. I think of it as a vibrant neighborhood."

She and her husband, Richard, are among the modern homesteaders who have fought to preserve Monument Avenue's grandeur and charm. Nearly a decade ago, they bought the charred shell of a grand home that had been converted into a rooming house.

"It was a nasty, nasty mess," says Ms. Summers, president of the Historic Monument Avenue and Fan District Foundation.

Today, the house has regained its gracefulness. But the Summerses have also given their home a sense of whimsy, fitting for modern-day Monument Avenue.

As we walk through the house, she points out an eclectic collection of artwork and touches of whimsy: One small bronze statue of Mercury sports tiny red mittens; a silver candlestick has a crack that, she says, "gives it character."

And that's what gives Monument Avenue its charm. The whimsy, the "cracks."

The worn, dirt paths that stretch along the median. Lawn chairs on the upstairs, open-air porch of an apartment house. And Monument Avenue's only other noticeable sculpture -- the modernist artwork outside the home of Sidney and Frances Lewis, art patrons and retailing magnates. (A local example of their passion for 20th-century art is the tilting facade on the Best

showroom in Towson; the Lewises founded Best.)

Controversial beginnings

In fact, I learned as I traced the area's past through documents, including the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey, Monument Avenue itself was born in controversy.

When the first blocks of Monument Avenue were planned, near the end of the 19th century, the area held fields and farmland. And city leaders, eager to attract grand homes such as those found in Baltimore's Mount Vernon and Boston's Back Bay, hit upon a perfect lure -- a monument to Lee.

Almost from the moment Lee died in 1870, Southerners had talked of memorializing their fallen hero. Those plans took form in Richmond.

But critics raised objections. An editorial in the Planet, a newspaper for Richmond's black community, derided spending city money to honor Confederate heroes. Others questioned the bottom-line motivation of Richmond's leaders, who had left the South's great general marooned in muddy fields on the edge of the former capital of the Confederacy.

As Henry James later wrote of the Lee monument, he "does well, we feel, to sit as high as he may, and to appear, in his lone survival, to see as far, and to overlook as many things; for the irony of fate, crowning the picture, is surely stamped in all sharpness on the scene about him. The place is the mere vague centre of two or three crossways, without form and void, with a circle half sketched by three or four groups of small, new, mean houses."

Gradually, barren tracts along the avenue were filled with brick houses crafted by such prominent architects as John Russell Pope, who designed the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Banker, cotton king, doctor, merchant -- all found a spot along Monument Avenue.

The Branch House, Pope's work, had 28 rooms, including art galleries, a library, a chapel and separate storage rooms for groceries, wine, trunks and rugs. (Today the 28,000-square-foot building still stands, although it has been converted into offices.)

As such mansions -- and smaller versions -- took shape, more monuments rose along the avenue.

In 1907, the statue of Gen. J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart, commander of the Cavalry Corps, looking back over his shoulder toward his troops, was unveiled; in the same year -- the same week, in fact -- the statue of orator Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy.

In 1919 came Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, saddled stiffly upright in the pose that led Gen. Bernard Bee to remark, at the Battle of Bull Run, "Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!" Finally, in 1929, Matthew Fontaine Maury, commodore of the Confederate navy and inventor of the torpedo, appeared.

Economic upheaval

Richmond and Monument Avenue were not immune to the social and economic upheavals that followed. During the Depression, development along the avenue ground to a halt; after World War II, suburban flight allowed many houses to fall prey to commercial speculators. Some single-family homes were carved up into offices or apartments.

Bit by bit, though, the residential character of Monument Avenue is returning, thanks to people such as the Summerses and Millie Jones.

I had noticed Ms. Jones' handiwork -- colorful flags adorning the neighborhood's renovated houses -- even before meeting her.

Years ago, to brighten her rehabbed 1913 Monument Avenue house, she had hung a piece of colorful Marimekko fabric from a window. Later, she announced the birth of son Jonathan with a homemade flag that said, "It's a boy."

Soon, neighbors wanted flags of their own, and her business -- Festival Flags -- was born. From piecework that could be stored under the bed in her guest room, the company has grown to include such clients as banks, museums and the U.S. Naval Academy.

Ms. Jones told me of a simmering Monument Avenue controversy -- a proposal to add a statue of Arthur Ashe, the tennis star who died of AIDS in 1993, after being infected during a transfusion.

Some Richmonders, including City Councilman Chuck Richardson, say Monument Avenue would be a proper setting for the majority-black city to honor Ashe, a local resident and the first black man to win the U.S. Open and a Wimbledon title.

Monument Avenue residents don't come right out and oppose the Ashe monument. Instead, they talk about the historic designations the area has won, and preserving the Civil War theme, and the many other possible locations.

Ms. Jones reflected the opinions I heard from many avenue residents when she said, "Every Richmonder would be proud of an Arthur Ashe statue, even on Monument Avenue. But I'm sure there are extremely appropriate places where he could be like Lee was, a calling card to rebuild an area."

If momentum built for a Monument Avenue location, she said, "I'm sure there would be controversy."

And why not? That's how the avenue -- and the monument to Lee -- began.

For more information on Monument Avenue and other attractions in the area, call the Metro Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 365-7272.


* James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart, a cavalry officer noted as the "eyes and ears" of the Confederate Army.

* Robert E. Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia and symbol of the Confederate cause.

* Jefferson Davis, Mississippi legislator who was named president of the Confederate States of America and lived at the "White House of the Confederacy," 1201 E. Clay St. in Richmond.

* Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, a brilliant officer shot accidentally by his own troops during the Battle of Bull Run in northern Virginia.

* Matthew Fontaine Maury, commodore of the Confederate navy and inventor of the torpedo.


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