Guest Commentary: From Battle Abbey to Virginia Museum of History and Culture
The Virginia Museum of History & Culture occupies one of the largest buildings in our community. The elegant 1910s Greek Revival temple facade, with four colossal Ionic columns and flanking columns, reigns over Arthur Ashe Boulevard from atop a terraced lawn.
In May, the venerable historical and educational institution, founded by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1831, unveiled a redesigned 250,000 square foot, $30 million museum and research center. The front facade remains unchanged, but expansion is evident at the rear where a cafe, surface parking, visitor drop-off, green space for events and a streamlined two-storey entry pavilion, Commonwealth Hall, invite you. Deeper inside the stoic-looking building, major physical changes included a reworked research library and expanded exhibition, education and meeting spaces.
Since the building reopened, many people have expressed surprise that reconfiguration and construction has even been underway for the past year. Apparently, in the depths of the pandemic, the VMHC, its architect Glave & Holmes and the design and construction teams were in high gear to create a refreshed environment. Interior walls are painted mostly white with accents in soothing shades of blue. In fact, even the institutional logo, promotional material and staff t-shirts are blue. Even after dark, the sandstone front facade appears lightly washed in soft blue light. The result? You know you are in the domain of a new VMHC.
These clean, conservative architectural changes are perhaps the sixth or seventh expansion since the classic building was completed in 1914, most of them designed by Glave & Holmes.
It is therefore appropriate to recall pieces of the architectural history of the place. The six-acre VMHC complex remains inextricably linked to the larger grounds of a late 19th century former retirement community for Confederate veterans and their wives, sisters and daughters. In the 1880s, the Commonwealth of Virginia acquired the former farmland just west of the city limits to house veterans. Today, four buildings remain from this complex: the Robinson House, the Confederate Chapel, and the Pauley Education Center (formerly the Confederate Home for Needy Women). They are now part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which opened in 1935. The original core of the VMHS building was built in part to serve as a repository for documents, weapons and ephemera that veterans brought to retirement house. .
The mausoleum-like building was called Battle Abbey and was a big deal when it was created. In 1910, an international competition accepted proposals from 88 leading architectural firms. The two Richmond architects in the mix, W. Duncan Lee and Charles M. Robinson, did not do the final editing. Neither do other companies with strong Virginia ties, such as Bostonian Ralph Adams Cram (who began designing the University of Richmond in 1910) and New York talent Walter Blair (the designer of a dozen structures at the University of Virginia, including Scott Stadium) and J. Stewart Barney, the architect of All Saints and Holy Trinity Episcopal Churches here (both demolished).
The prestigious order went to a Philadelphia firm, Bissell & Sinkler. Elliston Sinkler had studied at the University of Pennsylvania and John Sinkler approached his studies of classical architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the school of reference for Western architects in the golden age.
Battle Abbey’s generous and eccentric financial underwriter was Maryland-born Charles Broadway Rauss. He was a New York retail magnate who had grown up near Winchester, Virginia, and had been successful in the retail business there before enlisting in the Confederate Army. After the war, in the form of Horatio Alger, Rauss traveled to New York where, penniless, he briefly served a prison sentence for debt. However, he eventually formed a hugely successful retail operation in Soho on Broadway. Changing his middle name was an affectation.
His company’s mantra was, “We’ll keep everything calculated to make a fashionable man, an irresistible woman, and a comfortable family.”
Rauss, who was married, lost his sight in middle age, but his romantic pursuits apparently did not diminish. When he died in 1900, at least two former mistresses made claims on his estate. One was looking for $100,000 for her son she had named Charles Broadway Rousseau. The judge awarded him this sum plus $5,766.16 in interest. Apparently love is not blind.
Rauss left $100,000 for the construction of Battle Abbey (the town of Richmond also made a large donation). The merchant also bequeathed funds for a town hall and an aqueduct in Winchester. For a park on New York’s Upper West Side, he donated a double statue of George Washington and Lafayette by Italian artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (sculptor of the Statue of Liberty).
Initially and over the years, one of the main attractions of Battle Abbey was the spectacular, large-scale murals depicting the Confederate army by the French painter Charles Hoffbauer. It was the gift of another poor Virginia boy turned rich, Thomas Fortune Ryan. The Amherst County native made his mark by consolidating competing New York railroad companies into a single electric streetcar system. He also owned the Equitable Life Insurance Co. and was one of the founders of the American Tobacco Co. In 1906, Ryan and his wife provided funds to build Sacred Heart Cathedral overlooking Richmond’s Monroe Park.
The murals financed by Ryan Hoffbauer have been preserved and appear with a certain colorful intensity in the Memorial Military Gallery. A newcomer to the gallery is a bronze statue of Robert E. Lee that previously stood in the United States Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Interestingly, the collections of the Virginia Historical Society, VMHC’s parent society, were previously housed in the Robert E. Lee House on East Franklin Street before moving to Battle Abbey in 1947.
The scope of the VMHS collections is vast, covering topics ranging from Native American culture to colonial times, the American Revolution, enslaved peoples, the Civil War, industrial and transportation developments, the civil rights movement, and geographic regions. distinct from Virginia. In an age of cultural fusion, this is a good place to determine what makes Virginia, well, Virginia.