Passport to Richmond Right here in Richmond, time travel is possible. All it takes is a car - along with at least a day of your time and the help of several unusual museums - to visit Elizabethan England, pre-Revolutionary America, 19th-century Richmond, even the depths of the sea.
Right here in Richmond, time travel is possible.
All it takes is a car - along with at least a day of your time and the help of several unusual museums - to visit Elizabethan England, pre-Revolutionary America, 19th-century Richmond, even the depths of the sea.
These are places that tell stories you won't find in other cities, highlighting pieces of history that maybe you've never thought about before.
So if you're in the mood to deepen your knowledge and understanding of your hometown, or of Virginia, or of how the world was formed, fasten your seat belt and get going.
Start by heading to the north bank of the James River, in the Windsor Farms neighborhood, where two pieces of British history stand side by side: Agecroft Hall and Virginia House.
One is a reworking of a real Tudor manor house that dates back to the late-15th century. The other is made from the materials of a 12th-century home for priests, or priory, that was remodeled into a manor house during the 16th century.
Both tell the stories of their own histories and the histories of the Richmond families that lived in them.
Around a curve on Sulgrave Road, Virginia House reveals itself first. Its age is obvious in the patina of its stone and the way it glows in the sunlight.
Next door, Agecroft Hall's Tudor "black and white" pattern, made originally by plastering within a wood frame, looks almost modern. But inside, Agecroft flaunts its age.
Neighborhood like an English village
The manor house was built in Lancashire, England, during the late-15th century. In 1925, it was purchased by Thomas C. Williams Jr., the Richmonder who designed the Windsor Farms neighborhood after an English village with streets that curve and a "village mews" in the center.
He had Agecroft's windows, roof tiles and downspouts shipped here, then rebuilt the house with a steel frame, modern conveniences and 20,000 square feet of living space.
The fun part of touring Agecroft is seeing the furnishings, which date back to England's Tudor and early Stuart periods. (The Tudors reigned from 1485 to 1602; the Stuarts, from 1603 to 1713.)
From the elaborately carved chests to the painted bed frame adorned with fertility symbols, the atmosphere put me right into Elizabethan England. Agecroft is definitely the place to visit if you're craving a trip to the Renaissance.
Next door, the atmosphere is completely different.
Although Virginia House is older than Agecroft, it doesn't revel in its history. Instead, the Virginia Historical Society, which owns the house, uses it to show off the eclectic collections and furnishings purchased by its former owners.
Virginia and Alexander W. Weddell bought the house in 1925 and, like their neighbors, shipped the glass, stone and wood beams here to build the 40-room Virginia House. (The house, by the way, was named for Mrs. Weddell.)
The couple collected an amazing array of items, from mirrors to chairs to paintings, as Alexander's career as a diplomat took them around the world. The items date back as early as the 14th century and come from everywhere: Argentina, all over Europe, China and north Africa, to name a few places.
Secrets to find
Virginia House also imparts what must have been the Weddells' senses of fun and adventure. There are secret cupboards, a secret passageway and eccentric decor choices such as a black toilet and sink in a guest bathroom.
One feature of both homes not to be missed: the gardens. Both were designed by landscape architect Charles Gillette and are breathtaking.
(Consider taking a picnic to Virginia House, where the grounds are open even on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the house is not. Just be sure to carry out your garbage.)
The colors of money
Once you've finished with visiting England, Richmond-style, head to the Federal Reserve building in downtown Richmond for the next stop on this time-travel tour: the Money Museum.
It takes some doing to get there - you have to call for an appointment, then find a place to park and run a gantlet of security - but the self-guided tour is interesting enough to make it worth the effort.
I spent about an hour in the quiet room, inspecting coins and paper money from Colonial America through the present day. The displays explain the currencies' histories and show how money is made today.
I learned things I never knew, such as the worth of a farthing (a quarter-cent) and the fact that the Federal Reserve wasn't created until 1913.
And I got a kick out of being in the same room as $1.2 million, which I'm sure will never happen again! I left the Fed with a new appreciation of money and its role in society.
A famous speech and more
From the Money Museum, it's a short drive and an easy mental leap to pre-Revolutionary America and St. John's Church on East Broad Street.
I used to think it was enough to know that Patrick Henry gave his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech here. But the history of St. John's is richer than that, and tied with the beginnings of Richmond itself.
William Byrd II, who founded the city in 1739, gave two lots of land for the church in 1740. Two more lots were purchased in 1799, creating the grounds that exist today.
The small hill holds the church, a furnace house, a parish hall, a groundskeeper's lodge, a brick schoolhouse and the city's first public cemetery.
Patrick Henry stood here
The church, believed to have been completed in 1741, and its additions are still standing. You can walk the same floorboards that Henry, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson walked.
That, along with the graves that date back at least to 1751, makes history a palpable presence at St. John's. The tour guides' Colonial costumes add to the feeling.
Outside the church, wander by the graves of historic figures like George Wythe, America's first law professor, and Elizabeth Arnold Poe, mother of Edgar Allan Poe.
(If you're most interested in the church's claim to fame, visit on a Sunday afternoon between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Re-enactments of Henry's speech, and the debates leading up to it, are performed weekly at 2 p.m.)
Quoth the raven . . .
After visiting Elizabeth Arnold Poe's grave, it makes sense to swing down the hill to East Main Street and learn about her son at the Poe Museum. As with St. John's, the Poe Museum explains as much about Richmond as it does about the writer.
The tour starts in the Old Stone House, which my guide said dates to at least 1736 or 1737, and continues through three more buildings. There are an impressive collection of Poe first editions, items belonging to Poe and his family, a staircase from his local childhood home and a room dedicated to the many theories as to how he died.
What really caught my attention was a model of Richmond during Poe's time, the early-19th century. It shows Richmond from Fifth to 25th streets and marks the locations of Poe's homes, his friends' home, the State Capitol and other landmarks.
With the Poe Museum, we've landed in 19th-century Richmond, and we're here to stay awhile. Due largely in part to the Civil War, there are plenty of places dedicated to city life in the 1800s, but we're headed for the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Museum of the Confederacy.
The two museums are about a block from each other on East Clay Street. Touring both, along with the antebellum homes attached to them, can take a day by itself.
The Valentine is devoted to the history of Richmond and life in the city. It was founded in 1898 by the Valentine family to show off the family's collections of artwork, glass, sculpture and Native American artifacts, and has since grown.
Two permanent exhibits trace the history of Richmond and the museum, highlighting prominent Richmonders and describing the Valentines' middle-class life during the 19th century.
Sculpture studio open
The museum recently renovated the studio of sculptor Edward Valentine, who oversaw the museum's founding. There are only three other 19th-century sculptor studios in the U.S. that are open to the public.
The most fun, though, is to be had in Wickham House. The 1812 structure, built by the Wickhams and later owned by the Valentines, was the museum's first home.
No matter. The house itself is gorgeous, designed with sweeping curves and a grand circular staircase. Neoclassical in style, the first-floor public rooms feature restored murals from Greek and Roman mythology.
Davis at home
Down the street, Wickham House has a more imposing neighbor: the White House of the Confederacy, part of the Museum of the Confederacy. The home was built in 1818, and Jefferson Davis and his family took up residency in August 1861.
If there's only one thing you do out of this time-travel trip, it should be the tour of Davises' home during the Civil War.
The first-floor rooms are opulent, with red, flocked-velvet wallpaper and ornate French Rococo furniture in the parlors, marble-topped tables and a huge mirror in the dining room, and all but one of the original chandeliers.
On the second floor, there's Davis' office, the children's rooms and the master bedroom. The private rooms provide a glimpse of the family's life.
The best part of my tour was the guide, who told stories about the Davises with animation and pride. We learned about Davis' borderline hypochondria, the children's wildness and the South's love affair with Davis daughter Varina Anne, who was known as the "Daughter of the Confederacy."
You can continue this exploration of Confederates during the Civil War next door, at the Museum of the Confederacy. The exhibits, featuring battlefield artifacts, weapons and uniforms with bullet holes in them, were all the more powerful for knowing the items were used by actual soldiers.
Two exhibits in the basement focused on life in the soldiers' camps and medical practices on and off the battlefield. While the exhibits upstairs were extensively interpreted, these don't explain as much as illustrate how the items were used, and rely some on the viewer's imagination.
Life on the farm
For some living history from the same time period, leave the museums behind and head to Henrico County's Meadow Farm. The Glen Allen park is a working farm that shows life as it was in 1860.
Dr. and Mrs. John Crosby Sheppard and their nine children lived at the farm, where 6,000 pounds of tobacco were grown in 1860. Their home is open for tours, and you can visit the barn, smokehouse, doctor's office and tobacco barn to ask questions of the costumed interpreters who keep the farm running.
You'll probably get the most out of your visit if you attend one of the weekend programs held at the farm, but the low-key experience on a weekday is enjoyable as well.
On my tour, I learned how Dutch ovens were used to bake bread in a fireplace, and learned that mirrors and paintings were covered with gauze to protect them from flies in the summertime.
Outside, I communed with draft horses, pigs and sheep as I wandered at the edges of the yard. Kids especially would enjoy the Meadow Farm experience.
For the last stop on your tour, drive to the University of Richmond and follow the signs to the Lora Robins Gallery of Design From Nature at the back of the Boatwright Memorial Library.
To wrap this up, it's time to remember that the world began long before Richmond was founded, and many of Mother Nature's wonders predate the city.
This little museum features wonders similar to those at the National Museum of Natural History, but much closer to home. There are fossils, gems, minerals, seashells and treasures from Virginia, the United States and around the world.
It can be quite overwhelming, so don't try to study every item. Instead, drift though and stop when something catches your eye.
For nature lovers, there are porcelain sculptures of birds, flowers and insects. Jewelry lovers will appreciate the cases of gemstones. History lovers will find something fascinating in the cases of artwork ranging from Asian jade carvings to Russian Faberge eggs to Chinese ceramics.
Pieces of the city's history can even be found here. On display are fossils that document the long-ago time when the city was under the sea.
It paints a very different picture of Richmond that can be appreciated most by those who live here.
And by the time you're done with all 10 museums, you'll never look at Richmond the same way again.
To find the location and hours of the above museums, see the list of museums on Page 48. .