Building VCU’s President's House
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James W. Allison Papers (1891, 1893-1896), Architects’ Correspondence
This online collection of correspondence is from the papers of James W. Allison, a late 19th century wealthy Richmond businessman. The collection includes over 100 documents - letters and a few telegrams - concerning the construction in 1894-1896 of what is today VCU’s President’s House, 910 W. Franklin Street. Fully 104 of the documents are from the hands of the architects that Allison hired to design his mansion. Much of the correspondence includes replies to questions by Allison during the construction of his house. The letters also describe the selection of such elements as fireplace mantles, gas-and-electric fixtures, decorative tiles, and scenic wallpaper.
Soon after the Civil War, James W. Allison (1833-1898) established the seed and fertilizer firm of Allison & Addison with Edmund B. Addison. By the 1890s the company had expanded greatly and become one of the most successful fertilizer producers in the South. The earliest letter in the collection is from Allison to his wife, Minnie Clemens Jones Allison (1870-1927). It notes their intention to construct a new house. A year later they chose the site on W. Franklin Street, at that time Richmond’s most fashionable residential neighborhood. At the time of his death in 1898, Allison left an estate of nearly one million dollars.
In 1938, the Allison family sold the house to Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), the forerunner to VCU on the Monroe Park campus. The building was used as the residence of the head of RPI for thirty years. Since 1968, when VCU was formed, it has served as the main offices of the President of the University. James W. Allison, Jr. (1894-1979) donated the collection of his father's papers to VCU Libraries in the early 1970s. They contain original architectural drawings, correspondence, and other materials. The James W. Allison papers are a valuable resource for those interested in late 19th century architectural history. These documents are housed in Special Collections and Archives at the James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries. For more about the collection, see the finding aid for the James W. Allison papers.
The Architects: Percy Griffin and T. Henry Randall
Allison chose the New York architectural firm of Griffin & Randall to design his house. Both partners boasted fine architectural pedigrees. Percy Griffin (1866-1921) graduated from the architectural school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1884 and then worked in the office of H. H. Richardson. T. Henry Randall (1862-1905) had also worked for Richardson after attending Johns Hopkins University, MIT, and the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris. Randall, a native of Annapolis, Maryland, was the partner who decided on the Colonial Revival design of the house – making it one of the first of that style of houses built in Richmond. It pre-dates other early Colonial Revival houses on Monument Avenue by some 10 years.
The correspondence also details the demise of the firm. In 1895, Griffin and Randall decided to part ways in the middle of the construction of the Allison house. As the letters indicate, Allison was forced to choose which architect he wanted to oversee the completion of his house. Randall, who was the senior partner and who had the most influence over the building’s design, was selected.
For more information about the architectural history of the house, see Ray Bonis and Melissa A. Zimmerman, “The VCU President’s House, 1896-1996: From the Colonial Revival to the World Wide Web,” The Styles of Virginia Architecture: Abstracts of the Fourth Annual Virginia Architectural History Symposium, 1996 (Richmond: VCU School of the Arts, 1996).
The following transcriptions of correspondence from the James W. Allison papers, were prepared during the spring 2006 semester in History 691, “Topics in Documentary Editing and Scholarly Publishing,” taught by John Kneebone, in the graduate program of the VCU Department of History.
Each document has been given a title, consisting of the names of the author and the recipient and the date of the document. The editors followed a conservative transcription policy. Words in the transcripts are spelled as they are in the original documents. Textual notes follow the procedure of italicizing editorial comments within square brackets, described by David L. Vander Meulen and G. Thomas Tanselle, “A System of Manuscript Transcription,” Studies in Bibliography, 52(1999):202-213.
A provenance note in brackets follows each document. Most of the documents are signed autograph letters (ALS) but a few are documents recording texts of telegrams. Because changes in letterheads reflect the dissolution of the architectural partnership of Percy Griffin and T. Henry Randall, texts of letterheads appear in the provenance note. It was James W. Allison’s practice to preserve the letters in their envelopes, on which a summary of the letter’s contents was docketed. The docketed notes on the envelopes are reported in the provenance note.
The following silent emendations have been made. The formal elements of the letters—address, date, salutation, and closing—have been standardized in their location on the page (at the left margin) only. Words broken or hyphenated at line ends in the documents have been restored. Ampersands and other symbols representing the word “and” in the documents have been standardized to “&.” Superscripts have been dropped to the line. To facilitate possible future online access to the transcripts along with the document images, the transcriptions mark page changes with square brackets and an italic statement of the image number online.
The editors are identified by their initials following the provenance note for each document that they edited. The editors are: Amy Adams (AA), Mary Bezbatchenko (MMB), David Carroll (WDC), Candi Caudill (CEC), Taylor Coble (TOC), Teresa Doherty (MTD), Thomas Hanna (TMH), Alyssa Holland (AGH), John Kneebone (JTK), Mary Richie McGuire (MRM), Jessica Munsch (JBM), Kay Peninger (KCP), Laura Ping (LJP), Vicki Rogers (VR), Suzanne Shepherd (SS), Arthur Striker (APS), and Morgan Thomas (MT).
This material is in the public domain in the United States and thus is free of any copyright restriction. Acknowledgement of Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries as a source is requested.
- Letter from Charles H. Read, Jr., to James W. Allison, 1894 February 22 [View Image]
- Letter from Charles H. Read, Jr., to James W. Allison, 1894 February 22
- Letter from Charles H. Read, Jr., to James W. Allison discussing charges for services to date., Greensboro, N. C. Feby: 22nd, 1894. Mr. James W. Allison Richmond. Va. Dear Sir Your valued favor of 20th inst. came duly to hand at a most opportune moment to assist me in meeting some obligations, & also to carry out some plans looking to securing some work in this section before I return to Richmond. I have not sent you my bill as I gathered from our last interview in your office that it might not be agreeable for me to do so, or convenient for you to pay it owing to the extreme stringency of the times, & I thank you for now giving me the opportunity to do so. The amount you spoke of spending for your proposed house was I believe $17000.=, but you will remember that I told you that such a house as I had planned for you in accordance with your instructions would, if properly built & finished in good style, probably exceed considerably this amount. As you say it is probable that you will never go any further with the plans— they are consequently of no practical value to you, & as you have received no benefit from them, I prefer to base my charges upon the lowest figure that has been mentioned. You will see from the schedule of changes on the other side of the bill, that should you decide at any time to take this matter up again, that the payment of bill herewith rendered will be that much on account of any services I may be able to render you in connection with this piece of work, & I trust I may yet have the pleasure of perfecting & carrying out this design for you. Maj. Robt Stiles is kindly acting as my friend in attending to some matters for me in my continued absence from my office & which has been longer than I anticipated when I came away. I have therefore enclosed your letter in one to him, & would request that you send check for the amount of bill to him making it payable to his order, & he will give you a receipt if you desire it. It is my custom to keep office copies of all work that I do, & as the “studies” I have given you are the “orginals”, I would be glad on my return to get them from you for awhile in order to either make tracings or Blue prints of them. Very truly Yours C. H. Read Jr. [ALS, Charles H. Read Jr. to James W. Allison, February 22, 1894, on letterhead: Charles H. Read, Jr., Architect, No. 12 North Ninth Street Richmond, Va.. Envelope docketed: Chas. H. Read jr. Feby 22. 1894, Enclosing bill for service to date.] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James Allison, 1894 February 21 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James Allison, 1894 February 21
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James Allison discussing the qualifications of Mr. Lee and building plans., Feb. 21st ‘94 James W. Allison Esq. Richmond, Va. Dear Sir, Your’s of the 20th received, giving us the names and addresses of contractors in Richmond whom you would like to have estimate on your drawings. In regard to M. Lee, we would like to say that he has had several years training as a superintendent in this city, and that he is therefore familiar with the character of work, as well as of drawings, which is customary with us. Hence he would be a more valuable man as a superintendent than any one unaccustomed to our methods. Furthermore he can familiarize himself with the drawings themselves here in New York before he goes to Richmond, which would be a much more expeditious way of getting the same result, and a more satisfactory one too, than by having one of us come on and explain the drawings there. We understand that Mr. Lee was a Norfolk man and was educated there. He expects to go on to reside in Richmond and open his office there at once. He has some large work of his own to begin when the matter has been satisfactorily arranged. Altogether we consider this a very fortunate coincidence, and an opportunity [next word interlined with caret] of which we should avail ourselves, if it is satisfactory to you. Probably the best way to proceed is this. If you are satisfied with what we have said about Mr. Lee, and are ready to employ him at 1 1/2 percent on cost of the work, write or telegraph us accordingly. We will then go over the drawings with him and the estimates that we have received from contractors in this neighborhood, and send him on to Richmond to get the estimates there. The drawings and specications are complete and it will not be necessary for either of us to go over them again with you until that time. We can then take up the question of the estimates themselves; and decide upon the contractors and make any changes which you may desire in the plans of the house or in the finish. If we should make any changes before then, the estimates which we have already received would have to be made over again. The Billiard Rm. could then be added and the finish of certain rooms unprovided for at present in the specifications. The colour of the brickwork is a very important matter and we have given it careful consideration. The darkest brick that is well made is what we expect to use. The difference in cost of a basement in stone or granite can be gotten for you. For the present however, all we need is your decision in regard to the superintendent, and the estimates from Richmond contractors on the work as at present planned & specified. Hoping that this meets with your approval, we remain, Your's Truly Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James Allison, February 21, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: Griffin & Randall Feby. 21 1894 Employment of Mr. Lee as Supt. Program of operations.] [edited by SS]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1893 December 1 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1893 December 1
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing the bay windows in the rear extension and the door from the kitchen to the servants' hall., James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: If you won't object seriously to having a two story bay on the extension of yr. house— we should like to put it on as shown on plan #4— It will not only improve the building from the outside but add to Servants Hall & room above— We shall finish the drawings as soon as possible— Very truly yours Griffin & Randall 1 Dec. '93. Does it not seem better to put the door from Kitchen to S. Hall, or N. End of partition so that in passing from K. to Ice room & from S.H. to Porch. the distance will be much shorter— This is the way it is shown on #4— but if you prefer to have it at the other side of room it can just as well as not be placed there— [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, December 1, 1893, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York; evelope docketed: Dec. 1. 1893 About bay windows in rear extension. Door between Kitchen & servants hall.] [edited by JTK]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1893 November 18 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1893 November 18
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing floor plans., 18 Nov. '93. James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: We have received yr. letter of yesterday enclosing scheme "3" & shall lay out the plans including your suggestions— so far as possible— Kindly inform us by return mail whether or not you intend using the 3rd floor rooms for guests & if a concealed staircase from 2nd to 3rd floor will answer yr. purpose— It will probably work in better that way— but we want to know how you feel about it. Very truly Griffin & Randall. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, November 18, 1893. Envelope docketed: Griffin & Randall Nov. 18, 1893. Staircase to 3rd Story.] [edited by JTK]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 , August 14 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 , August 14
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing the drawings and requesting a decision of which in the firm will be in charge., Aug. 14th.’94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va Dear Sir, We have gone over drawings for your Dining Rm. finish with Messers Kimbel & Son and E.H. Purdy & Co. and find that, by keeping the mantel as before, and simplifying the door trim, paneling and other finish generally, we can get a reduction of $400.00 and $600 00 respectively, the first price covering a wainscoting with large plain panels about nine feet high, and the second a low wainscoting as high as the window sills. The difference in the two estimates ($200) would therefore cover the upper portion of the wainscoting the most important, of course; and [word cancelled] the most effective. To simplify the mantel by $200 would have a very plain result, so the question of the relative importance of mantel or of wainscoting would have to be decided by you, if we are to keep the finish down to your limit ¬¬–($1000). If you are willing to give $1100 for the room we think we could so modify the mantel as to give a satisfactory result and at the same time have enough of its former effect to lose nothing of what is at present the feature of the room. The capitals for the outside pilasters are practically done and will be shipped in a day or two. The small capitals for the windows on front and for the Entrance Porch are also nearly finished. We considered it wisest to have them made here by experts in that kind of work rather than run any risk by having Stowe & Nuckols and the Frenchman experiment upon such work as would be exposed to severe treatment for the weather. The drawings with the changes in the staircase have been made and we are confident that the result will be highly satisfactory in every sense. We have not yet heard from from Stowe & Nuckols in regard to the changes in finish suggested by us for the cornice &c. on First Floor, and in some of the door trim on the Second. We will now get estimates for the marble work for fire-places. We hope you liked the copy we sent you of the perspective of your house. We will be happy to send you as many as [next word interlined with a caret] you would care to have. Mr. Randall expects to leave town for ten days or two weeks vacation on the 24th inst. If anything can be done by him in settling the questions still undecided or in straightening out any difficulties in the work itself, he can come on to Richmond from Baltimore on Wednesday of next week. We should like you in the meantime, if possible, to decide which of the firm you wish to have charge of the work until it is completed, and write us to that effect so that we can make our arrangements accordingly. As Mr. Griffin may return during the next week or two, it would be much easier in every way to have this matter decided beforehand. We regret very much indeed having to put you to this disagreeable and unfortunate necessity. If, however, Mr. Griffin had explained the situation to you before he went abroad, as he was requested to do, there would have been no necessity for your selection now and the matter would have been mutually understood. Without wishing to bring in any personal feeling whatever in such a very delicate affair, or making any comparisons here as to which of the two would serve your interests best, we leave you alone to be the judge and your decision, you may be sure, will be accepted with perfect satisfaction by us both. The work, of course, would be continued in the name of the firm, so that nothing could arise to give any advantage or disadvantage to either member. Your’s truly, Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, August 14, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: – G & R Aug 14. 1894 – Reporting on interview with Kimbel & Son and E.H. Purdy for Dining Room finish. Asking me to decide which of the firm I desire to have remain in charge of the work.] [edited by AGH]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 April 7 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 April 7
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison requesting information of foundation specifications, 7 April '94. James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: Just as soon as you settle the point as to how thick your foundation walls are to be, by that we mean whether they are to be granite or brick, will you kindly send us word so that the changes may be made in the drawings at once— The revised specifications were finished yesterday and mailed to you— and today we send a sample of galv. iron lath such as we recommend for your house— Very truly yours Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, April 7, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York] [edited by KCP]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 August 20 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 August 20
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing work in the dining room., Aug. 20th '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir. Your's of the 16th at hand. In regard to the large panels in the high Dining Rm. wainscoting we think you are mistaken about their effect, as in mahogany they would look very handsome indeed in spite of their simplicity. In fact it is a general rule with panelling of this wood that it is finished in large pieces and [next word interlined with caret] in comparitively plain surfaces in order that the grain and color of the wood may show to the greatest advantage. About a low wainscoting we agree with you. In fact we have often put in a chair rail and base and painted the walls [below canceled] between them to answer the same purpose as a low wainscoting with good results. Then the room gets its effect from the mantel, door and window trim, and the covering on the walls, which should be a rich tapestry paper or a Japanese paper (called “leather paper” because the designs are fac-similes of old leather designs). In such a way you can get for about $1000.00 a very effective room. We are now making a sketch to show you exactly what we should advise. We have also asked the contractors in Richmond and our men here to figure again on such a scheme. We are disappointed in not hearing yet from Stowe & Nuckols about their estimates for changes in finish &c. That matter will have to wait two weeks for Mr. Randalls’ return from his vacation. He has postponed his trip to Baltimore and will leave tomorrow morning for Childwold Park. N. Y. Mr. Randall will continue in charge of your house as you request and under the conditions you mention. Your's truly, Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, August 20, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall, Architects 48 Exchange Place, New York.] [edited by CC]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 August 3 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 August 3
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison regarding upcoming visit to discuss changes in the cornice and staircase, and estimates for finishes., Aug. 3rd. '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, Mr. Randall expects to be in Baltimore Sunday, Monday & perhaps Tuesday next, and will then go to Richmond, telegraphing you in advance. He will have estimates for the finish of Dining Rm. and for the changes in the cornice &c. of Music Rm. [word illegible ] Rm. & Hall. We have also made sketches for changes in the Main Staircase to submit to you and to Mrs. Allison which we think you will prefer to the present arrangement. It affects nothing but the steps themselves. Your's truly Griffin & Randall. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, August 3, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 December 12 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 December 12
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing the dining room finish., Dec. 12th '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Dear Sir, Your's of the 10th at hand. While we have no desire to hasten your decision in the question of the Dining Room finish, we do not think that you can be any better satisfied by seeing Purdy or his work, if he has any to show you, for the simple reason that you will have no better guarantee of your work being satisfactory in the end than his word in either case. On the other hand you do not realize probably the length of time required to select this wood, to dry it, to work it, set and finish it; and we are confident that the house will be ready for it, before the work is finished in any case. The small back door for this room is at present shown like the other doors but smaller. The The "secret door" which Mr. Randall suggested did not look as well as the present arrangement. The style of panelling in the other doors may also be changed to the same both sides, as in the case of the doors between Hall & Drawing Rm, consequently we have written to Stowe & Nuckols on the subject. We have asked them to send us the drawings for the Library as our copies have not been returned, and some full size detail drawings, but as yet they have as usual delayed doing so. In the case of door in the Library closet, Purdy figured on it as well as the other finish & it would be deducted from S.& N. contract. In case they put up the work, they would allow for it in their estimate. The plaster cove or cornice for this room shown on later drawings was substituted for the wooden cornice specified for the room. It would have been cheaper than the latter. In either case it was our intention in making the change to put in a cornice lighter in color and character rather than in a different material. Please have S & N. send the drawings for which we have written them. The tracings of D.R. finish will not be needed. Your's truly, Griffin & Randall. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, December 12, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 52 Broadway. New York.] [edited by APS]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 December 6 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 December 6
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison requesting a reply regarding the dining room finish., No transcription available.
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 February 17 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 February 17
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison requesting the names of preferred builders., James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: We have received your letter of yesterday and Mr. Griffin will probably go to Richmond the latter part of next week. Kindly send us the names and addresses of the three builders you mention— We are glad to hear of your return and hope that before long we may have the questions about your house practically settled. Very truly yours, Griffin & Randall 17th Feby. '94. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, February 17, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: – Percy Griffin – Feby 17. and 20th/93. Requesting names of builders that I prefer.] [Edited by MT, March 28, 2006.]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 February 19 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 February 19
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing possible a superintendent and workmen for the house., 19th Feby. ’94. James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: Mr. Higham was recommended to us by Messrs. Carrere & Hastings— but further than that we know nothing about him— however we should not like to select anyone of whom you did not approve— Mr. J.W. Lee who expects to leave New York very soon to open an office in Richmond— has also been recommended to us as a very good man— and probably under the circumstances would be more satisfactory to you— as a superintendent— than Mr. Higham. We can explain the drawings very carefully to him before he goes to Richmond and and there he can give them out to the builders and answer any questions which they may care to ask— We are under the impression that Mr. Lee is a Richmond man— Perhaps you may know of him— The following men have been suggested to us and we understand that they are good workmen & also responsible. Do these names include the three men to whom you referred in your [next word interlined with caret] letter of Feby 16th. and are they acceptable to you? Carpenter W.O. Burton. " Joseph M. Newell. Mason W.J. Westwood. " A.D. Moore. " G.W. Lambert. [line drawn across page] Do you care to see one of us before the estimates are handed in from the Richmond builders? Yours very truly Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, February 19, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York.] [edited by MT]