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 Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 February 9 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 February 9
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison asking about Mr. Higham as superintendent of the construction of the house., 9 Feby. '94. James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: We have had Mr. Higham of Richmond recommended to us as a very good man to act as superintendent of the construction of your house, and we should like to know whether or not he is the man you thought of—We have written to him mentioning the fact [word illegible] we shall have some work in Richmond in the spring and would like to know if he could act as superintendent if everything were satisfactory— but at the same time we did not mention your house in connection with it— When do you expect to be in Richmond again– We send this letter there trusting it may be forwarded to you— Very truly yours Griffin & Randall. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, February 9, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin and Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: G&R Feby 9. 1894 Asking about Higham as supervising architect.] [edited by MT]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 January 6 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 January 6
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison requesting builder information in order to send set of specifications and plans., 6th Jany. '94. James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: We have received your letter telling us of yr. Florida trip and before you go will you kindly send us the name and address of the builder whom you wish to bid upon yr. house and we shall send him a set of specifications [the initial e altered from i; the initial i altered from an e or a] & plans & in the mean time have Robinson make his final estimate here, & on yr. return we shall go over the plans & estimates with you? The last drawings we sent you were the ones you saw here & had not the final changes on them but we thought you might like them for reference Very truly G&R [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, January 6, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York.] [edited by MTD]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 July 23 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 July 23
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing rear and front doors., July 23rd '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, Your's of the 21st at hand. We can arrange matters in one of two ways that will enable the use of the sill to Rear Door. One would be by changing the brick wall against shaft of lift to 9" instead of 13", therefore gaining 4 1/2" in that space below and above the Stair Landing, which would be well worth saving. The other way would be by placing the door frame further out so as to cover the stone, keeping the rise as it is at present. The first idea seems to be the more natural, as 13" of brick work is unnecessary for one side of the shaft; in fact, if the brick were entirely removed and the shaft carried on heavy wood framing, it would be stiffer and better apart entirely from any other consideration. If you are satisfied to do this the additional space will be thrown in to the Hall. There is no objection to the contractors putting in Rail Rd. iron above the arch to Front Door, but at the same time it is unnecessary, as there is very little weight on it. Furthermore it should be made sufficient strong to do away with any such a precaution. The same should apply to arches over large windows and in fact to all the window openings generally. Your's truly Griffin & Randall. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, July 23, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 July 30 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 July 30
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing putty-work and other specifications., July 30th '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, Your's of the 28th at hand. We are glad to know that the house is now fairly under-way. The pilaster caps for the outside of the house were ordered some time ago from the Purdy M.f.g. Co. and will be shipped to you this week. What you state in regard to "English Putty" and "Carton-pierre" is quite correct as far as our experience goes. Carton-pierre is used for consoles, caps, bases, friezes &c. for inside work only, while the putty-work on a wooden frame answers perfectly for outside work. The ornamental portions of work on the old Annapolis houses [is canceled; next word interlined with a caret] are putty. Stamped copper has more of the sharp, clear-cut features of wood and "putty" work, and is never used when it can be avoided. Galvanized iron is not much worse in that respect. We have been gradually finishing up and copying the F.S. Details for Stowe & Nuckols and will send them a number of drawings that have just been copied. Even these, in a few instances, will be subject to revision, as we must cut down in some places in order to get what we want in others where enough allowance was not made. Mr. Randall will probably be in Richmond about the end of this week or the beginning of next and we can then arrange all the matters finally with the contractors. We regret very much that the brick-work does not please you. We hope at the same time that the general effect at least will be satisfactory. Your's truly Griffin & Randall. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, July 30, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 June 7 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 June 7
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison advising rubbed finish on marble caps., June 7th '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond Va. Dear Sir, Your's of the 2nd at hand and its contents noted. Probably the white Balto. marble had better be rubbed as you suggest although it is usual to see it finished in the other way. The smooth finish is no doubt the older method. The lugs are a necessity always to make a good looking piece of masonry. We shall write to the contractors about these two matters. Mr. Randall can go to Richmond on Tuesday of next week from Baltimore, if you will send work to him in care of our superintendent. B.B. Owens. 323 N. Charles St. Your's Truly Griffin & Randall (over) June 11/94 Will be pleased to see you to-morrow Bricks ready [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, June 7, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed in different hand: –Griffin & Randall— June 7, 1894 Advising marble caps and sill be finished ‘rubbed’ [word illegible] ‘10 cut’ Can come to Richmond on Tuesday Balto. address Care B.B. Owens 323 N. Charles St.] [edited by TMH]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 20 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 20
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing numbers of bricks, window openings and plumbing specifications., 20 Mch ‘94 James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: At your request we send you herewith the number of brick required for your house— as we have estimated them— We have figured these quantities for your, convenience but do not wish them given to the builders as quantities for them to estimate upon— for they must be guided by their own figures— 339537± Brick including openings— 33800+ To be deducted for openings— 72. Window openings— 11. Openings in partitions. [line drawn across page] The plumbing specifications call for the porcelain lined tubs— according to the numbers as you will see in the lists— We replied immediately about the glass— to Whitehurst— It is called for in the specifications $2.25 pr. sq. ft. Very Truly Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, March 20, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: Percy Griffin— March 20. 1894 Giving number of bricks in house Number of windows and other openings] [edited by MMB]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 24 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 24
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing the receipt of bids., 24 Mch .’94. James W. Allison: Dear Sir: We have received your letter of yesterday and also the bids— and are glad that Stowe & Nuckols are below Jenkins— and we feel confident that the estimates will eventually be satisfactory to you— and that deductions may be made without injuring the house— The estimate which you have made out is, with heating & plumbing included, $700.— less than Robinson's estimate which did not include them— The estimate which we have here for heating your house by steam as you wished it is $600. $350.— less than your figure— We have written to S. & N. giving them the estimate of $1300. F. O. B. [next word interlined with caret] Richmond for brownstone work— including all lintels & sills and told them to use it & figure on setting it— and see if that would not reduce their stone bid— Mr. Griffin will go down after you have found out about the points you are now looking up and we can then get matters into working shape— Shall we send you a blank form of contract to look over? We also Explained to S. & N. how to reduce the walls in case you asked them to estimate that way. It would not be best we think, to substitute granite for brownstone. S. & N. have undoubtedly made a very careful figure— Hoping to hear from you soon— we remain Very Truly Yours Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, March 24, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: Griffin & R. March 24. 1894 Announce receipt of bids Report heating bid 600. 00 All cut stone f.o.b. Richmond 1300.00 ] [edited by MMB and MRM]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 27 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 27
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing bids from various builders., 27 Mch. ‘94 James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: We have received your letter of the 24th and carefully noted your points on the estimates— You say— “unless something can be done with our New York man”— Why should you jump over Stowe & Nuckols whose estimate is $19750.00 and consider Robinson at $22800. Probably you think that because Davis & Jenkins are so much above S. & N., that S. & N. must be bidding under cost, but on the contrary we think not— for Jenkins carpenter estimate alone is out of reason & is $5000.+ more than Robinsons estimate on carpenter work— S. & N., as you know, are more than anxious to build your house, and in all probability are willing to do it on very small profits. Should you deduct the difference between Jenkins & [word canceled] Robinson it brings it down within a few hundred of S. & N. You remember figuring out a probable difference between Robinson & a possible Richmond [next word interlined with a caret] builder & that it came above $3000.00 or about the difference between S. & N. and R. We see no reason why you should fear them for we understand that you think them good builders and it would be a simple matter to get bonds from them to secure you against loss— Stowe seemed to understand the plans so thoroughly and be so well posted that we think he would give the work no end of attention and do everything to make a satisfactory “job.” In their estimate they say “& we think the stone work figure entirely too high and are satisfied that [word illegible] bid can be reduced by $1000.00 We have not heard from them yet about the difference in cost for reducing the brick walls— & whether or not the estimate of $1300., mentioned in our letter of Mch. 24, will deduct anything from their bid. You can readily see how difficult it is to get a building to an exact point or figure— when the builders themselves estimate so far apart— We should advise working on S. & N’s figure as a basis and if you care to make deductions from that, it can readily be done— Jenkin’s estimate for carpenter’s work incl. painting & trimming is $15198. which you see is entirely out— but should not recommend going back to him with a question as to whether or not he could reduce it. Kindly let us know when you collect your different points.— Very sincerely Griffin & Randall Richmond [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, March 27, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York] [edited by MRM]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 29 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 29
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing brown stone water table, 29 Mch. '94. James W. Allison Esqr. Richmond Dear Sir: We have received yr. letter of yesterday and are glad to have the prospect of seeing you on Monday next. We shall "work up the points at our end of the line", as you say— and have the est. on heating and hardware in proper form— Robinson is going over the question again, and we think that with some of the Rich. sub estimates he may be able to reduce his figure considerably— The brown stone water-table is only to be on main portion of house— Water table of extension is to be moulded brick. Kindly bring as many of the sub contractors estimates with you as you may have— Very truly yours Griffin & Randall What time in the day shall we expect you? [written in right hand margin of letter, south to north] [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, March 29, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: — G & R.— March 29, 1894— Brownstone water table to be on main house only— on extension to be moulded brick] [edited by KCP]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 6 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 6
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing drawings and specifications., Postmarked March 6th 1894 [written in a different hand] James W. Allison Esqr. Dear Sir: We have just received yr. letter of March 3rd and shall send a set of drawings & specifications to you by express today? We have always felt it best to have a “Clerk of the Works” upon a house such as yours, as you may infer from [next word interlined with a caret] our letters? and regret your decision? However as you do not wish to employ one, we shall carry the house through to the best of our ability? under the circumstances? and trust that the result may be satisfactory? It may be that our New York man’s estimate will be lower than the ones gotten in Richmond and should that be the result we shall be in close communication with him here. Kindly let us know so soon as you have familiarized yourself with the plans? and Mr. Griffin will take the [word canceled] remaining sets of drawings and specifications down to Richmond & go over them with the builders and with you? but should you not need further explanation we might defer our visit until after the Richmond estimates are handed in? We also hope that the work may be started as early as possible? not merely on your account? but that the masons may do their plastering before the excessive heat of the summer comes? Awaiting your reply we remain Very truly yours Griffin and Randall [ALS, Griffin and Randall to James W. Allison, March 6, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York] [edited by LJP]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 November 1 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 November 1
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison discussing door "crashers" and "bumpers" and objections to running rain water into sewers., Nov. 1st '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, Your two favors of the 31st of Oct. received. "Crashers" are "bumpers" and can be put at back of pocket or on the door itself. They are however unnecessary and rarely used. In your case they can be put on the doors when they are hung (and the plaster will not be delayed by them. There must be a back to the pocket in any case. The objection to running rain water into the sewers generally comes from the city authorities rather than from clients or contractors. Unless the leaders are trapped the gases will eat out a gal. iron pipe as you know; but with traps, the advantages of having the soil flushed out are obvious. In many of our cities [final ies altered from y], it is against the law to allow rain water to run into the soil pipes and sewers, and for that reason we arranged for it in the other way. About the beginning of next week (Nov. 5th) Mr. Randall will move into his new offices 52 Broadway, where he will conduct his own as well as the business of the firm for the present. We will however write you in regard to that as soon as the offices are in condition. Perhaps you did not see in the papers that the Baltimore Music Hall was opened last night with an excellent concert and an audience of over three thousand. The acoustics seemed to be perfectly satisfactory which is a great relief to all concerned. Yours' truly Griffin & Randall [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, November 1, 1894, on letterhead. Envelope docketed: G. & R. Nov. 1. 1894. "Crashers" are bumpers. Objections to running rain water into sewers. Offices will be removed to 52 Broadway.] [edited by MTD]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 November 13 [View Image]
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 November 13
- Letter from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison concerning estimates of the interior work from Purdy., Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 November 13 Nov. 13th. '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, We have gone over the question of Interior Finish in your house with the Purdy people and have further reduced their estimates, which are now very much lower than Stowe & Nuckol’s. All this data we will have ready for you on Friday, when Mr. Randall expects to be in Richmond. He will breakfast with you, if convenient, that morning after the arrival of the train from here. Your's truly, Griffin & Randall. [ALS, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, November 13, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed: —G. & R. Nov. 13. 1894— Have gone over interior finish with Purdy and further reduced their estimates] [edited by KCP]