Building VCU’s President's House

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).

Editorial Note
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 Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 December 10 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 December 10
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison discussing the possibility of arbitration with Mr. Randall., My dear "Mr. A." I have yours of the 4th December. Of course I recognize the fact that this is a professional rather than a legal difference. In nine cases out of [of canceled] ten you would not be drawn into the matter at all— I am heartily sorry that this is the tenth case— My objection to arbitration has been largely that you would necessarily be asked to testify— Your very kind offer meets this objection. There is another objection, namely, that the arbitrators may not give me the relief I want. They may— I think they will— criticize my friend on the other side and tell him what he ought to do— They may go further and tell you what they think you ought to do— But, after all since both partners are ready to perform and you have the undoubted right to call upon either and since the two no longer pull in harmony, it would be a natural thing for the arbitrators, as between you and the late firm, to ask you to pick out your performer— and this brings us back where we started— However such a decision might simplify the matter and I can see that this is the way in which the subject presents itself to your mind— Therefore I shall talk to Mr. Randall on the subject of an arbitration— Should he refuse I shall notify you at once as to what else— if anything— I think ought to be done— I am not seeking to attack Mr. R.— you know— but merely to protect myself from him— If he could write letters such as that to you over our firm signature he might do me harm in other ways— Still I am sensible of your kindness in the matter and I do not mean to involve you further, if I can possibly help it, and I feel confident that your interest will be protected, whatever the issue of the rumpus between Mr. R and me. I am very sorry to have missed the Cotillon and remain Very Sincerely Percy Griffin 10th Dec. '94 James W. Allison, Esqr [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, December 10,1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place, New York] [Edited by SS]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 December 18 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 December 18
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison discussing settlement of Mr. Griffin's disagreement with Mr. Randall., Dear Mr. Allison— I have referred the question of arbitration to Mr. R. and have just received his reply, in which he argues that there is no ground for arbitration and says that in reply to him— during my absence on the "other side" in August last— you wrote your wishes— and I quote from Mr. R's letter of yesterday— "he said that if he (you) had any choice to make in the matter, he decidedly preferred that I should continue in charge of the work"— I regret that I did not know of your "preference" before so that I might have saved you as well as myself from the annoyance of such an experience, or rather, correspondence— It is obvious that with such a preference expressed by you, an arbitration would be of very little service to me, no matter what might be my side of it— An arbitration very likely would rule as I have said in another reference to this— that a remark from you (such as I have quoted) would practically settle the matter, and since these are Mr. A's views, I, as an arbitrator leave them as they stand— Very sincerely yours Percy Griffin 18 Dec. '94. James W. Allison Esq. [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Randall, December 18, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York.] [edited by APS]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 December 27 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 December 27
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison discussing their previous meeting., Dear Mr. Allison— I was much pleased to see you the other day when you called at my office and I appreciate the interest you have show in me during this unfortunate discussion which has given you so much unnecessary trouble— Nothing could have been [than cancelled] nicer than your expressions of regard for me professionally as well as personally and I thank you for them. Knowing your opinions— as I do in this matter— which to me are very satisfactory— I shall drop the discussion hoping that by doing so it may make it easier for you, and notwithstanding my regret I shall always think of our transactions in the pleasantest way. Believe me, my dear Sir Very Sincerely yours Percy Griffin. 27th Dec. '94 James W. Allison Esq. 27th Dec. '94 Richmond Va. 48 Exchange Place. [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, December 27, 1894.] [edited by MT]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 July 15 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 July 15
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison congratulating him and Mrs. Allison on the recent birth of their son and discussing his trip to England., Dear Mr. Allison: I was very glad to get your letter— which was forwarded to me here— and delighted to hear of the "birth of a son to the house of Allison" and if he is anything like his parents he must be a fine boy and I shall be anxious to see the little chap on my return. Give him my congratulations, and I trust that both he and Mrs. Allison are as well as when you wrote— I am seeing a good bit of England and thoroughly enjoying its stunning old architecture. We have had a lot of very bad weather— but now— I am thankful to say— the days are improving— I hope the question of windows, which you mention has been settled in a way satisfactory to you— and that the house is progressing— It is good of you to wish me a welcome home and I shall see you so soon as possible after my arrival— With remembrances to Mrs. Allison and kindest regards to you always— believe me Sincerely yours, Percy Griffin 15 July '94. James W. Allison Esqr. Richmond. [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, July 15, 1894, on letterhead: Station: Bagshot. Telegrams: Windlesham Birch Hall, Windlesham] [edited by APS]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 March 24 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 March 24
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison discussing his visit to Richmond and brick specifications., Dear Mr. Allison: It gave me much pleasure to combine a little visit at your house with the necessary business for your new one— and I trust you will give my compliments to Mrs. Allison and tell her how much I enjoyed it— But as much as I enjoy stopping with you— you must not [next word interlined with caret] feel that because I run down to Richmond on business you must ask me to the house—"They say" that Architects are more or [word canceled] less trouble so when I come down again— should it be more convenient— I can put up at either an Hotel or the club— and you, might think that architects are not such a nuisance after all— I hope the estimates are progressing favorably— We telegraphed you today to let the new estimate on either Worcester or M.F. [word illegible] either will do— Coddington's costs— $7.25 & $14.50 pr. lot— Should you wish to cut a great many brick out of yr. walls— the foundation might be made 21 inches out the walls above 13" inches— These walls are braced by the pilasters & chimneys & would do— I trust the work may be decided upon before you go go South— Believe me always Very sincerely Percy Griffin Jas. W. Allison Esq. 24 Mch . ‘94 [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, March 24, 1894] [edited by MMB and MRM]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 March 7 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 March 7
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison acknowledging receipt of a check for the house., No transcription available.
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 23 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 23
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison advising him to do nothing in the matter between Griffin and Randall until he hears from Griffin again., Dear Mr. Allison, I was very glad to get your letters of Nov. 15th & 22nd and to hear your expressions of regard for me personally and professionally and I also appreciate and admire the neutral position which you take, no matter what my opinion may be of the affair—and from that standpoint I shall not bother further with what I may or may not think—do not trouble yourself about this question until you hear from me again and in the meantime I shall try to settle what has proved to be most unfortunate for your comfort. I am sorry you felt as you do about my going to England—and had I known that, I should not have gone—but it seemed to me right, for it has been done many times between professional partners, and partners in any business and I, perhaps foolishly, thought all would go on smoothly in my absence, and certainly it should have been done in this way, and you, freed from the annoyance of a dispute—In the meantime I shall say nothing more, but with thanks for your kind note of yesterday and trusting that you understand that my letters were written to explain to you what I thought was my right in the matter and not meant to prejudice you in my favor— Always Very sincerely yours, Percy Griffin. To James W. Allison Esq. [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York.. At the top of the first page, a different hand has added: Nov. 23, 1894. Envelope docketed: Percy Griffin November 23. 1894 Do nothing in the matter between him and Mr. Randall until I hear from him again.] [edited by MTD]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 28 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 28
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison discussing Griffin's differences with Mr. Randall., 28th Nov. ‘94 Dear Mr. Allison? I am not sure that I have made it clear to you that what I am really troubled about is the chance of injury to my professional reputation? I do not expect you to do anything Quixotic to help me in this or anything which your sense of justice may not approve, and I should not ask you to consider that matter further if I really thought that your own interest or even convenience were in danger of being sacrificed? Whatever our personal differences may be, the first duty of the members of our late firm toward you is to carry out our contract with you exactly as we made it? Consequently I should withdraw in Mr. R.'s favor, for your sake did I not feel confident that it is not essential to the works, at and from this stage, that the supervision should remain unchanged? I am sure that they could be proceeded with as much to your satisfaction as they are now progressing and without any more friction than is common to all construction as a structure nears completion? I have consulted an old friend, and member of the bar, as to what I may or ought to do, and I have concluded to send you his opinion, in which you are vaguely alluded to as "Mr. A." Very sincerely, Percy Griffin James W. Allison Esq. [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, November 28, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: ? Percy Griffin? Nov. 29. 189 [envelope damaged, last digit unreadable] Enclosing W.C. G. Kidders opinion on differences between himself and Mr. Randall as to completing my house.] [edited by LJP]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 4 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 4
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison concerning the issue of which architect will finish the house., [word illegible] 4th Nov. '94. Dear Mr. Allison? I sincerely regret bringing up the question of the finishing of your house, again? But as Randall and I shall have separate offices after this week, and I remaining in the old offices at at 48 Exchange Place, I must bother you once more? You, must decide as to which of us shall go on with the work? I have no objection to Randall's finishing the work which he brought into the office and I propose to do the same thing with your house? I was written to personally in the first place to do the work subject to your approval? and brought the work into the office and I consider that it should fall to me to carry it out? I cannot compell you to do this, but think that you should write saying that as the firm is dissolved and the members of it are to occupy different offices, you request me to finish the work? as I commenced it? I look upon you as my clients in the same way that I look upon others, as his, clients? I should not have brought this question to you had it not been carried so far as it has. I trust you will let me hear from you at once and what you say shall be final. If you so order it, I shall not go to Richmond again? With best wishes for your very good health, believe me always Very sincerely yours Percy Griffin [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, November 4, 1894. Envelope docketed: [image unavailable] Self Notice #3 B. 173] [Edited by MTD]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 6 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 6
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison regarding the dispute between architects., Dear Mr. Allison— I hope you received my letter of Sunday back and have found an opportunity to answer it— I intentionally have not [not canceled] gone into particulars with you because I wish to free you as much as possible from any additional worry— I trust you understood my point of considering you my client in the sense that the work came into the firm through me— I quite well understand that this is a matter of business with you and certainly it is with me— I had my office long before Randall came into it— and I turned out a lot of work there and trust that there will be much more in the future— It is so much easier, in winding up a business such as ours— to apportion the work in the way I have said. It would be rather rough for me to say that Randall was finishing your work, when others have understood that it came to us thro. me— Perhaps you can see that side of it— It is necessary for you to settle this dispute, and I sincerely regret it— but will you kindly say that you wish one or the other of us to have the drawings and finish your house— I hope to get your letter tomorrow morning but if you have not written won't you kindly send word to me, if you have decided to have R. finish it, perhaps you might write to me also, in either case— Believe me always, Very Sincerely, Percy Griffin 6 Nov. '94 James W. Allison Esq. Richmond [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, November 6, 1894, on letterhead: 34 West 11th Street, New York] [edited by TMH]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 7 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 7
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison noting the draughtsman remaining with his firm., 7th Nov. ’94. Dear Mr. Allison- Here is another letter to bother you, I regret to say— I did not find a letter from you at the office this [next word interlined with a caret] morning and there are so many things which are taking me out of the office today, that I have stopped in at my brother’s office to send you a few lines— I merely wish to add, to what I have written, that the best man in our office is to remain with me—I thought that possibly you might imagine that the men might go with Randall and in that case I would have to instruct new men in reference to your drawings— But as this is not the the case I thought it best to tell you of it— so that you, [might canceled; next word interlined] may understand how matters stand with me—Trusting that these notes have not annoyed you— believe me always, with kindest regards— Sincerely yours Percy Griffin. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, November 7, 1894, on letterhead: R.A. Griffin. 18 Cortlandt Street. New York.] [edited by AGH]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 8 [View Image]
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 November 8
Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison discussing the conflict between the architects., 8 Nov. ‘94. Dear Mr. Allison— I have just received your letter of Nov. 7th, and trust that you thoroughly understand that I appreciate and regret the uncomfortable position you are placed in— and I feel this morning that on your, account I should like to drop the whole question so that there might be one less to bother you— but I do not think it would be in justice to me. When I went to England I did not surrender the work to Mr. Randall and had I imagined that such a state of things would occur, I should have remained at home— We were to divide the work, he taking what he brought into the office— I doing the same— In reference to the letter announcing the "removal of the office", this was written without my knowledge and had I known of it I should have objected most emphatically— The firm has been dissolved, I am glad to say, and neither he nor I have a right to say that the office has been removed from, or that it remains at 48 Exchange Place— This has, been done without my knowledge— I had told him that I wished to go over the drawings &c. in the office, just so soon as he was at liberty from the work of making the arrangements for his new office, and because I waited for his convenience, I found that while I was out of the office, and without mentioning it to me, he had sent all your plans to his office and was then ready to discuss what were left— May I say that it never would have occurred to me to lock up or take away a set of drawings so that they might remain with me— and on the other hand I did not expect it to happen on his part. I did not wish to mention these things for it is as unpleasant to say them as to have them happen— however I am glad you wish to have it explained— I should not have suggested your leaving the finishing of your house with me, had it come into the office thro. Mr. Randall no matter how often I had been to Richmond or how often I had seen you, and you would have been looked upon as his client. The draughtsman who has remained with me has done more work on your house than the one who has gone— and if you wish me to finish the building it shall have every attention of the office— I much prefer to have you, decide this question, rather than have it left to a referee, or given to a third person to do the work. Will you kindly send your reply to me and it will receive every consideration for your wishes— Believe me always, my dear sir— Very sincerely yours Percy Griffin 8 Nov 94. James W. Allison Esqr. Richmond— [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, November 8, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects, 48 Exchange Place New York] [edited by MRM]