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 Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894, January 24 [View Image]
- Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894, January 24
- Letter from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison acknowledging his check and discussing plans for estimates., Dear Mr. Allison: I have been laid up for more than a week or I should have acknowledged your note enclosing cheque for $23.05? before this? We received yr. letter in which you made the request that we should not send on the plans for estimating in Richmond until you had made the necessary settlement with a local Architect? We are getting two estimates for men here? I am not certain as to whether or not you have gone to Florida? With kindest regards believe me always Very sincerely your Percy Griffin James W. Allison Esqr. 24th Jany. '94. [ALS, Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, January 24, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York.] [edited by MTD]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 April 26 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 April 26
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing details of the specifications, especially those regarding the brickwork., Dear Sir, Mr. Griffin sailed yesterday, and today I have taken up your drawings and specifications in detail to familiarize myself with them and to see where any small changes may be desirable before the work is begun. I think it will be necessary for me to go over the subject with you in a week or ten days but in the meantime I shall write you about a number of matters that suggest themselves and which I think you can decide just as well by letter. Taking up the Specifications first, I find in our copy that the granite base course has not been omitted as I understood it was to be. The brick, I believe, is to be of a special size to lay four courses to a foot; but its size is not mentioned as it should be to avoid trouble in the future. The base-course of main portion of house and the bases of pilasters are specified to be molded brick of special make also; but the "necking" of pilaster caps is not mentioned. It should also be molded brick. The specifications read that the "chimneys are to be topped out above roof with "arch brick." This should not be done differently from the walls or the effect would be obviously bad. I find too that the lintels and sills of cellar windows of main portion of house are marble. These [next word interlined with a caret] lintels would not look well white, besides being too near the base course. Instead of marble, they should be of brick arched, to carry through the solid, quiet effect of a base. Marble lintels would look disjointed and obtrusive. For practical purposes, besides for general effect, the sills of these windows should be of slate like those in extension. If you will look at the print of the "Harwood House" in Annapolis in that magazine I sent Mrs. Allison you will [next word interlined with a caret] see [word canceled] what I mean better than I can describe it. The specifications furthermore not state that the inside of walls, piers &c. will be made of this large specially made brick. This matter should also be made perfectly clear. The Brickwork of house is called for to be "pointed in 1/2 and 1/2 Rosendale" (cement). I do not see why the mortar used for the work generally is not much better for this purpose than 1/2 and 1/2 cement. It will be lighter, and will not cause the white solution of salt in the brick to be precipitated as cement without lime will. Furthermore the work can be done faster and cheaper, and there will be no chance of the pointing falling out of the joints, as so often occurs. I have no doubt that your mason will allow you something, in case the joint is struck when the brick is laid, and the "pointing up" is omitted. I notice that there is no "brick filling" called for between studding and outside walls, and between all studs at floor line and behind bases at bottom of partitions. This is a very important provision against fire as well as mice and costs but a trifle. There should also be a strip of tin carried around Pantries and Kitchen behind the base-board to keep out mice and vermin. Otherwise I think the specifications are O.K. I send by express F.S.D. of molded brick work. The other drawings will soon be in proper shape. Your's truly. T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, April 26, 1894] [edited by TOC]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 August 4 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 August 4
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison regarding upcoming visit to Richmond., Aug. 4th '94. My dear Mr. Allison, I have [next word interlined with a caret] been looking over the time-table, and think it likely that I can get away from Baltimore Monday evening about seven o'clock reaching Richmond at mid-night and [thus canceled) thus spending the time travelling that would be of no use otherwise. That will give me all of Tuesday to go over your house and settle a number of important matters. Of course you will not think of meeting me this time, and I shall find my way to some Hotel where I am sure of getting a comfortable rest. If you care to communicate with me in Baltimore on Monday address me in care of R. Brent Keyser, Keyser Building. Your's truly T. H. Randall. [ALS, T. H. Randall to James W. Allison, August 4, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York.] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 December 19 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 December 19
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison concerning dining room and library finishing., Dec. 19th '94 James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, I have been looking for you this week, and hoping that you would be able to carry out your purpose and come on to the city. I am anxious to have the finish for your Dining Rm. and Library settled at once. Stowe & Nuckols have not yet sent the 3/4" scale of Library finish. Will you send on your copy. I think the hot air ducts to the floor above can be moved to advantage. I expect to be in Richmond during Xmas week. If I do not see you before then, accept my very warm wishes for your "Merry Xmas." Your's truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, December 19, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects <48 Exchange Place canceled; next two words stamped> 52 Broadway New York. Envelope docketed: G&R Decm. 19.1894 — Anxious to have D.R. Finish settled. Hot air ducts in Library to room above can be moved to advantage. Expect to be in Richmond during Xmas week.] [edited by AA]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 June 14 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 June 14
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing drawings for the house interior., June 14th '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond Va. Dear Sir, I postponed sending you my check for $15.00 which you so kindly lent me, so that I might be able to write you about the drawings which I now send. They cover nearly the entire question of the “trim” for the interior of the house and will also give you a better idea of the general effect of the rooms themselves. As we have abundance of time before us to consider this subject, I wish you and Mr. Addison would not hesitate to suggest any changes that you deem advisable in this part of the finish. The Dining Rm. finish is, as you know, not provided for in the contract for the house and a small part of the Library finish will come under the same head viz: mantel and panelling in connection with it. I have also enclosed the original drawing (on brown paper) for the Library finish, including the bookcases and additional panelling as I understood it was an open question still as to the amount of finish you would have put in there. You can get estimates on either of these and on the Dining Rm. finish separately. I understand that the contractors figured on these drawings for the remaining finish. I am also getting estimates here in New York for the decorative part of their work as well as for the Dining Room. When I next come on we can locate the position of all heating ducts and registers. I presume by that time you will have settled upon your heating contractors. They could of course locate the same with the mason and to your satisfaction without waiting for me, in case it is found necessary to come to a decision before my next visit. We located the flues and ducts on my previous visit but changes in that arrangement may in the meantime have been found necessary. As the chimneys are so large up to the second stories, we can easily afford to build flues or else have niches for the heating ducts wherever desired instead of carrying them up in the partitions or furring. With warmest regards to Mrs. Allison, Believe me very truly your's, T. Henry Randall [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, June 14, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: G&R June 14. 1894 Accompanying drawings for interior finish and explaining same.] [edited by TMH]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 May 17 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 May 17
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison noting previous correspondence and his plan to visit Richmond., May 17th '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond Va. Dear Sir, I telegraphed you this morning as soon as your letter of the 15th arrived. I have been waiting to hear [next word interlined with caret] from you, as I knew the masons could do nothing with the brick-work until after their moulded brick had been gotten out, and therefore that there was no need of my being on hand as yet. Shall however reach Richmond (D.V.) Monday morning according to your very kind directions and can then take up these questions in turn and settle them. Your's very sincerely, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, May 17, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects 48 Exchange Place New York.] [edited by APS]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 October 13 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 October 13
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison advising him of upcoming visit to Baltimore to stir up Stowe & Nuckols., Oct. 13th '94. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, I have heard nothing from Stowe— & Nuckols, I regret to say; and shall therefore not wait for them; but come down to Richmond next week and see if I can not stir them up; and get that matter settled. Their delay is becoming most exasperating, besides putting back everything else. Shall be in Baltimore Monday & perhaps Tuesday, and shall let you know when to expect me before leaving there. Your's Truly, T. Henry Randall [ALS, T.Henry Randall to James W. Allison, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 48 Exchange Place New York. Envelope docketed: T. H. Randall Octr 13. 1894 Nothing from Stowe & N. as to estimate on Changes Will be in Baltimore on Monday and will come to R to hurry them up.] [edited by MMB]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 October 5 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 October 5
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison advising that he can visit Richmond if required., Oct. 5th 94 My dear Mr. Allison, Just a line to say that I shall be in Baltimore Saturday (tomorrow) and Monday, and [next word interlined] can come down to Richmond Monday night, if the work has advanced, or if the estimates are in for the interior finish to require me. In such case please telegraph to our Superintendent B.B. Owens 323 N. Charles St. Balt. Your's in haste, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, October 5, 1894, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects <48 Exchange Place canceled> 52 Broadway New York. Envelope docketed: T. H. Randall Oct. 5. 1894 — Will be in Baltimore Saturday & Monday. Can come to Richmond on Monday night if estimates on interior finish are in or other matters require him.] [edited by AA]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 September 5 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 September 5
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison pointing out the limitations of Mr. Griffins work and proposing a method of joint supervision., Sept. 5th '94. My dear Mr. Allison, After inflicting upon you such a lengthy epistle yesterday in the firms’ name, I am still so much worked up upon the subject that I feel that I must write you again today and clearly explain some matters of importance that were not sufficiently explicit. I utterly hate this kind of thing; and having as you know such a high regard for Griffin in his personal attractions and fine character [next word interlined with caret] in general, I all the more dislike having to point out his weaknesses in his professional sphere. I fear that you may have thought that I was unreasonable in the way I expressed certain matters, and exaggerated the exact state of the case through momentary excitement; but I assure you, if I could explain to you the amount of patient and ceaseless watchfulness that I have had to keep up during the last three years, and the endless disagreable and humiliating confessions that I have been compelled to make to clients where I have found that their work had been neglected and carelessly arranged by Mr. Griffin, you would understand why I expressed myself so decidedly and without any reserve. You must not think that I am blowing my own trumpet, when his can not be heard. I can only refer you to two of his personal friends (and our clients) whose work he superintended and whose homes have had to be almost rebuilt to be livable. Fortunately they came to me to do this work for them, otherwise our name would have been almost ruined. The trouble with Mr. Griffin is his excess of animal spirit which seems to interfere with every faculty that makes a man careful, industrious, and able-minded. I say this to you, as I have what I wrote yesterday, not as our client, but as his personal friend. I feel without any hesitation at all that he is not a proper person to superintend a house under any circumstances. He can do his best work in an office where he can be over-looked; but as you must have realized before, he can not be depended upon to carry out work on his own responsibilities. But let us see, if your proposition can not be in a measure followed without detriment to the work, and without giving offense to him. Suppose I keep the drawings of your house; make those that are hereafter necessary, with the draughtsmen who have before worked upon them; and whenever it is unnecessary for me to arrange matters personally, send Mr. Griffin to look at the work and report upon it. In that way matters can go on as at present and your house [next word interlined with caret] be properly looked after. The control of the design and of the work generally should however remain where it is. Hoping that this will be satisfactory to you and to us both as well. I remain your's truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, September 5, 1894 on letterhead: Griffin & Randall, Architects 48 Exchange Place, New York. Envelope docketed: [image one] [next two letters written over G. &.] T.H.R. Sept 5. 1894 In relation to Mr. Griffin's ability and pointing out his limitations. Proposition as to how the work shall be completed under their joint supervision.] [edited by CC]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 April 15 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 April 15
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison regarding his upcoming visit to Richmond., James W. Allison Esq. Richmond, Va. Dear Sir, I am writing now merely to say that I expect to be in Richmond Monday next and leave there Tuesday morning for Baltimore, so that I shall have abundance of time to do what is necessary to settle the questions of finish and of trim. Purdy is ready to ship all of his material, but I feel it will be best to wait at least another week so that the walls will have more time to be dried out. I hope the furnace has been working steadily. Your's Truly, T. Henry Randall [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, April 15, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York.] [edited by TOC]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 August 10 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 August 10
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison noting availability to visit Richmond., Aug. 10th ’95 James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Dear Sir, I am writing merely to say that I shall be in Annapolis Tuesday evening next; and can come down to Richmond Wednesday or Thursday, if you require me for any purpose, and if you will telegraph to me at the same address. I must be here again on Friday, as I leave Saturday morning for my two-weeks vacation. Hoping that you are all very well. Your’s truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, August 10, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T. H. Randall Aug 10/95— Notifying me that he will be in Annapolis on Tuesday Evn. Next and can come to Richmond on Wednesday or Thursday if desired— Will leave on Saturday for his vacation.] [edited by VR]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 August 16 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 August 16
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing ceiling treatments., Aug. 16th ’95. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Dear Sir, Your favors of the 14th and 15th are both before me, and I shall reply to your inquiries about the treatment of the ceilings first and afterwards in regard to Purdy’s work. My idea is that in each of your rooms the ceilings should be tinted with kalsomine a paler tone of the prevailing color, or of the back-ground of the paper on the walls. That is in the Hall, pale grey-blue; Library, pale buff or pale green; Dining Rm, cream, pale buff, or pale green. Such greens should be grey-greens, of course. If you use yellow in the Reception Rm, a pale buff or cream color would look well. In the same way a pale grey green would go with green walls in Music Room. You need not be afraid of using the same colors on the ceilings of several rooms, because they will look different on account of the reflection of the walls and hangings. Furthermore the main point is to make the ceiling so quiet that it will harmonize with the walls but have no individuallity of its own. I did speak of using ceiling papers in some of the rooms, but I now believe the [the canceled] kalsomine will make the best effect. Papers are ordinarily used on ceilings that are cracked or stained. The heavy [next two words interlined with a caret] old gold Japanese paper which I suggested for the Dining Rm. ceiling would be very rich; but I am afraid it would lower the ceiling too much. At any rate, for the present the tinting will answer. I have suggested several colors for some of these rooms, because I can not tell at this distance which would give the best effect. I should advise your having each of them put up in place to sample and to judge the effect. If you hang temporarily some of the papers in position and have the ceiling above tinted, you can get the effect. The best way, however, is to put on the paper first and then try the ceiling with different colors and shades of the same color; but the walls have to be protected while the work is under way. The walls above the wainscoting in the Vestibule, I think had better be the same color as the Hall walls, in fact you will probably cut off from each peice of the Hall paper about three feet, as it should measure eleven feet; and this peice will just fit above the wainscoting in the Vestibule. I can be in Richmond about the 4th of September to assist you in any of these matters. In the meantime I shall be at Childwold Park. N. Y. (in the Adirondacks). Purdy’s and Newcomb’s estimates and accounts I can then bring with me. Your’s truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, August 16, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York.] [edited by VR]