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).

Copyright
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.

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Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 August 5 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 August 5
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison regarding "leaded" sashes., Aug. 5th ’95. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, Your’s of the 31st of July received. It was forwarded from Baltimore. I do not understand how Peters could have entirely forgotten what I said to him about the “leaded” sash. They are all to be given one coat of red lead and as many coats of white as they require. The side-lights with smaller panes would probably look best inside, but it really makes very little difference. I am not sure that I forwarded Batterson, Lee & Eisele’s bill to you, so I enclose duplicate. Also Boote’s bill. Your’s truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, August 5, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York.] [edited by VR]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 February 16 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 February 16
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing details for fireplaces and library finishing., February 16th '95 James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, We have authorized Stowe & Nuckols to begin at once the work in your Library upon which they figured. The facings and hearth specified are brick. We suggest that if you do not care to go to the expense of putting in simple stone or marble facings and hearth, that you use a square 9" dark red tile such as are called for in floor of front porch. They make a good finish and cost but 20 cents each. As you need only 29 of them for the facings and hearth, they will cost $5.80. The laying of hearth is in S.& N. contract, so that the laying of the facings would be the only additional cost to consider and that very small. The brick is not quite suitable for a good dark wood mantel, and furthermore the tile will help us out of an awkward place on account of its additional width over the brick. In fact we should strongly recommend your putting in the same tile in fire-places on Second Floor as its color and smooth finish make it much more suitable than the brick for facings & hearths. As Perth Amboy brick hearths are already specified for these rooms the additional cost to you will be the facings which would not be more than $3.00 or $4.00 each. The white wood work looks infinitely better with the large red tile than with the rough buff color of the brick. Let us hear from you on this subject as soon as possible. Purdy is getting on with his work in a most satisfactory way. The wood-work is all out for Dining Rm. except some of the carving; and the grain gives promise of very good results. The Bed Rm; Drawing Rm., and Reception Rm. mantels are finished and all the ornamental work is about done also. Newman has agreed to supply everything as agreed including Yale & Towne locks &c. He will send you three samples of sash [lights canceled] catches. We think it would be best to put no hardware on the windows before the work is entirely finished. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, February 16,1895, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall [48 Exchange Place canceled; next two words stamped] 52 Broadway New York. Envelope docketed: [image unavailable] G.& R. {Feby 16 " 18 Mar 4} 1895 —Authorized S&N. to begin on library Suggests red 9" tiles for hearths and facings to fireplaces Purdy's woodwork progressing well Newman agrees to supply all hardware according to first bid. Particulars of S.& N.'s and Purdy's bids for finishing library in quartered oak. All of these letters were received March 5th 1895 & answered " 7th 1895.] [edited by CEC]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 July 29 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 July 29
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing postponement of visit to Richmond and offering to find less expensive wallpapers., July 29th, ’95 My dear Mr. Allison, Since writing to you on the 27th in regard to my coming to Richmond about the end of this week, I find that I shall have to postpone doing so for a week or ten days, as I must be here to attend to a number of important matters. However I do not think it will delay the progress of any thing in connection with the finish of the house. As I wrote Mrs. Allison, if there are any of the papers which she likes for either Bed Rooms, or First Floor rooms that you feel are too expensive I can look at the other shops and see if the same or similar papers can be bought for less. Yours’ truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, July 29, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T.H.R. July 29, 1895. Must postpone coming to Richmond for a week or ten days. If papers sent are too expensive will look around for less expensive ones.] [edited by LJP]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 July 30 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 July 30
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison concerning tile estimates., July 30th ’95. James W. Allison, Esq. Richmond, Va. Dear Sir, Your's of the 29th at hand and its contents noted. In regard to Boote's bill for 9" x 9" tile, I enclose his estimate to show you upon what I based the cost of these tiles. As I told you at the time his regular figure is 20¢ each, and so the Contractors allowed it according to the specifications. I shall be in Baltimore Wednesday and Thursday— Care John Cowan, 106 W. Madison St.— and in Annapolis, Friday. Mitchell, Vance and Co. will send description of gas & electric fixtures and their estimate for the same direct to you in few days. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall [The following was enclosed with T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, July 30, 1895] June 17, 1895. Mr. T. Henry Randall, 52 Bway. City. Dear Sir:- I will furnish you with 220 9 x 9 Dark Red Quarries packed F.O.B.N.Y, for the sum of Thirty five dollars. ( $ 35.00). 6 x 6 Dutch tile for facing stripped out with enamel tile packed for the sum of Five dollars. ( $ 5.00). 6 x 6 Dutch tile for hearth at Twenty five cents a piece. Enamel tile for hearth at Fifty cents (50) a sq. foot. Unglazed tile for hearth at Forty (40) cents a sq. foot. Trusting to be favored with your order which shalll have my prompt attention I am, Very truly yours, Alfred Boote. per. Peter [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, Esq., July 30, 1895 on letterhead: T. Henry Randall, Architect, 52 Broadway. New York. Enclosure: TL, Alfred Boote to Mr. T. Henry Randall, June 17, 1895 on letterhead: Estimate from Alfred Boote, No. 140 West 23d Street. New York, Importer and Manufacturer of Flooring and Artistic Tile, Roman Mosaics, Wood Mantels, Open Fire Places, Etc. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T. H. Randall, July 30, 95 - Enclosing Alfred Boote's estimates for tiles for porch floor and hearth and facings for Dining Room Chamber of Dutch tiles. Will be in Baltimore on Wednesday and Thursday— Corres. care John Cowan, 106 W. Madison St. and in Annapolis Friday. Mitchell Vance Co. will send description of gas fixtures direct in a few days.] [edited by CEC]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 July 9 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 July 9
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison noting change in travel plans due to his mother's death., July 9th ‘95 James W. Allison, Esq. Richmond Dear Sir, My mother’s death has changed all my plans for this week, but I think I shall be able to get to Richmond for Saturday, if you expect to be there then. Otherwise I shall wait till Monday or Tuesday. I expect to leave here tomorrow and go direct to Annapolis, where I shall be till Friday. Please telegraph me there (no address) what day I shall meet you. Stearns the paper man can get you a complete set of the El, Dorado paper for $80.00 (four scenes). Your’s truly, T. Henry Randall. [In pencil in another hand] Shall be here Monday until noon and perhaps all day [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, July 9, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T.H.R. July 9, 1895. His mother’s death? has changed all plans? thinks will be able to get to Richmond Saturday or Monday. Stearns can get a complete set of the Eldorado Paper (four scenes) for $80.00.] [edited by LJP]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 June 18 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 June 18
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing details of fastenings, tiles, and mouldings., June 18th ‘95. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Va. Dear Sir, Your's of the 15th at hand. We wrote Newman in [next word interlined with caret] regard to the “push-button fastenings” for Library and Hall closets upon receipt of your former letter and presume that he has already written to you on the subject. Perhaps Stowe did not understand that the "push button" itself is to be placed on the frame or stile and not on the door itself. The lock itself can be mortised [next word interlined with caret] into or secured to the back of the door and frame. We did not order any locks (Yale) because they were not in Newman's contract and we thought you had better put them on yourself wherever you liked. He is supplying the "push button fastenings although they are not in his contract. The sketch for the Porch floor shows more space for tiles than our drawings. We hope the marble border is as wide as we have shown it. If it is not, we will not get a good finish under the bases of [cape canceled] columns. We are ordering 250 red tiles (9" x 9") from Alfred Boote for your porch floor and fire places at 15 cents each. Mrs. Allison expressed a desire to have blue and white "Dutch" tiles in the Nursery instead of red tiles as proposed. We have therefore gotten an estimate from Boote for these, which is $5.00 for facings and $7.50 for hearth. They are especially good picture tiles (6"x 6") and would make a pleasing variety. If you are satisfied with them, let us know at once so that they may be shipped without delay. The panel over the front windows would probably be improved by an egg-and-dart moulding covering the joint. The old examples of this kind of work, however, have no such moulding. In regard to the cornice ornament on mantels we are fully satisfied that it had best be made durable by cutting off the "knobs”. No method of protecting them will look as well. Mr. Randall has seen a quantity of suitable wall papers for your house and will bring them on next week if Mrs. Allison will be in Richmond. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, June 18, 1895, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects [48 Broadway canceled] New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: G & R. June 18. 1895. Directions for putting on the "Push button" fastenings in Library & Hall closets. No Yale locks ordered for these closets and frames Ordering 250 red tiles 9 x 9 for porch floor and fire place at 15 cents ea. Price of Dutch Tiles for nursery fire place is $5.00 for facings and 7.50 for hearth. 6" x 6" Advising to cut off "Knobs" on the top moulding on mantels An egg & dart moulding on panels over front windows would probably be an improvement but old examples of this kind of work have no such moulding.] [edited by KCP]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 March 12 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 March 12
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison noting that changes in the drawings will be sent., My dear Mr. Allison, I have been so busy with a useless "Committee of Exhibitions" for several days that I have not been able to write to you in reply to your letters. The drawings however have been made for changes in Library, and for the front porch and will be sent at once. I am going to Washington at the end of this week and shall probably go on to Richmond for Monday to see what has been done and to settle what is yet undecided. Please excuse this haste, and Believe me Very Sincerely Yours’ T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: G & R. March 12. 1895. Drawings have been made for changes in Library and front porch and will be sent at once] [edited by TOC]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 March 14 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 March 14
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing details of the hearth facings., James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Dear Sir, Replying to your favor of the 7th in regard to using Tiles instead of Brick for facings and hearths in your Library and Bed Rms. we should say that any good mason should have no more difficulty laying the former than the latter— in fact they are more easily layed. There should be no rim around opening as it would be useless and furthermore detracts from the effect of the tiles. We do not think the amount of "extra" cost could be more than we wrote you. The question of iron rail on front porch we can discuss when Mr. Randall sees you in Richmond Monday next. We hope the heating apparatus is finally finished and working. No finish should be put in the house without being certain of its condition. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, March 14, 1895, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects <48 Exchange Place canceled> New York] [edited by TOC]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 March 4 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 March 4
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison noting progress of wood work for the dining room., My dear Mr. Allison, In the same mail with your favor of the 2nd came the letters of Feb. 16th & 18th which I presumed you had received; but which owing to absentmindedness (or absence of mind) were addressed to "Baltimore" instead of Richmond. I am very sorry to have been guilty of this blunder, especially as they covered matters about which you had asked further information. Purdy has completely finished a large part of the mahogany wood-work for your Dining Rm. and it is looking remarkably well. I am waiting for Stowe & Nuckols to send sizes of fire-place openings so that I can order the marble facings and hearths. Your's very sincerely, T. Henry Randall [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, March 4, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York.] [edited by TOC]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 May 15 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 May 15
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing the Purdy delivery, registers and his visit to Richmond., No transcription available.
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 May 7 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 May 7
Letter from T. H. Randall to James W. Allison discussing hardware specifications., May 7th ‘95. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Dear Sir, Newman the hardware man was in to see me today and we arranged the hardware as far as it was possible to do so without exact measurements from the building itself. He showed me a letter from Stowe and Nuckols of May 3rd in which they stated that they had that day sent the hardware which we both thought had been shipped a week ago. It was received today. Purdy has shipped all his material and will send on his men as soon as S. & N. have notified him that it is in the building. I shall come on then myself to see that all this finish is started properly. Newman advises keeping lacquered knobs. They will last four years before cleaning. Your's Truly, T. H. Randall. [ALS, T. H. Randall to James W. Allison, May 7, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: G.& R. May 7, 1895 Seen Newman and arranged hardware as far as possible without measurements from the building itself. Purdy has shipped all his material & will send his men as soon as advised that it is all in the building. Advises retaining lacquered knobs— they will last four years before requiring cleaning] [edited by MRM]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 November 5 [View Image]
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 November 5
Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing wallpaper., James W. Allison, Esq. Richmond. Va. Nov. 5th ‘95 Dear Sir, Your's of the 2nd at hand and its contents noted. I have spent a couple of hours this morning at Stearns place, with the "Eldorado" paper spread out on the floor, trying to arrange it for your Hall so as to give the best results. I found that if we made it continuous as far as the numbers are concerned we would not get the best results as some of the finest portions of the scenes would have to be cut up by pilasters and doors. Consequently, I have arranged it so that the two most attractive pictures will fill the two opposite panels in center of room, and that the most vivid coloring will come around the Vestibule door where there is the least light. Both Mr. Stearns and the paper hanger (about whom he has been corresponding with you) agreed that my scheme seemed to be the most effective as well as the most economical. As I said before, you will need one set, and seven, or eight extra pieces, the last depending up the way the others work out and the need of anything in addition to fill up the space over the staircase. In regard to the cost of the hanger's price per day, Stearns told you it would be four and a half dollars per day and not six, and that you were to board the man, or pay for same. He does not charge for time in travelling, although his "Union" requires him to do so. I understand from Stearns that he offered this price, though it is below "Union prices," without intending to make a cent by it; and he also states that he has quoted the lowest possible prices for the other papers as well. I enclose peice of "Eldorado" paper cut from the top of one of the rolls. I can not find a sample of color that could be actually copied by Peters for the ceilings of Hall; but I think he can easily enough mix a lighter shade of this, or else copy it and make the ceiling and walls alike. This was done in my brother's house and the result was perfectly satisfactory. In regard to the paper for the Second story Hall walls, Stearns advises a figured paper of another shade of blue; but I fully believe in the scheme of carrying up the same shade of blue over these walls. No plain paper is made of the exact tint that we want, but it is a simple matter to make it at the factory (in ten days) and it would cost 75 cents per roll. I should strongly advise this being done and I should also advise your having it done by Stearn's man, as it requires greater skill than the figured papers. I presume it would be carried to top of Attic staircase and to Passage door beyond Second Story Lavatory. This would be a small amount of paper, as there is not much wall space left after the door trims, dados &c. are taken out. The paper would be about what the other is in quality. I shall attend to the paper for Music Room tomorrow. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, November 5, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect <48 Exchange Place canceled> New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T. H. Randall-- Nov. 5. 1895 - Arrangement of Eldorado [word illegible] & quantity required. Price for hanging by Stearns man. 7 cuts for Hall ceiling Paper for 2nd Story Hall-- plain blue to be made to [word illegible] cost 75 [symbol illegible] pr roll. And Nov 16, 1895] [edited by MT]

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