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 T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 October 16 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 October 16
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing wallpaper., October 16th My dear Mr. Allison, I went to Stearns today to look over his "Eldorado" paper, and find that he has only three "extra" peices in his set. I have made a careful drawing of the walls and I find with very careful cutting, and on the basis of your figures being correct, that this amt. will answer to cover the two side walls, but not the end wall on either side of the Entrance door. For this I think there would be little difficulty tinting to match the blue of the paper and when pictures are hung on either side over it the loss of the foliage will not be noticed. We may also have to carry the paper above the wall rail of the stair-case only as high as the cornice of the Hall, and paint above this point with cream white, or else put in a panelled peice like that over the cornice and below the nosing, across that side. This however may not be necessary. I shall see Sterns again tomorrow and [a canceled] measure the peices more carefully. I have not written that letter to Stowe as I have been very busy with other important matters. Your's sincerely, T. Henry Randall (over) P.S. I was very sorry to have been unable to see you and Mrs. Allison again before you left town; but I was kept at my office until six or seven every evening, and my evenings after dinner had been previously [re written over other letters] engaged. Please give Mrs. Allison my warmest regards. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James Allison, October 16, 1895, on letterhead: Reform Club 233 Fifth Avenue. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T. H. R. Oct 16/95 Report on “El Dorado” paper Stearnes has only 3 extra pcs. and doubtful if that will be sufficient— suggests Kalsonying the end of hall on each side of front door, and other make shifts.] [edited by SS]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 October 22 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 October 22
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing approval of work and pricing for wallpapers., Oct. 22nd ’95. James W. Allison, Esq. Richmond Va. Dear Sir, Your's of the 17th at hand. All the work and material supplied by the Newcomb. Co. and by the C. H. Purdy Co. in your house was approved and accepted by us. We have Purdy Co’s itemized bill, and have written the Newcomb Co. for copy of theirs. We can then make you a statement of what items in them both are to be deducted from the general contract. The letter to Stowe and Nuckols regarding the work in your house will be written for your approval at once. The "Eldorado" paper (20 peices) cost a former client $80.00 The extra peices would probably be at the same rate. Stearns said the set would cost between $75.00 and $80.00 and it was this that we probably quoted to you. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall. over P.S. Since writing the above Stearns has been in to see Mr. Randall, and he has been advised to write to you and suggest that you put on all the paper that he has now for the Hall and leave the three extra peices to put on later whenever they can be imported. What Stearns already has will do the whole lower Hall except a strip about five feet wide below the staircase and next to back door. He can put a blue lining paper there and your Richmond man can put on these peices when they arrive. It would take nearly four weeks to get the paper even if he should cable for it now. We also enclose a letter to Stowe and Nuckols for your approval. Your's truly, G & R. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, October 22, 1895, on letterhead: Griffin & Randall Architects [48 Exchange Place canceled] New York. Envelope docketed: [image unavailable] — T. H. R. Oct 22. 1895— Will analyze Purdy and Newcombs afrs— Their work is accepted Cost of Eldorado Paper will be $75/80 dollars. for 20 ps. Suggestions for supplying the deficiency in this paper] [edited by APS]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 October 26 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 October 26
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing work approvals and availability of "Eldorado" wallpaper., Oct. 26th ’95. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Dear Sir, Your's of the 24th at hand. I sent my letter you first on purpose to have you add or subtract as you thought best before sending it to Stowe & Nuckols, but I think the case made out against them while general in its character is precisely as strong as yours as you amended it. The question of compensation and of award would in any case have to be considered later in and in detail with each one of these items are mentioned in my letter or not. For instance my saying that; "The materials for floors are not everywhere up to the proper grade required by the specifications nor were they selected nor layed in a proper manner throughout the house" is not made any stronger by the omission of the word "everywhere" or by adding to the above general statement the fact that the "planning, scraping and finishing do not fulfill the specifications &c”. as that is merely explanatory. However, I care more to have you satisfied than to satisfy myself as to the working of such a report, but at the same time I do think that what I intended saying was sufficient and covered the subject generally as far as circumstances warranted. I have had Purdy's agent here and have written out the statement as this and Newcomb's accounts with Stowe & Nuckols and when I have heard from the Henderson people who did the "leaded glass" I shall have all of that part of the subject in shape and shall send them on together. In connection with the hanging of paper in your house and the cost of the "Eldorado" I have something to write. Beck has been in to see me, and he makes this offer, to supply you with the 24 peices of "Eldorado" now and with as many more as you may need in ten days or two weeks, as he has two additional sets on their way from Paris. He will let you have the full set for “$75.00 and the extra peices at the same rate, or he will contract to supply however much you may need for the Hall for $100.00. This is a price that he makes to me and that he will not make to Stearns or any one else. He will send a man to Richmond and put up this paper and any other for six dollars a day and traveling expenses ($15.) He thinks it would require two and a half days to do this room. Ordinarily a man can put up from 18 to 20 rolls of paper per day. He also offered to send his man now in Wilmington to Richmond and do the tinting of ceilings for five & a half dollars a day. I think you had better accept his offers at once. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, October 26, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: —T. H. R. — Oct 26, 1895— In re-original draft of letter to S. & N. on approval of work on my house Price from F Beck & Co for the Eldorado paper and sending a man to hang same— also a man to tint ceilings and get [next three words illegible] [edited by APS]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 September 23 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1895 September 23
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison discussing color of blinds and travel plans., Sept. 23rd ‘95 James W. Allison Esq. Richmond, Va. Dear Sir, I have just returned to New York, having received your letters written during my absence. In regard to the "Venetian blinds" for your front door I should think that green or white would answer equally well, though the former would perhaps be the more suitable. If you use green I should suggest the same shade as you have already used on the blinds on windows. I should like to go over the list of fixtures selected for your house through the Mitchell Vance Co. and explain them more fully. Of course if you could see them you would find them of the best designs and workmanship of their class. However we can talk this matter over to better advantage when I see you next week. My present plan is to go to Annapolis on Friday next and afterwards attend to some matters in Baltimore which would require a couple of days, so you may expect me in Richmond about Wednesday of next week. However I shall let you know later the exact day. I am very glad to know that you have finally gotten under your roof after this long and aggrevating struggle to do so; and hope you find it comfortable under the present severe test of weather for I find here in New York as high a temperature as we ever had before in mid-summer. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, Sept. 23, 1895, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed: [image unavailable]: T.H.R. Sept 23, 1895 Color of blinds for vestibule. Expects to go to Annapolis on Friday and Richmond on Wednesday following.] [edited by SS]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1896 April 11 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1896 April 11
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison requesting a statement for house costs., April 11th ’96. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond, Va. Dear Sir, If you have in hand all the data necessary to wind up your accounts on the cost of your house, I should like to have a copy of them, as the settlement of the firm's accounts and of my own and Mr. Griffin's all depend now upon this work on account of its being the last under the old original. I hope you all have been well since I last heard from you. Your's very truly, T. Henry Randall [ALS; T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, April 11, 1896, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall, Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T. H. R. Apr 11 '96 Asking for statement of cost of house.] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1896 June 4 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1896 June 4
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison urging payment of balance to firm., June 4th ’96. James W. Allison Esq. Richmond. Dear Sir, I have been very much disappointed in every way at not hearing from you in reply to my letter of May 22nd, asking you to remit your check then for my account as rendered. I naturally counted upon your compliance with my request for every possible reason, and as a result I was put to great inconvenience— in fact, mortification— at your failure to do so. I trust therefore that you will give this matter your immediate attention and oblige. Your's truly, T. Henry Randall [ALS. T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, June 4, 1896, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall, Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable]: T. H. R.— June 4, 1896 Urging remittance of bal. due G&R.] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1896 June 9 [View Image]
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, 1896 June 9
- Letter from T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison apologizing for letter of the 4th and offering services., June 9th ’96. My dear Mr. Allison, I was just leaving town for a few days when your letter and its enclosure arrived, and I had only time enough to mail the receipted bill to you without any further acknowledgement. Now upon my return I find your second letter of the 6th which makes me regret all the more that I did not "content my soul with patience" and avoid giving you this unnecessary trouble. I say "unnecessary", for if I had been more farseeing I would not have found myself in such an awkward position. I am extremely indebted to you for your kindness and consideration; and I can only hope that I can be of service to you again in whatever capacity the occasion requires. Your's very sincerely, T. Henry Randall. [ALS, T. Henry Randall to James W. Allison, June 9, 1896, on letterhead: T. Henry Randall, Architect 52 Broadway. New York. Envelope docketed [image unavailable] T.H.R. June 9, 1896— Apologizing for letter of 4th and tendering services.] [edited by WDC]
- Letter from W. H. Harbaugh, 1893, November 20 [View Image]
- Letter from W. H. Harbaugh, 1893, November 20
- Letter from W. H. Harbaugh describing the veterinary examination of James W. Allison's mare., Richmond, Va., Nov. 20th 1893 I have examined today for Mr. Jas. W. Allison a clipped sorrel mare, four white legs, stripe in face, docked tail I find that she is five years old past, has a splint on each fore leg— has scratches, all four legs stocked, wound on right hind fetlock joint, knuckles over on left fore and hind fetlock joints She is unsound W. H. Harbaugh [ALS, W. H. Harbaugh, November 20, 1893, on letterhead: Office of W. H. Harbaugh, V. S., Veterinary Hospital, 110 and 112 S. Adams St.] [edited by JTK]
- Telegram from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison , 1894 April 17 [View Image]
- Telegram from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison , 1894 April 17
- Telegram from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison requesting marble estimates with note on estimate., James W. Allison Esqr. Have you gotten or can you get the marble estimates Griffin & Randall [HWSr, Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, April 17, 1894; written in another hand: Have estimate $840. Stowe going to Baltimore for others ] [Edited by TOC]
- Telegram from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 22 [View Image]
- Telegram from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison, 1894 March 22
- Telegram from Griffin & Randall to James W. Allison specifying brands., New York Mch 22, 1894 James W Allison Esqr RVa "Worcester" or "MF" brands will do Griffin & Randall [HWSr, Griffin and Randall to James W. Allison, March 22, 1894, telegram: Western Union Telegraph Company 1217 East Main St Richmond VA; Pay stub included: James W. Allison Esqr.— Stowe & Nuckols want to call the ] [edited by MMB]
- Telegram from James W. Allison to T. Henry Randall 1894, September 24 [View Image]
- Telegram from James W. Allison to T. Henry Randall 1894, September 24
- Telegram from James W. Allison to T. Henry Randall advising him of Wednesday morning call., Septr 24. 1894 T. Henry Randall care B.B. Owens 323 N. Charles St. New York [Leave for New York canceled] I go North to-night Will call your office Wednesday morning J.W.A [AWI, James W. Allison to T. Henry Randall, September 24, 1894, sender’s copy, on letterhead of The Western Union Telegraph Company.] [edited by VR]
- Telegram from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 March 9 [View Image]
- Telegram from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, 1894 March 9
- Telegram from Percy Griffin to James W. Allison requesting meeting date., Jas W Allison Esq March 9 189 West Franklin St What day after Saturday would you like to see me. Percy Griffin [HWSr Percy Griffin to James W. Allison, March 10, 1894. Another hand has written at bottom: Mar. 10/94/ Telegram & drawing received. Not ready yet. Am writing you.] [edited by LJP]