Doug Childers / Homes Correspondent
Editor’s note: This is an episode in the “Top Blocks” series, which looks at individual city blocks that have historical or architectural significance.
Nearly 300 years ago – or so the story goes – Richmond founder William Byrd II stood on what is now Libby Hill and noticed something remarkable. The view of the James River reminded him sharply of a similar view of the river from an English village called Richmond Upon Thames.
Inspired, he decided to name the new city Richmond, connecting the area around Libby Hill Park and the first block of North 29th Street to the city’s earliest history.
Housing development took a little longer to come to the area. However, the arrival was impressive. In 1850, the first two houses were built on opposite sides of the first block of North 29th Street, and their scale and architectural detail helped set the bar for one of Church Hill’s most notable blocks.
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Both houses – the Luther Libby House at 1 North 29th Street and the Goddin House at 19 North 29th Street – are built in the Greek Revival style, with elegantly refined, classical details. (The Libby House acquired a dormer mansard roof in the 1870s or 1880s, said Kim Chen, senior manager of Richmond’s planning and development department.)
A year after Libby and Goddin’s homes were built, the city purchased the land across the street for a public park—one of the first in Richmond. Over time, the city expanded it to seven hectares. Formerly known by several names, including Marshall Square and The Park at Jefferson Ward, it became known as Libby Park in the 1890s, Chen said.
The park helped elevate the architectural aspirations of the eight homes built on the block between 1868 and 1909. “Each house on that block has something unique and interesting,” Chen said. “And each is a textbook example of that period.”
For example, the Hancock House—built in 1868 at 11½ North 29th Street—represents a transition from Greek Revival to Italianate, with an Italianate cornice and floor-to-ceiling windows on the first floor. The next house on the block’s timeline—at 15 North 29th Street—was built in 1875 and is a purer example of the Italianate.
“The full-fledged Classical Revival porch may have been added later,” Chen said.
In contrast, the house at 13 North 29th Street is “a textbook example of the Colonial and Classical Revival period,” Chen said. Style-defining features include a classic crown molding, Ionic portico columns, and classic detailing around the front entrance.
Many of the houses in the block are notable for their scale and ornamentation. Even the three Italianate row houses at 7, 9, and 11 North 29th Street are three stories tall, rather than the more typical two stories. And the huge number of cast-iron porches – five – sets the block apart from others in the vicinity.
Stylistic similarities provide clues to the ironwork’s origins. For example, the acorn-and-oak-leaf pattern on the porch of the Hancock House is also found on the Italianate house at 5 North 29th Street (built in 1886). “The pattern was owned by the Phoenix Foundry,” one of two Richmond foundries that produced ornamental ironwork in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chen said.
Likewise, the geometric pattern on the porches at 7, 9, and 11 North 29th Street is similar to that of the foundry.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if all five of them are from Phoenix,” Chen said.
And here’s a bit of Richmond-themed movie trivia: Daniel Day-Lewis stayed at the house at 5 North 29th Street while playing the title role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” several scenes of which were filmed in the city.
The homes on the first block of North 29th Street range in size from 2,640 to 7,217 square feet—the largest being the Goddin House, which was converted into condominiums in the early 2000s. (It is known today as Goddess Manor.)
“The raw numbers can be a little misleading because of fully finished English basements and at least one carriage house,” said Jennie Dotts, a real estate agent with Virginia Properties and a Church Hill resident.
One of the biggest attractions for homebuyers is the view that may have given Richmond its name. “The houses all face southwest, and because they’re on top of a hill, there are great sunsets,” Dotts said.
And an added bonus: having a park on one side of the street translates into lower density and more parking.
However, homebuyers looking to move to the block will have to be patient.
“This is a very low turnover block,” Dotts said. “Last single-family home sales range from 1982 to 2016, and even the apartments at Goddin Manor have not had a sales pass through MLS since 2017.”
She added: “The latest awards are too outdated to have much meaning. However, the two most recent sales – in 2014 and 2016 – were $725,000 and $840,000 respectively, suggesting that this is one of Hill’s choicer blocks.