Doug Childers/Homes Correspondent
Editor’s note: This is part of the “Upper Blocks” series that looks at individual city blocks of historical or architectural significance.
About 300 years ago – according to the story – Richmond founder William Byrd II stood on present-day Libby Hill and noticed something striking. The view overlooking the River James strongly reminded him of a similar river view from an English village called Richmond Upon Thames.
Inspired, he decided to name the new city Richmond, thus linking 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 arrive in the area. Still, his arrival was impressive. In 1850, the first two houses were built at either end of the first block of North 29th Street, and their scale and architectural details helped set the bar for one of Church Hill’s most striking 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 – were built in the Greek Revival style with elegantly refined classical details. (Libby House purchased a mansard roof with skylights in the 1870s or 1880s, said Kim Chen, senior manager of Richmond’s planning and development review department.)
A year after the Libby and Goddin homes were built, the city bought the land across the street for a public park – one of Richmond’s first parks. Over time, the city expanded it to seven acres. Previously known by various names, including Marshall Square and Park in Jefferson Ward, it became known as Libby Park in the 1890s, Chen said.
The park helped elevate the architectural ambitions of the eight houses built on the block from 1868 to 1909. “Each of the houses in this block has something unique and interesting about it,” Chen said. “And each is a textbook example of that era.”
For example, the Hancock House, built at 11½ North 29th Street in 1868, represents the transition from the Greek Revival to the Italianate style, with an Italianate cornice and full-height windows on the first floor. The next house in the block’s timeline – at 15 North 29th Street – was built in 1875 and is a purer example of Italian style.
“The full-blown Classical Revival porch may have been added later,” Chen said.
By contrast, Chen said the house at 13 North 29th Street is “a textbook example of the Colonial and Classical revival period.” Style-defining features include a classic cornice, Ionic porch columns, and classic details around the front entrance.
Many of the houses on the block stand out for their scale and ornamentation. Even the three Italian row houses at 7, 9, and 11 North 29th Street are three stories rather than the more typical two-story. And multiple cast-iron porches separate the five-block from the others in the neighborhood.
Stylistic similarities offer clues to the origins of ironwork. The acorn and oak leaf pattern on the porch of the Hancock House, for example, is also seen in the Italianate house (built 1886) at 5 North 29th Street. “It belonged to the Model 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 7th, 9th and 11th porticoes of North 29th Street is similar to the ones produced in the foundry.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if all five come from Phoenix,” Chen said.
Here’s a Richmond-themed movie trivia for you: Daniel Day-Lewis stayed in the house at 5 North 29th Street while playing the lead role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a few scenes shot 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 a condominium in the early 2000s. (Today known as Goddin Mansion.)
“The raw numbers can be a bit misleading due to the fully completed English basements and at least one carriage house,” said Jennie Dotts, a real estate agent for Virginia Properties and a Church Hill resident.
One of the biggest attractions for home buyers is the landscape that may have given Richmond its name. “The houses all face southwest, and because they’re on the top of a hill, there are some great sunsets,” Dotts said.
And an added bonus: Parking on one side of the street means less congestion and more parking spaces.
Home buyers looking to move to the block will need to be patient, though.
“This is a very low turnover block,” Dotts said. “Recent sales of single-family homes range from 1982 to 2016, and not even the condos in Goddin Manor have had sales clearance from MLS since 2017.”
He added: “The latest prices are too outdated to make much sense. However, the two most recent sales – 2014 and 2016 – were $725,000 and $840,000 respectively, making this one of Hill’s preferred blocks.