Richmond Row House: The Alexander Walker House
Richmond Row House
Name of House: The Alexander Walker House
Year Built: 1855; expanded in 1859
Architect: Unknown; at the time, Southern houses were often designed by their owners.
Style: Greek Revival, with Regency-inspired iron balconies and Italianate cornices
Current Owner: William "Bill" Crosby, senior architect, Virginia's Historic Preservation Office
Slave auctioneer Robert Alvis constructed half the house in 1855, but financial losses forced him to sell to tobacco merchant Alexander Walker, who expanded it into a center-hall residence on the cusp of the Civil War in 1859. During the war, Union troops stayed in the house after Richmond fell. From 1905 until 1934, it served as an orphanage. After that, it became the Young Men's Club of Virginia. In the 1970s, it was purchased and renovated back into a private home, which Bill Crosby acquired in 1988.
If These Walls Could Talk
Local lore has it that Abraham Lincoln visited the front porch on April 4, 1865, the day after Union forces captured Richmond, a pivotal turning point in the war. At that time, the city was the capital of the Confederacy. In 1905, another President, Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of orphanages, made an appearance at the house. In recent times, actor James Spader toured the home when he was considering leasing it for his family during the filming of the movie Lincoln.
Evolution of the House
In the 1970s, a new homeowner connected an outbuilding to the home by enclosing a rear galley porch to create space for a kitchen, butler's pantry, and sitting room. Other than that addition, the Alexander Walker House retains its 1859 floor plan. Master plasterer Bill MacArthur recently restored the original wall finishes and cornices.
All About the Details
Double-hung windows are tall enough to walk through. Twelve-foot-high ceilings and heavy cornices give stature to double parlors that can be closed off with pocket doors. Twin Carrara marble mantels from Italy feature lavish grape and vine carvings. The kitchen still has two large fireplaces for cooking. Original heart-pine floorboards, tall baseboards, panel doors, glass transom lights, heart-pine windows, and window casings all survive too. A second-floor bedroom window opens onto the rear portico to allow the occupant a bird's-eye view of the James River. This window has a low, in-swinging jib door—a type of Neoclassic portal that was used by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and liberally entrenched in Virginia architecture. After 150 years, the jib door still works.
Retrofitting a Renovation
Originally slave quarters, the kitchen was renovated and adjoined to the main house in the 1970s. Bill went in and stripped off the newer finishes to reveal old maple floors and a planked ceiling, which he replaced with an exact replica of the original. He also hid the appliances behind decorative paneling copied from the house's formal rooms. Except for the central island's worktable, Bill skipped proper countertops. The tops of pine cupboards are used as work surfaces instead, with storage underneath. His collection of creamware—none of it perfect and all of it mended—is displayed over a granite farm sink deep enough to bathe his dogs.
Decorating for Then and Now
Simplicity is Bill's creed. Whisper-quiet palettes and bare windows let the architecture's vocabulary do most of the talking in each room. Farrow & Ball's rich off-white color, Pointing, coats the dining room and living room walls. Over time, Bill worked to amass a collection of Second Empire, Duncan Phyfe, and other Neoclassic furnishings. These pieces, which date from the same period as the home, tend to have the necessary proportions to fill the rooms. Pieces from other eras tend to look a bit diminutive under the 12-foot ceilings.
Meet the Owner
What's most endearing about the house?
It has a presence with its big, restrained rooms; the soaring ceilings; the bold running plaster cornices. They're spacious and airy, with pleasing light from morning to night.
How is your neighborhood?
It's a gorgeous historic district, St. John's Church, named after its most dominant feature, St. John's Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry delivered his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech.
What's the key to preserving a landmark?
Proper maintenance. Do this and you won't need to restore anything. It's also important to know what to do and what not to do.
Give us an example.
If you're lucky enough to have heart-pine windows, you'll want to repair and maintain what you've got. Heart pine won't rot, and it gives the building character. Never replace it with vinyl or fiberglass—retain it at any cost!
What is life like living on the National Register?
It's an honor with one tiny inconvenience: I can't go out and fetch the newspaper in my pajamas anymore. This home attracts trolley tours, and I never know when tourists with cameras might be stopped out front!