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RICHMOND
Main Street Banking Historic District

Main Street district

Main Street buildings
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

 

Main Street Banking Historic District is the historic heart of Richmond’s financial district.  Laid out in 1780, the district was part of an expansion of Richmond in conjunction with its designation as Virginia’s capital.  Originally known as “E” Street, Main Street became the primary commercial corridor and primary east-west route through Richmond in the late 18th century.  The Richmond evacuation fire of 1865 during the Civil War resulted in destruction of the two to five-story buildings that composed the antebellum financial district.

Richmond rebounded after the war, and Richmond’s business community worked rapidly to reconstruct the financial district.  The rebuilding made extensive use of prefabricated cast iron because of the speed of erection for cast-iron modular buildings. The distinguished Stearn’s Building at 1007-1013 East Main Street is one of the best examples of a cast-iron row in the district. A Baltimore foundry cast the elaborate facades in 1866 to the designs of George Johnston, who modeled the extraordinarily intricate facades after the facades of Italian Renaissance Palazzos.  Design details include entrances framed by Corinthian columns and rounded arches with spiraling vines topped by a garland and rosebud. 

Iron fronts made the Italianate style predominant for Richmond’s commercial buildings in general and those along Main Street in particular.  Richmond builders used a variety of material combinations for Italianate commercial buildings such as brick, cast-iron, wood, and pressed metal, but seldom erected complete cast-iron facades after the initial wave. Additional examples of Italianate architecture include 1112 -1116 East Main of 1866 and 814-818 East Main Street of 1893.  Many other Italianate buildings were along Main Street before their demolition for various 20th century developments.

Prior to their destruction by the evacuation fire, several important bank buildings stood along Main Street. Banks reestablished themselves during Reconstruction.  One of the finest examples is the Romanesque Revival style Planters Bank that Charles H. Read Jr. designed in 1893.  This individually listed National Register building at 1200 East Main Street is a fine brick and brownstone Romanesque Revival style edifice. 

Several buildings from the opening decades of the 20th century reflect the development of Beaux Arts Classical Revival architecture. The Virginia Trust Building of 1919 at 821 East Main Street is an outstanding terra cotta-clad building in the form of a Roman triumphal arch. New Yorker Alfred Bossom and Richmond’s Carneal and Johnston were the architects. That same year Mowbray and Uffinger, another New York firm, designed the American Trust Building at 1005 East Main Street.  Its beautifully detailed classicism inside and out is preserved as part of the adaptive reuse of the building as a restaurant.  The exterior of the building is limestone with rusticated Ionic Columns. The limestone clad former Bank of Virginia at 800 East Main Street dating from 1931 is another Beaux Arts bank.

historic Main Street

View of Main Street c. 1908
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Main Street became one of the first streets in the American South to develop as a district of skyscrapers.  The tall buildings of the early 20th century reflected the development of classical skyscrapers in New York.  One of the first high rises in Richmond was The Mutual Building that New Yorkers Clinton and Russell designed in 1904 at 901 East Main Street.  This fine Neoclassical Revival building follows the pattern of a classical column with a massive base, smooth shaft, and projecting capitol.  Originally nine stories, it received a three-story addition with Doric pilasters in 1909.

Financial leaders who wanted to revive Richmond’s economy founded First National Bank in April of 1865, a mere eight days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Richmond was without a bank until several citizens met with northern banker Hamilton G. Fant and associates, who agreed to establish a bank under Federal charter.  By the end of the 19th century, First National had the highest total assets of all banks in Richmond.

Completed in 1912 at 823 Main Street, the individually listed 19- story First National Bank building crowned the city’s skyline in height until 1930.  Constructed using early steel-frame technology, the building combines a monumental scale with fine detailing and Neoclassical Revival design. First National Bank hired the New York firm of Clinton and Russell whose architect Alfred Charles Bossom clad the revolutionary steel-frame building in limestone, granite, and brick and incorporated 50-foot tall fluted Corinthian pilasters and columns and heavily-molded terra cotta ornamentation in a learned application of Neoclassical design and proportion. Windows fill the areas between the columns and pilasters around the base of the building, making it a clear predecessor to the curtain wall construction that dominated commercial high-rise architecture after c. 1950.  The interior, though altered somewhat, retains many of the original details such as marble-clad columns, groin vaults, and bronze elevator doors. 

The district includes a number of other important early skyscrapers that date from the opening decades of the 20th century. The 9-story American National Bank from1911 at 1001 E. Main Street is the design of Wyatt and Nolting of Baltimore. The Travelers’ Building of 1910 at 1106-1108 East Main Street is an 11-story building by Clinton and Russell. The 14-story State and City Bank and Trust Company of 1923 is also by Clinton and Russell.

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Main Street Banking Historic District is located along East Main Street between 7th and Governors (13th) Sts. in the heart of downtown Richmond. Two building in this district, the Stearns Iron Front Building and the Virginia Fire & Marine Insurance Building have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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