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Oregon Hill Historic District

Oregon Hill

Oregon Hill
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

 

Oregon Hill Historic District is a fine 19th and early 20th-century working class neighborhood with architecture and streetscapes that illustrate how industrial workers lived. Located near the Tredegar Iron Works, the area developed as a working class community in the first half of the 19th century. After the Civil War, the neighborhood’s residents helped Richmond regain its stature as a southern industrial and commercial center. Heiress Grace Evelyn Arents played an important role in providing services to the residents of the district.

Oregon Hill is a plateau between two ravines with spectacular views of the James River and Shockoe and Church Hills. The dramatic view from the hill prompted William Byrd III, who owned nearly all of Richmond at the time, to name the hill Belvidere. Byrd built his country house of the same name in the southern portion of the present neighborhood in 1758. The house and its extensive gardens stood until their destruction by fire in 1854.

In the early 19th century, the Harvie family owned what is now Oregon Hill. In 1817, they subdivided the property into streets and lots, with the Sidney subdivision located north of Spring Street and the Belvidera subdivision to the south of that street. In spite of this early town planning, the neighborhood remained an unincorporated rural enclave during the first half of the 19th century. Two buildings from the 1817 era survive, both associated with prominent members of the Society of Friends. The Jacob House at 619 West Cary, built by George Winston, originally stood across from the present location of the building. The 1816 Samuel Pleasants Parsons House at Spring and Belvidere Streets was the residence of an early superintendent of the now demolished Virginia Penitentiary once in the vicinity.

In 1847, the Harvie Family platted their property east of Belvidere and south of the penitentiary as the Oregon Hill subdivision. The community’s name came from the witty geographic observation that a pedestrian excursion trip from the center of Richmond to Oregon Hill seemed the equivalent of a trip to Oregon by the standards of the day. The original portion of Oregon Hill consisted of modest houses east of Belvidere and south of Spring Street. Its early occupants were a mixture of white and African American laborers and artisans. This area, just outside the boundary of the district, was demolished to construct the Virginia War Memorial and state office buildings. The Baker House, a building from this lost early portion of the neighborhood, still survives. Constructed on Belvidere St. in the 1850s by a “Free Person of Color,” the house was moved to 617 S. Cherry Street in the 1920s.

The Belvidera subdivision and a portion of the Sidney subdivision came to be known as Oregon Hill as development expanded westward from Oregon Hill proper. Begun in 1785, the James River and Kanawha Canal provided employment for boatmen and assisted the growth of the iron, flour milling, and quarrying industries along the river. The workers working on the canal and in these industries purchased large lots in the present district to build homes. They found convenient access to their employment via the canal towpath. So many ironworkers lived in the neighborhood that by 1856 Samuel Mordecai referred to it as the home of the “Sons of Vulcan.”

Many of these new residents constructed vernacular two-story side-hall cottages with full or entrance Greek Revival porches. Examples of these houses survive throughout the neighborhood with the largest concentration in the 300 and 400 blocks of South Pine Street.

Oregon Hill 2

Oregon Hill
City of Richmond Department of Community Development

Several of the antebellum houses in the district reflect the influence of A. J. Downing and his books on “rural” architecture. The Andrews House at 314 South Cherry Street is an outstanding example of an early Italianate house. Constructed around 1850, the two units of the building housed ironworker owner J. G. Andrews and his tenant. At 417 South Pine Street is a fine 1856 Carpenter Gothic house on a larger lot that provides some idea of the early suburban character of the neighborhood.

The area began to lose its suburban character and become a densely developed urban residential community after annexation by the City of Richmond in 1869. Richmond’s growing population and its industrial expansion assured a steady demand for housing in Oregon Hill. Row houses and town houses on narrow lots began to fill in the gardens and large lots that characterized the early era.

The Italianate houses of the post war period often have large ornate cornices and full-widths porches with sawn or turned ornamentation. In the 200 block of South Cherry Street are fine Italianate brick row houses from 1890. Good examples of frame Italianate-style row houses and town houses from the 1870 to 1900 period are located throughout the neighborhood with some of the best in the 300 block of South Pine Street.

As residences in the neighborhood increased, so did commercial buildings. A substantial number date from between 1870 and 1910. These brick and wood frame buildings have storefronts with cornices, kick plates, large windows, and substantial wood or pressed metal cornices. Good examples include the Pine Street Barber Shop at 334 South Pine Street (originally the Pine Street Pharmacy), the 700 block of West Cary Street, and the corner of Albemarle and Laurel Streets. One church building from this period survives, the Gothic-style Pine Street Baptist Church constructed in 1886 at 401 South Pine Street.

St. Andrew's Church

St. Andrew's Church
City of Richmond Department of Community Development


Around 1889, the city acquired a parcel of land for the development of a park. Riverside Park, which forms the southern boundary of the neighborhood, is one of a number of hilltop parks with great vistas that date from the late 19th century. The present park keeper’s house and comfort station is from around 1900. The Works Progress Administration built the wide drive and stone retaining walls along Oregon Hill Park in the late 1930s, and the city rebuilt these in 2007 after substantial damage from tropical storm Gaston.

One of the most important groups of buildings is the St. Andrews’s complex at South Laurel Street and Idlewood Avenue. Richmond philanthropist and social reformer Miss Grace Arents funded and supervised construction of the St. Andrew’s Church Complex (243 South Laurel) of 1901-1903, to the designs of the Indiana architect A. H. Ellwood. The complex also includes a parochial school from 1901 and St. Andrew’s Hall at 711 Idlewood Avenue from 1904.

Miss Arents’ work extended throughout the neighborhood well beyond the Episcopal buildings. In 1904, she built the brick Colonial Revival style St. Andrew’s Houses at 912-914 Cumberland Street and 200 and 202 South Linden Street, which constitute one of the earliest examples of subsidized housing in Virginia. She also built a complex of buildings for the Instructive Visiting Nurses Association, dating from 1904 and 1923 at 213 and 219 South Cherry Street, the Noland and Baskervill designed Grace Arents Free Library at 224 South Cherry from 1908, and the 1911 Grace Arents Public School at 600 South Pine Street. Miss Arents also donated the Holly Street Playground on Holly west of Laurel Street, one of the oldest public playgrounds in the City of Richmond.

In spite of several major demolitions in the 1970s and 1990s, Oregon Hill has witnessed vigorous preservation activity led by neighborhood residents. The Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council (OHHIC) organized in 1973, and since then has been responsible for the construction a large number of in-fill units and the rehabilitation of existing units for affordable housing. In 1990, the Oregon Hill Community History Association surveyed and nominated the district to the National Register of Historic Places. Developers and individuals have rehabilitated a large number of buildings in the district in recent years. These efforts have protected the integrity of the district core, making Oregon Hill one of the best-preserved 19th century neighborhoods in Richmond and one of the finest collections of worker housing anywhere.

Plan your visit
Oregon Hill Historic District is roughly bounded by W. Cary St., Belvidere St., Oregon Hill Park, S. Cherry St., and S. Linden St.  The houses generally are privately owned and not open to the public. Some commercial and religious buildings in the district are open to the public. The Samuel Parsons House at 601 Spring St. has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.
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