Mary Wingfield Scott’s Old Richmond Neighborhoods

02/05/2006 10:10 AM by

I picked up Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit and Mary Wingfield Scott’s Houses of Old Richmond at the library on 25th street yesterday. I’d heard an interview with Clemens on NPR a while back and his story of growing up in Detroit during the demographic and economic changes of the 1970s and 1980s is interesting. Scott’s book is beautiful, but not as beautiful and weird as her Old Richmond Neighborhoods.

801 north 24th street richmond.jpg

801 North 24th Street (built 1855)

Old Richmond Neighborhoods, published in 1950, is a wonderful history and photographic tour of a number of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Moving from east to west, the beginnings and histories of areas such as Church Hill, Union Hill, Court End, Oregon Hill, Sydney, Catherine Street and many more are given a run down and some photographic examples.

2239 venable street richmond

2239 Venable Street (built 1850)

The pictures in the two Mary Wingfield Scott books are fantastic. Each is accompanied by the address and the year built, and all too often by the year that it was demolished. The section on Union Hill has pictures of a few houses that are still standing, most of which are occupied and in good shape. There is a breathtaking picture, though, of the empty house at 801 North 24th Street from back when it was solid and viable home (then
/now). The moments of recognition brought on by these pictures is a rush. Poignent, too, is the overlapping second between almost recognizing the building in photo and then realizing that it was demolished 60 or 80 years ago. The East End and Jackson Ward have a number of photographed houses still standing, while Oregon Hill and Sydney are not recognizable.


Mary Wingfield Scott

As fantastic and as enduring as the photographs are, Scott’s writing is surreally dated. The text is super race conscious and seems to observe whenever an area became occupied by “Negroes”. Writing about the 2300 block of East Franklin, Scott notes that few groups of houses this old exist in the city and that these particular houses were built in a time when very few (“hardly a dozen”) new houses were being built in Richmond each year. This interesting observation is followed by her lament that such fine houses had come to be “rented to a low grade of negro tenant” (Old Richmond Neighborhoods, p.39). She goes on to refer to Gilpin Court as a “Negro housing project”.

Scott’s books are unique and provide more than just the documentation of some old buildings and neighborhoods. If you like old houses and/or Richmond, they will be fascinating. I can only wonder at what Scott would’ve done with the ease of a digital camera and a blog.

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