- since 2011 -

Blue jays over Botetourt

Thursday, 12 July 2012

After the tall ships, a tranquil bower of heritage in a busy American city

Walk awhile on West Freemason Street (courtesy Visit Norfolk)

Walk awhile on West Freemason Street (courtesy Visit Norfolk)

Barring a bit of architectural nip and tuck every few decades I doubt the house at 227 West Freemason Street has changed much since 6 November 1865. Maybe it was quieter than usual that day, the owner being so far from home, on the Mersey taking part in the final surrender of the American Civil War. The links between cotton-junkie Liverpool and the South are well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that Virginia's William Conway Whittle was an officer aboard the Confederate blockade runner CSS Shenandoah which, having sank or captured 38 enemy ships in a brief but truculent career, handed herself over to the British Navy off Liverpool to avoid being tried by a Union court for piracy.

Dating from 1791, the Taylor-Whittle House is one of a cluster that constitute what's been called 'a visible chronology of architectural styles over three centuries' in a rarified residential corner of Norfolk, Virginia. As well as the Federal style characterised by delicate fanlights and cornices and inspired, says a helpful sign, by 'the democratic ideals of the young American republic', there are examples of all sorts of Revivals - Colonial, Greek, Romanesque, French Second Empire - betraying a collective nostalgia for some bucolic pre-industrial age. The Historic West Freemason Street District, as it's known today, looks out onto the Elizabeth River just north from Town Point Park where the tall ships gather for the port's annual Harborfest. To the north, south and east it's corralled by two modern and mighty thoroughfares, Waterside Drive and Brambleton Avenue. Around 1686 it became one of the first areas to be developed outside the original fifty acres of the colonial town, and for a good century this cluster of posturing, emulous houses was the only address for Norfolk's elite. The city's first gas lamps were installed here in 1850. Somehow it's survived every new fad since.

Most quixotic of all is the James W Hunter House built in 1894 by a Norfolk banker and a ringer for those hefty old merchant villas off, say, Anfield Road and Ullet Road in Liverpool. Unusually tall and narrow, it's dressed in red brick and yellow-stone trim with a fancy horseshoe arch for a doorway. The last surviving member of the Hunter family left it as a museum of decorative arts. Further along West Freemason Street towards the river is the Old Norfolk Public Library, a study in Beaux Arts Classicism with a bust of Minerva and names of famous authors over the entrance. It opened in 1904 following a $50,000 pledge from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and a donation of land by the Selden family whose own residence at nearby 409 Botetourt Street was home to three generations of city mayors.

The Selden House Taylor-Whittle House (above left) and James W Hunter House

The Selden House (top), Taylor-Whittle House (above left) and James W Hunter House

Botetourt is pronounced 'Botter-tott' and named for an 18th century governor of the colony of Virginia or 'Old Dominion' as historians like to call it. Here, through the window of an over-easy coffeehouse I can see and hear the noisy flirtations of a pair of black-collared jaybirds in the branches of a tree, their calls like two old iron gates swinging in the breeze - of which there are several in the vicinity, wrought with elegant floral motifs facing the herringbone-pattern sidewalks a cobbled stone's throw from the glass and steel new-builds of downtown. I can't help feeling that places like this may be inherited but despite our dearest devotions remain dimly understood. Ancestral and inscrutable, West Freemason slipped out of its century generations ago (to mangle Thomas Hardy's line about Egdon Heath in The Return of Native) to intrude as an elegant object into this. A leaflet catches my eye:

For Sale: 322 West Freemason Street, view by appointment. List price $695,000. Three stories plus basement with office. Five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, two half-bathrooms. Four fireplaces, eleven-foot ceilings, original hardwood floors. Air conditioned. Approx. 3,850 sq ft. Style: Traditional townhome semi-detached. Built 1903. Magnificent brick home, gracious restoration and upgrades throughout. Unique crafted moldings and wainscot. Slate roof. Original decorative wrought-iron fencing. Federal-style front entrance featured on cover of Tidewater Virginia book. Boat slip available.

The houses seem to be largely occupied by healthcare professionals; dentists, retired surgeons and the like. A newsletter keeps members of the Freemason Street Area Association updated and reflects a spirit of stewardship. The Association was founded in 1976, four years after the West Freemason Historic District was entered in the National Register of Historic Places (similar to our UK listed buildings). By then the Norfolk Historic Foundation, inspired by preservationists in state capital Richmond and fellow southern cities Savannah and Charleston, was trying to limit the damage done by a rash of 1960s building projects. Freemason was ring-fenced along with the district of Ghent, just to the north across Brambleton Avenue, which had supplanted it as Norfolk's fashionable place to live in the early 20th century. Ghent today is more edgy and creative, trending with boutiques, bistros and galleries along spotless bicycle-friendly boulevards. The jewel in its crown is the Chrysler Museum of Art housed in an Italianate building described by The Washington Post as 'itself a monument to beauty' overlooking the Hague Inlet of the Elizabeth River. Named after the automobile heir and art collector Walter P Chrysler (whose wife was a local) it holds 30,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years. I spent a whistle-stop couple of hours here and would gladly have stayed all day, but I had a maritime museum to see.

Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk's vibrant Ghent district (courtesy CMA)

Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk's vibrant Ghent district (courtesy CMA)

Norfolk was heavily shelled by British ships during the Revolution and a cannonball from HMS Liverpool, a 28-gun frigate built on the Mersey and launched in 1758, is still lodged within the walls of St Paul's Episcopal Church. By the start of the next century relations had thawed enough for regular transatlantic services between the two ports to be advertised in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper. To this day a Norfolk Street rolls down from Liverpool's Chinatown and crosses Jamaica Street to meet the Kings and Queens Docks from where vessels once sailed to Virginia. Two hundred years ago (and just prior to more Anglo-American hostilities) the good ship Marcellus was set to embark, 'burthen 385 tons, copper-fastened and coppered, and in every respect a most eligible conveyance'. All that copper resisted corrosion by saltwater and sea air, and who wouldn't want to be in something well-made and durable on the high seas?

Shipping page from an 1812 edition of the Liverpool Mercury (top) Norfolk Street sign near Liverpool's docks The infamous CSS Florida (courtesy National Museums Liverpool)

Shipping page from an 1812 edition of the Liverpool Mercury (top); Norfolk Street sign near Liverpool's docks; and the infamous CSS Florida (courtesy National Museums Liverpool)

During the Civil War the CSS Florida had a more pernicious agenda. Where the Shenandoah ran blockades, this vessel systematically destroyed Union merchant shipping for two years before she was seized off Brazil, towed back to Virginia and sunk under mysterious circumstances. There's a display about her in Nauticus on Norfolk's waterfront featuring recovered artefacts, and a Samuel Walters oil painting of her at Merseyside Maritime Museum - she was originally built in Liverpool by William Miller & Sons of Toxteth Dock before sailing to the Bahamas to be refitted as a commerce raider.

There's more to the Venn diagram. In 1907 as Norfolk marked the Jamestown tercentennial with a show-stopping exposition Liverpool pushed the boat out to celebrate its own 700th birthday. Both ports have done boom and bust, been top of the charts and down on their luck. Liverpool's waterfront renaissance began with a visit from 62 tall ships and a quarter-million visitors over four days in 1984 while Norfolk's maritime festival was in full swing. The Cammell Laird shipyard across the river from Liverpool has completed the first flight deck sections for the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth; and Newport News Shipbuilding, up the James River from Norfolk, is constructing the USS John F Kennedy to the tune of a whopping $11 billion. But what seals the deal for me is the symbol of Norfolk that fuses Liver Bird soul with Superlambanana kookiness. Since 2000, as part of a public art programme around 130 statues of mermaids, all differently decorated by local artists and individually named, have appeared on street corners, storefronts and public spaces around town - from the hippy chick in a quiet West Freemason Street garden to the silvery siren in the water fountain outside lively Nauticus. The original idea was about Norfolk re-branding itself as a 'young and free-spirited' destination, but for me the effect is more ingenuous: the mermaids make me welcome, it feels like home from home. No greater compliment than that.

For more information about Virginia please click here

Mermaid Green Mermaid Mermaid Fountain

'I can't help feeling that places like this may be inherited but despite our dearest devotions remain dimly understood'


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The Liverpolitan
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