History of the VMFA Grounds
For thousands of years, native peoples lived in the region of present-day Richmond, sustained by plentiful natural resources along the banks of the James River. At the time of the earliest English exploration and settlement in the 17th century, the area was the domain of a broad confederacy of Algonquin Indian tribes under the rule of Chief Powhatan.
Colonial, Early Republic, and Antebellum Eras
In the 1630s and 1640s, Englishman Thomas Stegge acquired thousands of acres on both sides of the James River through settlement and grant and established a trading post at the fall line and routes westward. In 1652 his son of the same name inherited the vast property, which in 1671 passed to his nephew William Byrd I, whose son William Byrd II founded the city of Richmond. His heir, William Byrd III, sold extensive parcels of land in a 1769 lottery. By the early 19th century, the land had changed hands various times and became part of the speculative development of the Town of Sydney in 1817 (primarily today’s Fan District). Anthony Robinson Jr. purchased over 170 acres of the Sydney parcels in the 1830s through the 1850s, including the property on which VMFA now stands. The estate, comprised of woods and open countryside, was cultivated and improved--no doubt through the labor of the enslaved African Americans listed in Robinson’s tax records and will.
Little is known about the earliest Robinson residence, but the imposing farmhouse still standing on the museum property was built by Anthony Robinson Jr. in the mid-1850s. Designed in the very fashionable Italianate style with Renaissance-patterned window trim, it originally had two stories and a front portico, as well as a small porch on the west side and a larger one that ran the length of the building on the east. In April 1865 during the final weeks of the Civil War, Union troops occupied the house and grounds at the invitation of Robinson’s widow, Rebecca, in exchange for protection from looting. In 1883 the couple’s son Channing sold the residence and thirty-six surrounding acres to establish a Confederate soldiers’ home. After some property east of Clover Street (now the Boulevard) was initially sold off by the camp, the site was bounded by the Boulevard, Grove Avenue, Sheppard Street, and Kensington Avenue.
Members of the Robinson family assemble in front of their residence in this 1880 photograph. Their estate, with its extensive stand of oak trees, was called “The Grove.” Photo: Valentine Richmond History Center.
R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1 — Confederate Soldiers’ Home
Between 1885 and 1941 the property was the site of a large residential complex for poor and infirm Confederate veterans of the Civil War. Established by R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Veterans, the camp was built with private funds, including donations from former Confederate and Union soldiers alike. At peak occupancy, residents numbered just over three hundred; altogether a total of nearly three thousand veterans from thirty-three states called the camp home.
Robinson House, renamed Fleming Hall during the soldiers’ home era, gained a third floor and cupola. For the next half century, it served as the compound’s administration building and war museum. After the camp’s closing, the Commonwealth granted use of the building to the Virginia Institute for Scientific Research in the 1950s and to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from 1964 to the present.
A favorite attraction in the camp’s museum was Stonewall Jackson’s war horse, Little Sorrel, who died at the soldiers’ home in 1886. The horse’s preserved and mounted hide was on display—as seen in this 1932 photograph alongside veteran J. C. Smith—until its move to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1948. It remains on view at the school today. Photo: Dementi-Foster Studios.
This postcard view of Robinson House (seen from the Boulevard) pictures the camp’s hospital (far right) and Pegram Hall (center right) during the heyday of the soldiers’ home.
The green space in the central grounds of today’s VMFA property was once the commons of the Confederate soldiers’ home. Around the oak-filled park stood the administration building, barracks, dining hall, hospital, recreation hall, steam plant, and assorted outbuildings. The superintendent’s house, nine residential cottages, and a chapel formed an arc to the west. With the exception of Robinson House and the Confederate Memorial Chapel, the structures were demolished or moved in the early 1940s.
Sanborn Company fire insurance map of camp grounds and building, 1925.
For residents, life revolved around a semi-military routine of drills, chores, and inspection. Leisure activities included storytelling and card playing, as well as occasional lectures, musicales, and visits from schoolchildren. In 1904 resident Benjamin J. Rogers described the camp as a “home in the true sense,” noting:
Our rooms are furnished with two single iron bedsteads . . . a good mattress, bureau, washstand, pitcher and bowl, and two chambers. We are required to sweep them out every morning and carry out our slops. . . . They give us a hat, over coat, full suit of uniform, four pair shoes a year, soap, tobacco, chewing or smoking . . . undershirts and drawers, top shirts . . . socks, towels and color handkerchiefs.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Richmonder Margaret May Dashiell made numerous sketches of camp residents, including this threesome engaged in conversation. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. William A. Archer.
Veterans demonstrate battery formations near their cottages in this early-20th-century photograph. Of the several Napoleon twelve-pounder artillery pieces once displayed on the grounds, two remain on view near Robinson House. Photo: Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center.
This postcard view pictures the camp’s original entrance, which faced Grove Avenue. Carriages—and later automobiles—entered and proceeded north around a large oval drive to access the various buildings, including Robinson House (then called Fleming Hall) at the opposite end. Photo: Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Confederate Memorial Chapel
Dedicated in 1887 to the Confederate war dead, the nondenominational chapel (also referred to as the Pelham Chapel)—still standing on the southwestern corner of the museum grounds—served as a place of worship for the residents of R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1. Funded by donations from veterans and private citizens of the Commonwealth, it was designed by architect Marion J. Dimmock in the Carpenter-Gothic style. The interior features hand-hewn pews, eight commemorative stained-glass windows, and a bell that once tolled the day’s hours. In the postwar era of reconciliation, Union veterans from Lynn, Massachusetts, donated the organ. By the time the camp closed fifty-four years later, the chapel had hosted approximately 1,700 funeral services for the former soldiers. Today, Lee-Jackson Camp No. 1, Sons of the Confederate Veterans, leases the chapel from the Commonwealth and offers interpretive tours of the building.
Confederate Memorial Chapel
This watercolor by Margaret May Dashiell depicts a line of mourners paying respects at the flag-draped coffin of a fellow veteran. The particularly solemn scene is among the artist’s many sketches of the soldier’s home residents from the 1920s and 1930s. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. William A. Archer.
The soldiers’ home was a favorite venue for both Confederate and Union veterans during joint reunions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pictured are members of R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1, alongside visitors from Lander Post, No. 5, G.A.R., of Lynn, Massachusetts (the Union veterans who donated the chapel organ), July 5, 1887. Photo: Library of Virginia.
From the camp’s earliest years, the Commonwealth of Virginia helped fund the institution. In 1892, Lee Camp No. 1 agreed that the property would revert to the Commonwealth in twenty-two years. A later agreement extended that transition to the time when the original purpose of the home was no longer needed. When the last resident died in 1941, the Commonwealth gained ownership of the site. By that time, it had been designated as the Confederate Memorial Park.
Throughout the early 20th century, R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1 administrators and the Commonwealth granted parcels of land to erect the Confederate Memorial Institute (1913, “Battle Abbey,” which later merged with the Virginia Historical Society); Home for Needy Confederate Women (1932); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (1936); and headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (1957).
Home for Needy Confederate Women
The monumental limestone building to the west of the present museum grounds was built in 1932 as a residence for destitute female relatives of Confederate veterans. After relocating the home’s final inhabitants to a nursing facility in 1989, the Commonwealth set aside the property for use by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Today the renovated and renamed Pauley Center houses museum offices and meeting rooms.
Funded through private donations and state support, the Home for Needy Confederate Women was designed by architect Merrill Lee, who was inspired by the neoclassical lines and motifs of the White House. Its soaring ionic portico faces Sheppard Street. Photo: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
From 1936—the time of the opening of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts—to the early decades of the 21st century, the museum has undergone five significant expansions, culminating in the recent opening of the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing.
Having recently marked its 75th anniversary, VMFA celebrates not only its history and accomplishments as one of the nation’s leading comprehensive art museums but also acknowledges and commemorates the site’s compelling and important early history.