Vintage Richmond in the Public Domain

I love Richmond, VA history. I especially love finding old photos showing the way things used to be in this lovely east coast city. Some things have changed dramatically and some things have stayed mostly the same.


I just found out from that the New York City Library recently made nearly 200,000 photographs, documents, posters, and sheet music digitally available for public use. We can easily search the collection and quickly download the articles. There is a box you can check when you search to search only public domain articles, which means you can use those images for whatever use you like. Click here for the entry site to search anything. Click here for the Richmond, VA stuff I found.

Both buildings are now gone, but used to be at 14th and Franklin. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Exchange Hotel and Ballard House, Richmond, Va.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1875.
Another look at the Ballard House and Exchange Hotel

Many of these images have already been online, but this site makes it easy to search for and download what you’re looking for. I found duplicates of some files over on the Library of Congress site, but there could potentially be some previously “undiscovered” or little known digital images in this treasure trove. If you’re familiar with historical photos of Richmond, VA, I’d be curious to know if you see anything new in the New York Library collection when you search “Richmond, VA.” Try searching other related phrases too (like “Richmond”, “Richmond, Virginia”, “Church Hill”, etc). I’ve certainly found a lot of fun ones that I’ve never seen before.

Elizabeth Van Lew, the Union spy who lived in Church Hill (at the current location of Bellevue Elementary School) is seated on the right. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Elizabeth Van Lew with her nieces, brother John, and servant on main mansion grounds.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1862 – 1901.
The Libby Hill prison
View of the James River and Richmond, VA.
View from Gambles Hill Park (up the hill from Tredegar Iron Works and near the current site of the Richmond Folk Festival). You can see the Christopher Newport Cross in the distance, which is now located on the Canal walk down the hill and east a bit.
A very overgrown grassy St. John’s Church stereograph
View from Libby Hill Park

Can you find any new pics that you haven’t seen before? Who loves RVA history?!

An Archaeological Find Behind My House

On Saturday, my family and I trekked over to the city park/playground behind our house. The park is called Bill Robinson Playground. It has a ball field, some basketball courts, a sanded area with swings and play sets, and an enormous open field perpetually protected by the owl statues perched above Franklin Military Academy.

The park is named for the famed Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Richmond’s 20th century hero of dance and entertainment. He is best known for his appearances with Shirley Temple and his signature “staircase” dance. A small extant building on M Street, facing the park, was once a barbershop patronized by Muhammad Ali when he visited Richmond (according to neighbors who were here at the time).

We noticed an old metal cubic frame in the grass near the playground. My wife asked me if I knew what it was. I confidently said it was an exercise fixture for various push-up positions.

I was wrong. My wife noticed a faint piece of metal covered mostly by grass. It had writing on it. We both thought it could be an access plate for city water or gas.

We looked further at the plate. It was a dedication plaque, long lost in the dirt, grass, and sand. I got some tools from the house and started a little civilian archaeology dig. After about 15 minutes of clearing, I found that the plaque was placed in 1989, giving credit to various organizations for sponsoring the park for the children of the neighborhood.

The 23-year old play set has a much newer set nearby, but it still stands. The old metal play set is clunky and a little rusted. Minus the tetanus risk, it’s a rock solid center for imagination.

This park could use a little TLC, especially on the overall curb appeal and landscaping. Nevertheless, thank you to groups who care about kids enough to sponsor play places for parks. We forgot about you for a while, but now your memory will gone on forever. The owls will keep an eye on that plaque for you.