Zarina Fazaldin bought a broken-down brick house — once slated for demolition — that no one wanted in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood.
The developer and preservationist not only saved the mansion, but restored and converted it into four units — one of which she plans to occupy.
“My focus was to restore it back to its original condition without removing or adding any walls,” Fazaldin said.
She saw what few people could in this boarded-up structure eaten up by termites with a leaky roof, water damage, stripped mantels, brittle soffits, makeshift stairs, holes in the floor and no plumbing or electricity.
Her four-year labor of love — and total development costs of $1.1 million — has come to fruition, with the first tenants ready to move into 508 Saint James St.
Nothing about this Colonial Revival is cookie-cutter. Every unit is unique and each includes part of the original house built in 1915 for Dr. William Henry Hughes, a prominent Black physician, and his family.
The house was designed by Charles Thaddeus Russell, who was born and reared in Richmond and was one of Virginia’s first Black architects.
Fazaldin, struck by the history, was all the more determined to “remove the eyesore” and preserve the landmark to its original integrity.
As work progressed, others tried to buy it from her, offering in one instance twice the $252,786 that she paid for the house in February 2016.
“Others would have chopped it into multiple apartments,” Fazaldin said. “I wanted to save the building and maintain the originality.”
The house — with two main floors, a basement and attic — was converted mid-century into the Negro Training Center for the Blind, the only work training center for blind African Americans in Virginia.
It was expanded in 1952 with a modern back addition — concrete floors and industrial windows — to make it about 10,000 square feet.
“The greatest highlight in my life was working with those [blind] individuals,” said Shirley Hawkins, who went to work in 1963 as an assistant supervisor and secretary at what was then called the Richmond Workshop for the Blind.
She oversaw, as a sighted person, the second-floor production of special projects, such as surgical caps and safety vests. Blind employees on the first floor used industrial sewing machines — which they threaded themselves — to make pillowcases.
“No two days were the same; it was always exciting,” Hawkins recalled. “I can still remember every conversation that took place at 508 Saint James Street.”
She is writing a book — “If these Walls Could Talk” — about her experiences there.
The house became a community center in 1970, after the workshop was moved. The center closed in 1979, and the structure was sold to a private owner.
Falling into disrepair, it made the city’s imminent danger list in 2013. Historic Richmond, whose mission is to preserve Richmond’s historic character, worked with the city and owner to stabilize the house and spare it from demolition.
In stepped Fazaldin, who had no intention to buy the house, but politely agreed to see it. She couldn’t let it go, even though some rooms were too dangerous to enter.
She and her business partner, Lonnie Shifflett, co-owners of Richmond-based L&Z Historic LLC — known for their renovations in historic neighborhoods, including nearby Carver — embarked on their biggest project to date.
In the process, Fazaldin met a descendant of Hughes and she knew she had to do the right thing — see if he wanted the house.
“I offered him a chance to buy and keep the family house, but he said he was not interested. Of course, I was happy when he said ‘no,’ because I love it.”
Jackson Ward is rich in African American history, all the more so with this house — the largest on the street — which Fazaldin plans to open on occasion for touring.
Fazaldin will occupy parts of each floor from an office in the basement to a room and staircase on the first floor, the whole second floor and a guest room in the attic.
The back of the second floor — where the addition stands — enabled an open floor plan for the kitchen, dining and living rooms. The master suite with an oversized master bath and closet in the front of the house blends the old into the new.
The rental units — one with two bedrooms and two with three bedrooms — range from 835 square feet to 1,290 square feet. Rental rates are being negotiated with Virginia Housing, a housing finance agency, which provided $950,000 in loans for the project.
Hawkins said she was “blown away” to see the transformation. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and Zarina saw something no one else could see.”
Elvatrice Belsches, a historian, archival researcher and author of “Black America Series: Richmond, Virginia,” called the renovation a blessing and a tribute to the legacy of Hughes, “a highly skilled and gifted surgeon.”
Hughes, who was born in Richmond’s Manchester area, ran his medical practice in the house, Belsches said. Black celebrities and notables, including contralto Marian Anderson and boxer Joe Louis, were guests in his home.
“Ms. Fazaldin has rescued a very important monument to history,” Belsches said.
Felicia Shelton, who has traveled the world teaching and never settled long enough anywhere to buy a house, just closed with her husband on a renovated brick row house on Saint James Street.
“I fell in love with the house,” she said. The deal was sweetened when she met her soon-to-be neighbor.
“Zarina’s love for old houses” struck a chord, Shelton said. “Meeting her, I saw how I could do something similar. This is someone who has invested in her community.”
Shelton noted how Fazaldin hires people in the community to work on old houses, giving them new career options.
“It’s not about tearing down, but respecting the building and the history and using resources around her.”
Shelton plans to blog about living in an old house. “I love creaky floors.”
Her floors — circa 1880 — are even older than the ones at 508 Saint James St. a few doors down.
Fazaldin and Shifflett saved all the wood floors that they could — as they did everything in the house — but some were too far gone.
They replaced trims and moldings, preserved handrails, polished concrete floors and refurbished windows — stately old ones on the front and industrial ones on the back addition.
Using historic tax credits to offset the renovation cost, they reconfigured the house, repaired fireplaces and painted old tiles and cinder blocks.
Fazaldin added side porches — built by Shifflett — similar to ones shown in an old photo when Hughes owned the house.
She was unable to get tax credits for the porches.
“But I did it anyway because my focus was to bring the original house back as Dr. Hughes built it,” Fazaldin said. “Everyone who passes by loves the porches.”
They love the house, too.
“I watched as it morphed into what it is today. I saw the labor and all the love that went into it,” said former City Councilwoman Kim Gray, who lives in Jackson Ward.
Although people knew the house had potential, they were intimidated by the extent of the damage, Gray said.
“Most developers would have gutted it,” she said. “When I heard Zarina was taking it on, I was overjoyed because I know her work and I have the added bonus of having her as a neighbor.”