A dense forest of tall bamboo provided shady respite for archaeologist Michael Clem as he dug into the earth around Brookbury Farm earlier this month, heaving shovelfuls of dirt onto a sifter so architectural historian Elizabeth Lipford could sort through the soil.
Soon enough, bits of history revealed themselves within the tightly packed dirt: shards of glass, pieces of delicate blue ceramics and rusty old nails — all evidence of another era yet likely just the tip of the iceberg for what’s really lying below the surface all around this secluded 8-acre property that lies near the confluence of Falling Creek and Pocoshock Creek in South Richmond.
Shrouded in lush, overgrown vegetation, Brookbury is an oasis within the city limits. With parts of a 5,600-square-foot home thought to be built during the early 1800s — though renovated and lived in over the years with updates as recent as the 1970s — it’s all but hidden from the modern residential neighborhood off Iron Bridge Road that’s been built around it and shares its name.
Brookbury is scheduled to be auctioned by the city Aug. 19 because of delinquent taxes going back to 2008. A complaint filed with the city Aug. 1, 2019, listed the delinquent amount then at $86,037. Current city assessments value the property at $419,000.
The house is formidable and grand, and if walls could talk, they’d weave a tale spanning generations that starts with enslaved people during Colonial days and ends with a family that broke racial barriers and furthered the civil rights era in Virginia.
But the dilapidated structures hidden within the tall bamboo behind the house are what have recently piqued historic preservationists’ interest. The structures are slave quarters that date back at least as far as the house, as best they can tell, and rare examples that exist locally outside of established historic districts like Church Hill.
To those with a trained eye — or even interested outsiders — Brookbury is a page taken from the history books, a site to be explored and studied.
Its future, however, is uncertain.
Growing up at Brookbury was idyllic for Joi Sheffield, who moved to the property with her family in 1976 when she was 9. She could finally have a horse, ponies and dogs — even a white billy goat named Fonzie who followed the dogs around and tried his best to get into the house with the other pets.
She and her family had pool parties in the summers, played under tall oak trees and fragrant magnolias, and prepared meals from vegetables given to them by generous neighbors.
Brookbury’s fate now rests heavy on her heart.
Sheffield is the daughter of James Sheffield, the late Richmond Circuit Court judge and the first Black judge appointed to that seat since Reconstruction. His appointment in 1974 by then-Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. required the Sheffield family to live in the city, and prompted a move from their home in Henrico County.
Sheffield recalled that the house had been vacant for a few years, and when they moved in, “it was musty and dusty and crusty, [but] my mom wanted a project.” They held parties at Brookbury and entertained often. Her mother, Patricia Sheffield, often invited folks for coffee. Frequent visitors included her father’s close friends, influential people, such as civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill Sr., or Richmond’s first Black mayor, Henry L. Marsh — even Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor. All were welcome and gathered just steps from structures behind the house that represented a much different period in history.
A fact not lost on Sheffield.
“You don’t have that many African American families who owned an old plantation with slave quarters,” she said.
Judge Sheffield and Patricia Sheffield died in 2013 and 2018, respectively, and with her mother’s death, Sheffield and her younger sister inherited the house. But during her parents’ later years, their health suffered, Sheffield said, and their care — and that of their house and all of their affairs — fell mostly to her. For that reason, despite her intentions, she’s not financially able to keep Brookbury.
“I am heartbroken — I just have so much love for that house,” Sheffield said. “If I could win the lottery, I would love to keep it and turn it into my own HGTV project.”
Sheffield notes Brookbury’s history is significant and worthy of research, noting that her mother made attempts to get the house listed on historic registers.
Danielle Porter, Historic Richmond’s director of preservation, said the organization has filed initial paperwork to get the house on a historic registry. Once it’s eligible, that triggers a 25% state historic tax credit for qualified rehabilitation expenses.
“Historic Richmond came up with more than we ever knew,” Sheffield said about Brookbury. She shares the same goal as the preservationists now working to learn as much as they can about its past — “not to have a hungry developer come and tear it all down ... that would be a tragedy.”
Amelia Lightner moved to the Brookbury neighborhood 20 years ago and knew the Sheffields. She is a former president of the community’s civic association.
Lightner said she visited Brookbury frequently, particularly after Judge Sheffield died, to check on Patricia Sheffield. The neighborhood would go caroling there during the holidays. She recalled the home’s kitchen, which featured a large fireplace — one of many in the house — and windows with panes of handmade glass that could date to the mid-19th century.
She called Brookbury a “showplace,” a house to be revered if someone with the means could restore it back to its former glory.
“The importance of our neighborhood is centered around the Sheffields’ property.”
Much is unknown about Brookbury’s origins before the 19th century, Porter said. Deed records from 1834 begin to paint a picture of the property’s owners from then to now. At one time, Brookbury encompassed about 350 acres. There is some evidence the house existed before the 1800s, though records dating back that far are spotty, and without further excavation of the site, they may not know if any parts of the house existed in the 18th century.
As Porter spoke, Clem and Lipford, the archaeologists with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, worked around her, as did Marc Wagner, VDHR senior architectural historian, and Elisabeth Price, Historic Richmond preservation specialist. They dug holes near the slave quarters and inspected inside and around the structures. Inside the two buildings were fireplaces, some original flooring and the occasional remnants of wallpaper, likely excess from the main house.
The structures were likely used into the 1940s as housing for Brookbury’s domestic staff, Porter said.
Historic Richmond found out in February that the house was on the auction list, Porter said, and it has been working with Joi Sheffield to research and document as much as they can before the auction. She said her organization has also been working to update the city’s preservation plan, which includes a demolition plan, for historic houses.
Brookbury is a prime example of why an expanded plan is needed, one that helps historic houses that are outside designated historic districts, particularly in areas the city annexed.
Current preservation plans spell out treatment for homes in such districts, “but it doesn’t address when you come across houses like this,” Porter said. “It wasn’t on anyone’s radar, [and] it’s not in a super historic district that, as a whole, would have had protection.” She said often when they find homes like Brookbury, there’s already development planned, “and it’s almost too late.”
Brookbury has much to share. Porter said there were likely several other buildings around the main house — a smokehouse, a kitchen, a laundry and more — and there may be evidence of them in the ground that could help paint a broader picture of the home’s earliest days. How the property was used, the wealth of the people who lived there — all of these questions hang in the balance.
“It’s extraordinarily rare ... for there to be plantation homes in the city still, and then to have surviving slave quarters,” Porter said, “and especially ones that haven’t been altered” or turned into carriage houses or guest cottages, as many often are.
As the group worked around her, sifting through more than a century of soil, she added: “If someone clears the site, this is our only opportunity to maybe find some answers to those questions.”