Editor’s note: This is an installment in the “Top Blocks” series, which looks at individual city blocks that have historic or architectural significance.
Nearly 300 years ago – so the story goes – Richmond’s founder, William Byrd II, stood on present-day Libby Hill and noticed something striking. The view looking out at the James River reminded him keenly of a similar river vista from an English village called Richmond Upon Thames.
Inspired, he decided to name the new city Richmond, thereby tying the area around Libby Hill Park and the first block of North 29th Street to the city’s earliest history.
Residential development took a little longer to come to the area. Its arrival was impressive, though. In 1850, the first two houses were built at either end of the first block of North 29th Street, and their scale and architectural detail helped set the bar for one of Church Hill’s most striking blocks.
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Both of the houses – the Luther Libby House at 1 North 29th Street and the Goddin House at 19 North 29th Street – were built in the Greek Revival style, with elegantly refined, classical details. (The Libby House acquired a mansard roof with dormers in the 1870s or 1880s, said Kim Chen, senior manager of Richmond’s department of planning and development review.)
A year after the Libby and Goddin houses were constructed, the city bought the land across the street for a public park – one of Richmond’s first. Over time, the city expanded it to seven acres. Previously known by a variety of names, including Marshall Square and The Park at Jefferson Ward, it became known as Libby Park in the 1890s, Chen said.
The park helped elevate the architectural ambitions of the eight houses that were built on the block from 1868 to 1909. “Each one of the houses in that block has something unique and interesting about it,” Chen said. “And each is a textbook example of that period.”
For instance, the Hancock House – built in 1868 at 11½ North 29th Street – represents a transition from the Greek Revival to the Italianate, with an Italianate cornice and full-height windows on the first floor. The next house on the block’s timeline – at 15 North 29th Street – was built in 1875 and is a purer example of the Italianate.
“Its full-blown Classical Revival porch may have been added later,” Chen said.
By contrast, the house at 13 North 29th Street “is a textbook example of the Colonial and Classical revival period,” Chen said. Its style-defining features include a classical cornice, Ionic porch columns and classical detailing around the front entrance.
Many of the houses on the block are noteworthy for their scale and ornamentation. Even the three Italianate row houses at 7, 9 and 11 North 29th Street are three stories tall, rather than the more typical two stories. And the sheer number of cast-iron porches – five – distinguishes the block from others in the neighborhood.
Stylistic similarities offer clues to the ironwork’s origins. The acorn-and-oak-leaf pattern on the Hancock House’s porch also shows up on the Italianate house at 5 North 29th Street (built in 1886), for example. “The pattern was proprietary to the Phoenix Foundry,” one of two Richmond foundries producing ornamental ironwork in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chen said.
Likewise, the geometric pattern on the porches at 7, 9 and 11 North 29th Street is similar to ones produced by the foundry.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if all five came from Phoenix,” Chen said.
And here’s a piece of Richmond-themed film trivia: Daniel Day-Lewis stayed in the house at 5 North 29th Street while performing the title role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” several scenes of which were filmed in the city.
Home stats and sales
The houses in the first block of North 29th Street range in size from 2,640 to 7,217 square feet – the largest being the Goddin House, which was converted to condominiums in the early 2000s. (It’s known as Goddin Manor today.)
“The raw numbers can be a bit deceptive because of fully finished English basements and at least one carriage house,” said Jennie Dotts, a real estate agent with Virginia Properties and a Church Hill resident.
One of the biggest attractions for homebuyers is the view that may have given Richmond its name. “The houses all face southwest, and because they are on the crest of a hill, there are some great sunsets,” Dotts said.
And an added bonus: Having a park on one side of the street translates to lower density and more parking availability.
Homebuyers looking to move to the block will have to be patient, though.
“This is a block with a very low turnover rate,” Dotts said. “The last sales of single-family houses range from 1982 to 2016, and even the condos in Goddin Manor haven't had a sale pass through MLS since 2017.”
She added: “The latest prices are too outdated to be very meaningful. However, the two most recent sales – in 2014 and 2016 – were $725,000 and $840,000, respectively, suggesting this is one of the Hill’s choicer blocks.”