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The workmen’s cottages in Ginter Park: Buildings that once housed workers are now sought-after real estate
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The workmen’s cottages in Ginter Park: Buildings that once housed workers are now sought-after real estate

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Building roads, landscaping and installing water and sewer lines has never been an easy gig. But when Lewis Ginter set out in the 1890s to design Ginter Park – Richmond’s first ­­­­master-planned community – he made life a little easier for some of his workers by building cottages to house them.

The four earliest surviving cottages, built in the early 1890s, are at 800, 810 and 814 Westwood Ave. and 3408 Noble Ave. The other six are in the 3600 block of Hawthorne Avenue, which was originally called Cottage Avenue; all but one of those were built around 1895.

“There’s a lot of precedent for worker housing, but normally it’s associated with a factory or a mill, and the workers’ houses are identical,” said Mimi Sadler, historical architect and founder of Sadler & Whitehead Architects PLC.

By contrast, worker housing to support residential developments is virtually nonexistent, at least in Richmond. Ginter, the city’s most successful businessman of the late 19th century, didn’t do anything in half-measures, though. 

“The man gave 12 acres for Union Theological Seminary to relocate to Ginter Park, convinced the Richmond Railway and Electric Co. to extend it's streetcar line through Northside, bought and improved Brook Road and bought a quarry to supply granite curbing and crushed stone for the neighborhood’s streets,” Sadler said.

And when it came to the workmen’s cottages, Ginter didn’t skimp on the architectural details. Designed in the Queen Anne style, some of the 1½- and two-story buildings feature corner towers, gingerbread trim and poly-chromatic slate roofs with floral patterns.

Some of them also have an element that was new to Richmond’s architectural landscape: wall dormers. Unlike roof dormers, which are set back from the first-floor walls, the front panels of wall dormers are flush with the wall plane.

“Wall dormers are not something you typically see on Richmond houses from this period,” said Chris Novelli, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

While not especially elaborate, the cottages’ interiors were comfortable. “They had a living room, dining room, kitchen and a sunroom, and winding stairs led up to the bedrooms,” said Sadler, who owned and lived in two of the cottages in the 1980s.

She added: “The floors were heart pine, except for the kitchen, which was rock maple.”

The cottages, whose designer is unknown, exude Victorian charm, and are a testament to Ginter’s sophisticated architectural tastes and marketing skills, says Brian Burns, author of “Lewis Ginter: Richmond’s Gilded Age Icon.”

“The workmen’s cottages served a couple purposes,” Burns said. “First, they housed the workers. And second – and just as importantly – they set the tone for the new neighborhood.  And that’s why Ginter had them built in one of the most popular styles of the day. They were billboards announcing that Ginter Park was going to be an architecturally fashionable community.”

Sizes for the workmen’s cottages range widely, depending on how much they’ve been expanded over the years. The smallest is approximately 1,300 square feet, and the largest is more than 4,000 square feet.

Buyers interested in owning one of the cottages will have to be patient, says Joan Peaslee, a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices PenFed Realty. “In the last three years, only a couple have sold,” Peaslee said. “People love the history and the charm, and they don’t want to move.”

Michael Thorne-Begland and his husband, Tracy Thorne-Begland, are among the long-term residents. They bought the house at 3603 Hawthorne Ave. in 1994, and they’ve undertaken several renovation projects on the property. They also built major additions in 1998 and 2014 that expanded the cottage’s square footage from 1,100 square feet to more than 4,000 square feet.

Three years ago, the couple bought the house at 3605 Hawthorne Ave. for Michael’s mother, and they’re renovating it, as well.

“We feel like we are honoring the legacy of the owners who came before us and did what they could to make these homes special,” Thorne-Begland said.

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