Friday, November 7, 2008

Richmond's Pump House: Go When You Get the Chance!

On the most gorgeous of fall afternoons, I visited Richmond's historic Pump House, now part of the James River Park System. It's usually not open to the public, but park educator Lorne Field was giving tours last Saturday as part of the park system's effort to increase interest in restoring the building to serve as an interpretive center for the park.

We arrived barely half an hour before it was scheduled to be closed up again, and judging from the number of cars still there, people certainly are interested in the building.

I had no idea how impressive the Pump House is, nor how interesting its history is, nor even how extensive and beautiful the trails along the two surrounding canals are. (The park grounds are open to the public. Go now!: take the last right before the Nickel Bridge going south.)

You can see photos and get some history at the link above and more here, but briefly: the building was constructed in 1882, with additions in 1905, to pump water from the James River to the Richmond Reservoir, where it would run, mostly by gravity, into homes and businesses. The architecture of the building reflects the importance of a city water system. A dance floor built above the waterwheels and pumps reflects the inherent glamour of Public Works. (Really. Those Victorians were wild.)

Wealthy Richmonders would ride canal boats or carriages to dance parties, although when Richmond got its streetcars running all the way out to nearby Byrd Park, the riffraff started showing up, and the elegant dance pavilion got painted in multiple shades of blue and pink. The band probably started playing "Yes, We Have No Bananas," and in 1924, the Pump House ceased operations. (Okay, it wasn't the riffraff but the demand for city water beyond the pumps' capabilities.)

Turning the Pump House into an environmental and historical education center would be fabulous. It's a huge project and will require public and private funding... and, Lorne Field hopes, many volunteers with a preservationist vision.

As charming and funny as a dance floor above a water system is, it's a history that's almost exclusively white. The more significant history of the Pump House is its coexistence with the canal system and its role in improving public health.

Anyway, if you ever hear that they're giving tours of the Pump House again, Foxtrot on over.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I seriously want them to start giving tours. I adore the pump house.