Monument Avenue

April 23, 1995|By David Rosenthal | David Rosenthal,Sun Staff Writer

Sunday's Travel section incorrectly stated the battle in which Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson died. He was shot accidentally by one of his men at Chancellorsville, Va.

The Sun regrets the error.

I took the slow roads to Richmond, bypassing the breakneck pace of Interstate 95 for a more restful and scenic route. On a two-lane bridge, I passed over the broad sweep of the Potomac, decorated with gray ribbons that marked the shallows. Later came the Rappahannock, red and swollen from the rains that had beaten Virginia's red clay.

The back roads -- which took me near the birthplace of Robert E. Lee -- seemed a fitting entry to the stately, timeless city that he defended more than a century ago, and to Monument Avenue, the grand thoroughfare that the Confederate general helped define in death.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Today, the statue of Lee, erect and proud, still sets the tone for the mile-long stretch of road highlighted by heroes of the Lost Cause. As I drove along the avenue, the tires of my car gave off a soothing hum, and I passed small islands that held statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury.

Richmond, the former capital of the Confederate States of America, jealously guards its historical distinctions. And sometimes Richmond time seems divided into two eras: the War of Northern Aggression, as it's called there, and Everything Before or Since.

But Monument Avenue -- one of America's most beautiful streets -- isn't a sterile, outdoor museum to a lost cause.

It's a gateway to the city's best museums and to the trendy cafes, restaurants and bars of the neighboring Fan district. Each spring, it's the route for the Easter parade, a festival for thousands of bonneted Richmonders. And it offers a parade of joggers, dog-walkers and strollers who use the grassy median strip as a park.

"I like to think of Monument Avenue as being alive." Sylvia Summers told me as we sat in the living room of her restored, 85-year-old home. "When I think of Monument Avenue, it's not as a stuffy, old historic street. I think of it as a vibrant neighborhood."

She and her husband, Richard, are among the modern homesteaders who have fought to preserve Monument Avenue's grandeur and charm. Nearly a decade ago, they bought the charred shell of a grand home that had been converted into a rooming house.

"It was a nasty, nasty mess," says Ms. Summers, president of the Historic Monument Avenue and Fan District Foundation.

Today, the house has regained its gracefulness. But the Summerses have also given their home a sense of whimsy, fitting for modern-day Monument Avenue.

As we walk through the house, she points out an eclectic collection of artwork and touches of whimsy: One small bronze statue of Mercury sports tiny red mittens; a silver candlestick has a crack that, she says, "gives it character."

And that's what gives Monument Avenue its charm. The whimsy, the "cracks."

The worn, dirt paths that stretch along the median. Lawn chairs on the upstairs, open-air porch of an apartment house. And Monument Avenue's only other noticeable sculpture -- the modernist artwork outside the home of Sidney and Frances Lewis, art patrons and retailing magnates. (A local example of their passion for 20th-century art is the tilting facade on the Best

showroom in Towson; the Lewises founded Best.)

Controversial beginnings

In fact, I learned as I traced the area's past through documents, including the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey, Monument Avenue itself was born in controversy.

When the first blocks of Monument Avenue were planned, near the end of the 19th century, the area held fields and farmland. And city leaders, eager to attract grand homes such as those found in Baltimore's Mount Vernon and Boston's Back Bay, hit upon a perfect lure -- a monument to Lee.

Almost from the moment Lee died in 1870, Southerners had talked of memorializing their fallen hero. Those plans took form in Richmond.

But critics raised objections. An editorial in the Planet, a newspaper for Richmond's black community, derided spending city money to honor Confederate heroes. Others questioned the bottom-line motivation of Richmond's leaders, who had left the South's great general marooned in muddy fields on the edge of the former capital of the Confederacy.

As Henry James later wrote of the Lee monument, he "does well, we feel, to sit as high as he may, and to appear, in his lone survival, to see as far, and to overlook as many things; for the irony of fate, crowning the picture, is surely stamped in all sharpness on the scene about him. The place is the mere vague centre of two or three crossways, without form and void, with a circle half sketched by three or four groups of small, new, mean houses."

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