Swan Song
A historic Broad Street traveler's rest hosted Jefferson, Marshall, Poe and balloons
Image courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

For more than a century, upon what was then called Shockoe Hill, the Swan Tavern stood at today’s 812-814 E. Broad St. The establishment’s characteristics included a 160-foot-long front veranda and a pole-mounted logo sign, “the good old bird with its well-remembered graceful neck of tarnished gilt,” remembered “H.,” a Richmonder writing in the autumn 1849 issue of the Virginia Historical Register.

The landmark sign that bore its name “in all weathers, had entirely disappeared,” H. commented, “and that in lieu of it, there was only a plain blue ground with the words ‘Broad Street Hotel’ thereon; (how flat and prosaic in comparison!) to amaze and offend my eyes.” The writer added, “I had looked at the brave bird perhaps a thousand times, and always with great satisfaction; but it was now gone, and forever.”

For most Richmonders, whatever name the place adopted, it was still “The Old Swan.”

The structure, put up around 1781 and first managed by Robert Anderson, wasn’t remarkable. H. wrote of it as “a plain building, of ordinary and almost rustic appearance.” Decades later, architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott described the Swan as a “typical 18th-century inn, two-story frame with a long verandah in front, wings in the rear and a half-a-dozen outbuildings sprawling over the block between Eighth and Ninth on Broad.” A pair of brick chimneys on its western end further distinguished the building.

The Swan’s early proprietor was Major (or Colonel, it’s unclear) John Moss. Historical memoirist Samuel Mordecai, in his 1856-1860 Richmond in By-Gone Days, said that Moss “probably also served in the Revolutionary War — this may or may not be.” H. added that Moss was a “a little starchy and stately, and looked as if he was always on duty; but then he was not above his business, nor above himself.”

The Swan was a neat, unpretentious and even old-fashioned place, with rooms that in H.’s opinion were “rather small and inconvenient,” though the service earned compliments. Mordecai remembered “good fare, good wine, and good company.” H. considered the cooking unrivaled, the ham always prime, the wine the best vintage and the portions full but often not enough for seconds.

The Swan provided a natural gathering place for lawyers and physicians, legislators and city officials. H. wished that as a youth he’d thought to record the “wit-crackers” of the porch and the “sprightly dialogue” of the Swan’s eminent regulars.

Thomas Jefferson lodged there on Oct. 24, 1809, although his subscription dinner was hosted down Main Street at the Eagle Tavern. Song and music accompanied several toasts. A cannon salute shattered the Eagle’s windows.

William B. Page acquired the Swan in November 1810, adding the use of two houses detached from the tavern for the benefit of traveling families. During this period, U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall chaired a meeting of the Virginia Agricultural Society there (1812), magic acts went on inside (1817), and in the yard, balloon ascensions drew crowds (1818-19).

By the mid-19th century, large hotels arose in Richmond — the Ford, Exchange and Ballard — almost all visible from the Swan’s veranda. One unfortunate sign of the inn’s decline was the fact that financially challenged Edgar Allan Poe stayed there during his final Richmond visit, from July 14 to Sept. 27, 1849.

Poe first stayed at the American Hotel, at 11th and Main streets, but thereafter he moved to the less expensive Swan. While there, he made acquaintance with a member of the Sons of Temperance and shortly pledged himself off alcohol, to better facilitate his marriage to childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster Shelton. He left Richmond to edit poetry in Philadelphia and bring his aunt from New York City to attend the wedding.

Poe left his walking stick at the Swan; retrieved by his acquaintance Dr. John Carter, it’s now at the Poe Museum. The museum also has a trunk Poe left in the Swan’s basement that he either intended to retrieve later or forgot.

Another Swan association during this period was with performers who played at nearby theaters. A frequent guest was the renowned Joseph Jefferson, who made many stops in Richmond. In May 1857, Jefferson was about to appear as Touchstone in As You Like It when a message came that his infant son, Joseph junior, was soon to die of scarlet fever at the Swan. A more amusing occasion occurred when a reporter burst into his room while Jefferson was in the bath. The old actor conducted the interview clad in soapsuds and a smile.

The historian Mordecai observed of the Swan in 1856, “It has lost its name and fame, and few of its professional guests survive.” The Old Swan became, in effect, a cheap dive. Photographs from these latter days show the building’s buckling clapboard sides covered by advertising bills like an “Old West” saloon.

By the early 1900s, the sagging Swan held small businesses such as tailors, hatters, an employment agency, African-American lawyers and a Chinese laundry. The most notable tenant was the Richmond Planet newsweekly, which the ambitious John Mitchell Jr. had moved there in 1888 from his Jackson Ward apartment to operate from two basement rooms.

Poe enthusiast T. Pendleton Cummings had the presence of mind to take an interior image of the building before its October 1904 demolition. In a magazine piece, she wrote, “The floors were sunken, the plaster fallen, the windowpanes missing, and the chimney-piece decorated with miscellaneous debris.”

It had become the ugly swan, an eyesore, and when it was swept away like debris for Jake Wells’ Bijou “family” vaudeville hall, no petitions vouching for the building’s historic lineage circulated. The Valentine Museum retained one of the tavern’s mantels. The Bijou became the short-lived Strand movie theater, which closed in 1933. The Trailways bus station occupied part of the site after 1945. As of 1997, this part of Broad is home to the Library of Virginia.

0 comments | Leave a comment

subscribe  |  about us  |  contact us  |  advertise  |  customer care  |  promotions & events  |  contests  |  e-newsletters
Copyright © 2014 Richmond magazine All rights reserved. Contact Us.