The Invisible Philanthropist
Grace Arents, a shy heiress, transformed her city
Issue: May 2009
Image from previous page: Grace Arents as a child; Above: Arents on Skyland
Rock near Luray, Va. Photo courtesy Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Grace Evelyn Arents is so elusive that, beyond the year 1848, the exact date of her birth remains unknown. She never posed for a formal portrait, and only a few modest photographs of her survive.

Yet the wealth and influence she wielded more than 80 years ago left her fingerprints on the cornerstones of Richmond communities.

The contributions Arents made provided the foundations for Oregon Hill’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and its tuition-free school; the William Byrd Community House; and the Grace Arents School, now Open High. She sponsored the construction of the Lewis Ginter Community Building for Ginter Park and developed Bloemendaal Farm as a rural retreat for sickly youth. The farm became Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, which this spring celebrates its 25th anniversary.

After her death in 1926, The News Leader reported: “She never overcame her shyness, and consequently she seldom appeared at public meetings. … Her contribution had to be direct and personal. Sometimes it meant an unsolicited check. Quite as frequently it was through the assumption at her own expense of a very large work of philanthropy.”

Arents, if her life and work are any indication, seems to have believed that what mattered in the end was that those given the opportunity to make a difference should alleviate some of the pain in a suffering world. Later generations might little note somebody named Grace Arents, but the children rescued from poverty and ill health would mature into strong, moral adults, capable of anything. And that was worth any effort or cost. Arents had no children of her own and perhaps regarded the city as her extended family. She was a community organizer.

An Unbroken Chain
It’s Marvelous Monday at St. Andrew’s School. A chorus of high-pitched voices singing in unison echoes through the building. The laughter of young people and small feet pounding up creaking wooden steps are sounds both nostalgic and immediate. The building is old, the lessons are timeless, and the children will go far beyond this place.

Mary T. Wickham, in her fourth year as head of the school, explains that Marvelous Mondays break up the normal schedule and allow kids to choose a favorite class. Wickham is teaching two boys Spanish, flashing cards and pronouncing the words. They repeat and chuckle over a trilling “R.” Then the bell sends them scurrying. “Hasta manana!” Wickham calls after them, and smiles.

St. Andrew’s, with an enrollment of about 100 students in grades K to 5, caters to lower-income families who are seeking an alternative to public school. Admission is need-based — students attend tuition-free and parents commit volunteer hours. There is a book fee of $125.

“Everybody’s on scholarship. We help them to go to private schools if that’s what they want, and work on getting the out-of-zone application for city schools,” Wickham says. “One of our students went to the city International Baccalaureate program. It’s essentially like being a college counselor.”

The subject of Arents causes Wickham to offer a show-and-tell of books, papers and records when Arents was the school’s director. Wickham used these documents to provide language for a historic street marker at Idlewood Avenue and Cherry Street that the state’s Department of Historic Resources approved in March for possible placement in the fall.

“She was an incredible person,” Wickham says. “We just don’t know that much about her. Which is how she wanted it.”

The Rare Artifacts
Across town, another establishment that benefited from Arents’ philanthropy is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, which is installing a highway marker sign that speaks of Arents’ desire to create gardens to honor the memory of her uncle. A commemorative book, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden: 25 Years and Growing by Lynn Kirk and edited by Lewis Ginter’s executive director, Frank Robinson, was published in April.

One damp morning while cresting a hill approaching Lakeside, before full spring leafing, the dome of the botanical garden’s conservatory appeared on the horizon. Here was Arents’ vision made into a gleaming reality.

Fran Purdum, the garden’s volunteer archivist for the past 20 years, meets a visitor in the reception center. “I’m going to take you to a place even the staff doesn’t go,” she says, with the enthusiasm of a conspirator. She leads her guest into the Education and Library Complex and through a series of twisting and turning corridors, through various doors, like Get Smart, to an elevator in a dark hallway.

The archivist produces a certificate that states Joy Schultz graduated from the St. Andrew’s sewing school, that she’d mastered running, backstitching, overcasting, hemming, gathering and making an apron. Arents’ signature is quite legible with a slight right tilt. Few pieces of personal correspondence or journals remain because Arents ordered them destroyed.

“The archives were in a closet in the Bloemendaal house, and you know how Miss Grace rebuilt that from Lewis Ginter’s bicycle clubhouse,” Purdum says. Around the Ginter gardens, Arents is referred to like “Mr. Jefferson” is at the University of Virginia. Purdum can’t assume anybody knows anything about Arents, though, most people don’t.

Uncle Lewis
Arents is described as an “heiress,” but that circumstance came to her in middle age. She grew up the child of a widowed mother.

She was the youngest child of New York City cedar barrel-maker Stephen Arents and Jane Swain Ginter Arents. Her father died in January 1855; Jane Arents, suddenly a single mother with four children, came under the care of her unmarried younger brother, Lewis Ginter, in Richmond. Before 1879, the Arents family moved into Ginter’s brownstone urban mansion at 405 E. Cary St., between Fourth and Fifth streets.

The News Leader described the city’s “alien atmosphere in which a New York girl was thrown. It seemed all the stranger and perhaps more forbidding because she was naturally timid, had bad eyesight and had no taste for the social life that was Richmond’s chief charm in those days of general poverty.”

Arents’ brother, George, lived for a brief time at Ginter’s house, though he eventually joined his two other sisters in New York and became an avid collector of tobacco paraphernalia and books that he donated to the New York Public Library.

Arents became an active member of her uncle’s congregation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The church began a mission in Oregon Hill in 1873. This was a hard-working and tough-living neighborhood of laborers and a cohesive community such as existed in most larger cities — what we’d today call an inner-city neighborhood. But in Arents’ time it was comprised of working-class whites, and some German and Irish immigrants.

St. Paul’s in 1875 built a frame church at Idlewood Avenue (then Beverly) and Laurel Street. Before coming into her inheritance, Arents donated an organ and paid for a church custodian.

She and her friend Annie Woodlief Jeffrey tried running a Richmond Circulating Library from 1879 to 1880, but that didn’t last, though it became a precursor to Arents’ ultimate goals.

“Motivations and Allegiances”
Among the items that archivist Purdum displays are travel guidebooks and a letter making certain that Arents’ chauffeur received proper accommodations. She traveled extensively, making globe-girdling expeditions with her tobacco tycoon uncle Lewis, and later in life, throughout the country and Europe. She was always learning, and noted interesting plants and brought them to Richmond to cultivate Bloemendaal. The massive gingko that stands in the front yard was one she planted.

There is an expense ledger from the mid-1920s, “She kept track of every dime,” says Purdum, pointing out the long columns. In 1897, when Ginter died, Arents inherited what would be the equivalent of approximately $20 million today, but she believed that great wealth also conveyed responsibility. Hers was a philanthropic conscientiousness, and Arents’ deeds must speak for her because she endeavored to keep out of the limelight.

Purdum pulls out two formal group portraits not often seen. You have to know who Grace Arents was to pick her out of the lineups,but that she was photographed at all tells us the regard with which she kept these organizations.

One shows Arents standing in the back row among a group from the Instructive Visiting Nurse Association. The IVNA provided health care for young mothers, babies and the chronically ill who could not afford proper care. A building she constructed in 1903 for St. Andrew’s teachers at 223 S. Cherry St. became in 1911 headquarters for the IVNA. The IVNA, founded in 1900, is today the largest noninstitutional, nonprofit home health-care agency in the Richmond region.

Students of Richmond’s history compare Arents to 19th-century philanthropists and prototypical social workers like Chicago’s Jane Addams, “but her private nature and the destruction of her personal papers have obscured the precise reading of her motivations and allegiances,” Martha Hagood, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate student, wrote in 1993.

In one of her few surviving public writings, Arents stated, “It is right to be content with what you have, but not with what you are.”

At the age of 49, she was no flibbertigibbet, and, “Miss Grace” knew exactly what she wanted to do with her inheritance.

“No Backward Step”
The next photograph that archivist Purdum brings out is a darkening, framed image of a formally dressed group of the St. Andrew’s School, and probably the church. Arents sits midway in the front.    

Arents founded the St. Andrew’s Association and in 1901, directed the construction at Idlewood and Cherry of St. Andrew’s School. A sewing class and kindergarten evolved into a sophisticated system including training in drawing and woodworking. The school provided classes not only for reading, math, history and science, but also for physical education using the parish gymnasium and nearby playgrounds purchased by Arents. Many of the youngsters who attended came after shifts in factories, such as the nearby Tredegar Iron Works. Sometimes they showed up without having eaten; this led to soup suppers at the school.

Each day of class began with devotions, and the week concluded with Friday chapel. A night school attracted students from throughout the city. Arents wrote in a 1906 St. Andrew’s School report, “For the future — there are no bounds to our possibilities; the limitations are the ways and means. We hope to lose no ground that has been gained, to take no backward step, we dare not say what advances may be made.”

Indiana architect A.H. Ellwood, who specialized in public buildings, designed a historically resonant stone Victorian Gothic church, and Arents managed the construction while a lawsuit left the building project without a contractor. The cross and west wing of the school were designed by D. Wiley Anderson, architect of numerous Monument Avenue mansions, and the east wing was the work of Baskervill and Sons. In 1902, construction halted until the principals, using lawyers to transact their business, could settle matters. The church was finally dedicated in January 1904.

In 1903, Noland and Baskervill designed 223 S. Cherry St. as a teachers’ house, accommodating educators who were recruited and relocated from New York City and elsewhere. One of those teachers was Mary Garland Smith. She and Arents became companions; Smith succeeded Arents as principal of St. Andrew’s School from 1907 to 1911.

Arents’ overriding concern of improving the living conditions of the working poor led her in 1904 to begin demolishing worn-out wooden houses and building sturdy brick row houses with distinctive features at their cornices, roofs and inside. Their porches and access to the streets and alleyways knit them into the neighborhood. Along Cumberland and Linden streets, she implemented what was the first affordable-housing project in the city, if not the state, and the rents paid by residents to the St. Andrew’s Association provided the organization with income.

In her 1926 will, the St. Andrew’s Association received $100,000. That figure grew into the low millions, and by 1998 generated interest of $350,000 supporting the school and providing additional funds for the William Byrd library and other programs. But maintenance on the housing fell behind.

Their deteriorated condition caused the eviction of tenants from 18 aging buildings St. Andrew’s owned. Soon thereafter the association contacted the Richmond Better Housing Coalition. That organization purchased the houses, sensitively renovated them, and now rented them to people working in the service sector.

Community as Family
L. Robert Bolling, executive director at William Byrd Community House, sees Arents’ vision carried into the 21st century. But as times get rougher, greater demands are placed on groups trying to keep the social thread from unraveling.

“We assist 2,500 families a year, from all over the city, not just Oregon Hill,” Bolling says. “And we’re seeing that number increase. There are people coming to us, for emergency assistance and keeping their utilities operating, who were previously considered the working middle class. Our requests for help have gone up, but, the downside is, we can’t meet the need.”

A Highland Park satellite devised in 2007 to provide a recreation center for underprivileged youth evolved into a professional-guidance program. Young people citywide, ages 14 to 21, receive instruction about GED completion, resumé writing and presentation during a job interview.

Another offering of William Byrd that sprouted three years ago behind the center on association-owned property is urban-agricultural education for students at St. Andrew’s and Open High. From April to October, the property draws upward of 900 people to a Tuesday afternoon market.

The manager, Laura Morand Bailey, observes, “This is a convergence of the community, from tattooed college kids to moms in their vans and retirees.” The market is connected to William Byrd programs that educate about nutrition and health. The gifts of the earth, and natural beauty, motivated Arents’ philanthropy.

“Flower Valley”
One of the few pictures of Arents shows her perched cross-legged on a blanket on the edge of Skyland Rock near Luray. She’s hunched over a book in her lap, perhaps avoiding the photographer. And she’s wearing pants. The image combines several aspects of Arents’ character: She’s outdoors, reading and dressed for comfort.

In 1917, Arents left the grand Ginter mansion for her place in the country, Bloemendaal, off Lakeside Avenue near Hilliard Road, where she lived with Mary Garland Smith. She built ties to that part of the region by purchasing her uncle’s Lakeside Wheel Clubhouse, built by him for catering to the 1880s bicycling craze.

Arents remodeled the clubhouse in a Dutch-Colonial style and named it Bloemendaal, “flower valley,” to honor her family’s background. She conceived the house as a convalescent center for sick working-class children. The dwelling received a second floor of bedrooms, classroom, library and playroom. By 1917, the work of the IVNA that Arents helped support made a convalescent place unnecessary.

There, on Bloemendaal’s 85-acres, Arents indulged her fascination with flora, landscapes and experimental farming. She lovingly raised a Victorian rose garden, put in a specimen arboretum and  established a vegetable garden. Visitors came to study her agricultural methods.

This was her little piece of paradise. And she wanted it to survive and thrive. In her will, she stipulated $100,000 to establish a garden in her uncle’s memory and allowed Mary Garland Smith to reside there. Smith outlived Arents by 42 years and in 1968 died at the age of 100.

(Purdum, the garden’s archivist, says Smith was more like 103, which came from an interview with a now-deceased great-nephew.)

A Ginter garden didn’t occur then. The city established a tree nursery on the property and grew bedding plants for public parks. At one point, Richmond contemplated placing low-income housing there. Henrico County considered cutting a road across the grounds.

By 1981, the trust established for the care of the gardens had grown to $2 million. The Maymont Foundation, itself overseeing an extensive parks property from the bequest of the Dooley estate, sought to redirect the funds to create a botanical garden named for Ginter at Maymont. Richmond Circuit Court needed to transfer the funds to the city.

The Richmond Horticultural Association, along with a group of botanists and interested residents, filed a lawsuit to uphold her will. The case was settled. Circuit Court Judge Willard L. Walker said it was “a point I would have reached by brute force.” The group formed the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden that the court chartered in 1984.

The gardens opened to the public three years later and have grown ever since. Today, Arents’ endowment is approximately $5 million.

In March 2003, the conservatory was completed. This past May, the Rose Garden blossomed with more than 1,800 roses chosen for their fragrance, reblooming qualities and disease resistance.

No Fuss
Arents’ June 21, 1926, front-page Richmond News Leader obituary couldn’t list all the libraries, schools, churches, hospitals and public institutions to which she’d provided assistance. She gave personally to many of the city’s clergy, regardless of faith, to care for needy children.

Several years after her death, a new rector at St. Andrew’s went to her modest Hollywood Cemetery grave. The marker consists of a sundial framed by boxwoods. The elaborate mausoleum of her tycoon uncle Lewis Ginter is nearby.

The rector appreciated the Arents legacy and thought the parish should provide some appropriate recognition. He suggested to the St. Andrew’s Ladies Guild that the grave receive flowers on holidays, like Easter and Christmas. Several women in the Guild, however, knew Arents quite well, and they felt sure that “Miss Grace” would not have consented to such memorial fuss. They tabled the idea.

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