Thursday, July 24, 2014

Architect and photographer William Abbott Pratt made his mark on Richmond only to have it erased.

While in Richmond, Pratt made some 35,000 silver-plate pictures, most of which were destroyed when his studio burned in the 1865 evacuation fire. Some images survive, like the James River-Kanawha Canal board of directors of February 1846. Pratt’s other subjects included President John Quincy Adams and the 1851 Virginia General Assembly, but most curiously, in 1849, three weeks before the writer left Richmond for the last time, Edgar Allan Poe. (While not the House of Usher, Pratt's Castle and his tagential connection to Poe caused, in true urban-myth fashion, stories to sprout that Poe had visited and written stories while staying there.)

Pratt's upper turret was used by Alexander Gardner to take amazing panoramic images of Richmond's burnt district. Pratt didn't return to Richmond after the war. After a term as architect for the University of Virginia, he died in Waynesboro in 1878.

The major tenants of Pratt’s included Samuel and Henrietta Cornick (1890-1906). When the Cornicks died within a month of each other, they left behind the “oddest, queerest, jumbling of things.” The trove in small part consisted of: 29 tons of coal in the walls; dozens of unused and identical coffee pots and milk jugs; jewelry worth thousands of dollars; an overstocked pantry; hundreds of china pieces carefully put away, many with the prices still on them; and scores of toys.
Pratt’s Castle was next home for Mr. and Mrs. J. Franklin Biggs (1908-1942). A transplanted New Yorker, Mr. Biggs collected rare antiques and founded a national fine-furniture reproduction firm. The Biggses appropriately filled Pratt's.  

For many years, a gigantic mirror, ordered by Thomas Jefferson from France and collected by Biggs, stood in front of the entry panel of the “hidden” stair leading to the halfway room between the upper floors. It's now in the lobby foyer of the Valentine Richmond History Center, so massive that it isn’t difficult imagining it as a portal into Pratt’s halcyon days.

Dr. James Galloway, a native of Scotland and an area veterinarian for 35 years, came to Pratt’s in 1942 because, he said, “every Scotsman wants a castle,” remaining until 1945.

Reynold’s Metals in that year leased the building to house a group of Mexican industrial trainees. On Dec. 9, 1945, a pre-dawn three-alarm fire somehow began in the central turret, and flames shot up it like a chimney flue. The blaze and the subsequent three-hour fight to end it destroyed the foyer’s reputed Tiffany stained-glass windows. The central turret was lopped off, leaving the resulting structure resembling nothing so much as a Quaker Oats box. Restorations broke up the interior of the house to make it suitable for renting. Col. Robert and Ester Adair bought Pratt’s in 1950 for $25,000.

Ester Adair set up a ceramics studio in the basement and taught there. Col. Adair enjoyed sitting on the front balcony behind a great magnolia tree on Sundays, reading his paper. Occasional visitors wandered past the unlocked front door into the living room, and Adair would ask if he could help them. They’d want a tour and he’d oblige. Sometimes, at the end, they’d put a quarter in his hand.

A 1951 fire that started in the smoldering embers of the living room's hearth caused $21,000 worth of damage — the foyer's stained glass was wrecked — and the house wasn't the same afterward.

The terraced park grounds and handsome residences of Gamble’s Hill, like those in the Fan and Church Hill, suffered from the effects of suburban drain. The city sought to clean up the neighborhood by first proposing three huge apartment buildings for working-class whites while preserving Pratt’s. Then Albemarle Paper, which soon became Ethyl Corp., bought the block for $300,000.

During 1957, preservationists sent letters to F.D. Gottwald and Charles H. Robertson of Albemarle Paper, offering varied suggestions as to how the firm could use the castle (restaurant, conference center, corporate musuem); Elisabeth Scott Bocock suggested to Gottwald that if Historic Richmond Foundation could raise the money, the castle could be moved to Church Hill.

The company responded that Pratt himself was of no historic significance and the house a mere curiosity. A litany of repairs were given, concluding that “today the building is a far cry from even the sham Pratt built,” and restoration too costly. The preservationists needed to save the place if they liked it so much.

The castle was taken down in 1958 for the headquarters of Ethyl Corp. (now NewMarket). A plaque promised by the company to mark the site of Pratt's was never installed, and the whereabouts of the parlor's "Four Seasons" stained glass remain unknown. Gothic window frames from Pratt's are today displayed at the Richmond History Center.

Pratt’s Castle occupies an exclusive niche in Richmond lore — not existing yet not quite forgotten.


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