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Chesterfield Highlands Historic District

Colonial Heights City, Independent Cities, VA

The Chesterfield Highlands Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

The Chesterfield Highlands Historic District is an intact example of a traditional streetcar suburb from the first half of the twentieth century. The majority of the houses in Chesterfield Highlands were built between 1916 and 1948, the year that Colonial Heights became an independent city. The contributing residential resources include architectural styles and forms typical for the early and mid-twentieth century. There is little infill housing. Building heights range from one story to two-and-one-half stories.

The district features a variety of materials. The most common materials employed for exterior walls are traditional materials such as brick, stucco, shingle, and weatherboard. A visual hallmark of the neighborhood is the large, intact collection of roofs sheathed in heavy-gauge, standing-seam metal. Seventy-one primary resources retain their original metal roofs.

The district also serves to showcase what were considered revolutionary early- to mid-twentieth-century materials, such as concrete, aluminum, and Permastone. The dwelling at 313 Norfolk Avenue, a one-story, two-bay masonry dwelling, is an example of a small house whose exterior walls are veneered with rusticated concrete, pillow-shaped blocks tooled to imitate stone. The coursing is interrupted by a smooth band of concrete, about two feet above grade all around the perimeter of the house, suggesting a sort of water-table. The one-and-one-half-story, Cape Cod-style house at 319 Norfolk Avenue is built with unusually large rusticated concrete blocks separated by one-inch-wide struck mortar joints. The foundation is composed of a bottom course of rusticated blocks topped with four courses of bricks laid in stretcher bond.

Craftsman-influenced architecture is predominant throughout the Chesterfield Highlands Historic District with two basic forms displaying its characteristics. Modest-sized, one or one-and-one-half-story bungalows are the most numerous house type. Larger two or two-and-one-half-story Craftsman houses are mostly American Foursquares in form. Craftsman-influenced houses are often characterized by low-pitched hipped or gabled roofs; deep overhanging eaves, exposed rafter tails and/or brackets; full- or partial-width porches; and classical or battered columns.

The Chesterfield Highlands Historic District retains high physical integrity in the areas of architecture and community planning and development. Most of the historic dwellings retain their original form, building fabric, and character-defining features. A majority of frame houses seem to have newer surface materials such as vinyl siding, but the architectural character and general integrity conveyed by the form and decorative elements remain intact. At least half of the houses have vinyl replacement windows. The historic plan of the district, generally defined by the linear quality of the streets, the alleys that run parallel to the streets behind a majority of houses, and the size and shape of the lots, is preserved as recorded on plats filed in Chesterfield County in 1916. A small number of the district's historic resources have been lost through the years, mostly due to encroaching commercial development along the Boulevard or the installation of surface parking around the churches.

The original legal plat for the District was filed in 1916 in Chesterfield County and the end date of 1954 correlates with the final build-out of the district which occurred during the post-World War II building boom. The original plan for Chesterfield Highlands is an important example of early twentieth-century suburban design. Prepared by a civil engineer, the carefully scaled plat incorporated specifications from Pollard's Code of Virginia. The neatly delineated plan, divided into blocks and further subdivided into lots of uniform size, is prototypical of early-twentieth-century suburbanization. The emergence of the suburban town was directly correlated to the successful introduction of the Richmond-Petersburg Interurban Street Railway. Transformation of "the heights" along the north bank of the Appomattox River from undeveloped farm land to a town of planned suburbs was rapid, attributable to speculative real estate ventures. The original legal plat for Chesterfield Highlands was filed in 1916 by R. L. Watson, a real estate developer from the City of Petersburg. The plat depicted the street railway track running along the Boulevard from present-day Pickwick Avenue, past East Westover Avenue (then Lyons Road) with two passenger stops within easy walking distance of the suburb. House building was brisk after the original legal plat was filed, with the majority of houses constructed between 1920 and 1940. The architecture showcases several period kit-houses and numerous other examples of houses that appear to be period catalog-inspired designs. The form, massing, and roof composition of a large number of houses appear to be borrowed from the Craftsman movement, although all do not necessarily display characteristic Craftsman-style details. In the decade following World War II, new buildings constructed in the district reflected evolving preferences in residential design. Nearly all of the houses built between 1945 and 1954 are building types popular in the post-World War II period, particularly Cape Cod, Minimal Traditional, and Ranch. Chesterfield Highlands, with uniform massing, standardized setbacks, dense residential character, sidewalks, mature trees, and service alleys, is representative of a significant period in American residential suburban design.

The Chesterfield Highlands Historic District is significant in the area of community planning and development as an illustration of an important trend in the history of suburbanization in America. The context of the district is the suburbanization of Colonial Heights, a city almost wholly comprised of contiguous, carefully designed suburbs. Many American cities, including nearby Petersburg and Richmond, include turn-of-the-twentieth-century suburbs established in concentric rings around an older urban core. The formation of Chesterfield Highlands is synchronous with the progression of Colonial Heights from an emerging cluster of suburban residential neighborhoods to a town and finally to a city.

The birth of the American suburb was influenced by the "White City," a showcase designed by Frederick Law Olmstead for the World's Fair Columbian Exposition of 1893. The emphasis on the classical orders of architecture, orderly planning, and cleanliness appealed to the expanding and increasingly prosperous American middle class. By the late-nineteenth century, American cities were considered overcrowded, dirty, and noisy. In response to a nationwide desire to live in a clean, healthy environment, families looked to outlying "green" areas that were increasingly accessible through improvements in transportation. Early twentieth-century suburbs were platted, subdivided and built according to a plan and laid out in accordance with specific design principles.

As a suburban neighborhood, Chesterfield Highlands took its form in a three-layered process: (1) selection of a location; (2) platting and layout; and (3) design of the house and yard. The new, emerging model for residential neighborhoods offered efficient, comfortable houses constructed in then-fashionable architectural styles. A map of Colonial Heights, compiled in 1924 from early-twentieth-century "plats of record," showed that the present-day City of Colonial Heights was almost wholly composed of contiguous, named suburbs: Colonial Heights (1910); Colonial Heights Extended (1912); Chesterfield Heights (1916); Chesterfield Highlands (1916); Riverside Park (1916/1920); Riverview (1923); Chesterfield Place; Oak Hill Place; and City View Place. Chesterfield Highlands stands out as the largest and one of the earliest of the designed suburbs situated near the center of Colonial Heights.

The historic district's significance in the area of architecture is associated with the consistency of architectural design. Many of the dwellings in the neighborhood are Craftsman-inspired in form but were apparently built with an eye to economy and thus lack typical Craftsman-style embellishments. The Colonial Revival style is represented and frequently embellished with Victorian-era or Tudor Revival characteristics. Several dwellings in the district compare to published drawings of period kit-houses or catalog-inspired architectural designs. Widely popular among working and middle-class Americans in the early decades of the twentieth-century, kit-houses and architect-designed plans published in catalogs offered an efficient and economical path to home ownership. House-kits and design catalogs produced homogenous residential neighborhoods, like Chesterfield Highlands, of well-crafted houses.

In 2008, Rosemary Thornton, author of Houses That Sears Built, identified forty kit-houses in Colonial Heights. The majority of kit-houses were ordered from Aladdin and Sears catalogs. Five kit-houses were identified in Chesterfield Highlands.

Suburban expansion at the turn of the twentieth century, locally and nationally, was linked to advances in transportation. In Colonial Heights, the electric interurban railway fostered suburban growth by offering affordable and convenient transportation from outlying areas to jobs in nearby cities. Following the successful introduction of the interurban railway, the transformation of "the heights," as it is locally known, from undeveloped farm land to a town of suburbs was rapid.

The first speculative real estate developer in Colonial Heights was Augustus Wright. Beginning in 1890, Wright purchased six tracts of farmland, a total of 364 acres, on the north side of the Appomattox River, mostly west of the Boulevard. By 1894, Wright's Chesterfield Heights Land Company devised a plat of the company's real estate holdings, a subdivision plan of ten numbered blocks of various sizes and shapes. He designed the first suburb in Colonial Heights, "Chesterfield Heights," on the north bank of the Appomattox River. The neighborhood was to have a gridiron plan of uniform lots and a regular rhythm of streets. Between 1895 and his death in 1909, Wright sold most of his real estate in parcels without subdividing them into lots.

The second real estate developer in Colonial Heights was T. Marshall Bellamy. Petersburg's foremost late nineteenth-to-early-twentieth-century real estate investor purchased three tracts for suburban development: (1) the 90-acre Violet Bank property; (2) the 5.95-acre City View property; and (3) the 105.78-acre Oak Hill property. In 1909, Bellamy laid out the "Colonial Heights" suburb on the former Oak Hill and City View properties. Bellamy commenced the plan for Colonial Heights Extended in 1912, followed by Riverside Park in 1915. Concurrently, Bellamy granted the Virginia Railway & Power Company the "privilege of erecting poles and of building, operating, and maintaining electric light and power leads on, over, through and across the streets, alleys, and lots." Bellamy's suburban developments were successful, prompting other investors to follow suit.

The third important real estate investor-developer in Colonial Heights was R.L. Watson, who formed the Chesterfield Highlands Corporation in 1916 and developed the present-day Chesterfield Highlands neighborhood. The American Nations Bank of Richmond provided the company with financing of $17,500 to purchase and consolidate four separate parcels: (1) a 6-acre tract owned by R.E. Long & wife; (2) an 11-1/2 acre tract owned by Mary C. Whitehead and others; (3) a 34-acre subdivision called "The Highlands" (R.E. Willcox, trustee); and (4) Lots 2 & 16 in The Highlands owned by Combined Realty. In 1916, Watson filed an initial plat of development for the 52-acre parcel. A year later, James A. Starkey, a civil engineer from Petersburg, completed a carefully scaled plat for Chesterfield Highlands. Easements for the 52-acre subdivision were derived from Pollard's Code of Virginia. The tract as illustrated on the plat showed seventeen blocks. All blocks were rectangular except for two linear blocks along the south and east perimeter edges. Each block was divided into lots of uniform size except for blocks 3 and 10 where existing farmhouses were retained and situated on much larger tracts. The dwelling at 109 Norfolk Avenue (demolished circa 1970) occupied an entire square block. The dwelling at 309 East Westover Avenue occupied about three-fourths of a square block. Streets were 50-feet wide and alleys were 15-feet wide.

In the initial legal filings, the Chesterfield Highlands Corporation reserved exclusive rights to install and maintain railroad tracks; sewer, gas and water pipes; telegraph, telephone, and electric light poles; and wires and conduits. Later, in 1927, Chesterfield Highlands Corporation formulated additional restrictive covenants for the suburb: (1) that said property shall not be sold to, leased to or occupied by any person of African descent for a period of 20 years from the date hereof (August 9, 1927);68 (2) that no residence be erected upon said property at cost less than $3,000; (3) that all residences conform to a building line of 20 feet from the line of the sidewalk upon which the property fronts; (4) that no residence be erected upon a lot of less than 37-1/2 feet frontage; (5) that no building of any character other than residential shall be erected upon the building lot.

The Watson Realty Company did not build and sell houses as turn-key operations. Rather, most of the lots were either sold to builders or to individuals who contracted with local house-builders. Walter Webb, who erected his personal residence at 108 Lynchburg Avenue, also constructed at least three other houses on Lynchburg Avenue. Leon J. Boisseau, another local builder who specialized in brick construction, was active in the area in the early 1940s.

Nearly 75% of the lots in Chesterfield Highlands were filled before the United States entered World War II. During the height of the war, between 1941 and 1945, development proceeded at a snail's pace with only a half-dozen houses completed. Demand for housing in Colonial Heights increased in the decade following the end of World War II. The re-integration of military personnel into the general population after the war contributed to a nationwide housing boom. Progressive build-out in the district resumed almost immediately after the war ended. More than a dozen houses were completed between 1945 and 1949, with a dramatic building boom in 1950, when twenty-three houses were built. In 1954, the construction of seventeen commercial buildings on Pickwick Avenue marked the culmination of development in the district.

The success of the interurban railway continued into the 1920s, in part because the speed limit for the streetcar was 10 mph faster than that of an automobile. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the growing popularity and affordability of privately owned automobiles coupled with improvements in roadways and bridges diminished ridership of the interurban railway. In 1936, streetcar service was terminated and replaced by buses.

At the time of establishment, Colonial Heights was geographically part of Chesterfield County but functionally aligned with the City of Petersburg. Following the rapid emergence of Colonial Heights as a population center, demand for municipal services increased. In 1920, a coalition, led by Harry L. Snead, formed the Colonial Heights Citizen League to lobby for improved public services. The League assigned street addresses, set up a mail delivery system, and improved water supply by drilling two new local wells. Colonial Heights became an incorporated town in 1926, bounded by Fairfax Avenue on the north, the Appomattox River on the south, Conduit Road on the east, and the Seaboard Airline Railway on the west. After several decades of steady population growth and moderate expansion to its present-day city limits, the town became an independent city in 1948.

Nancy W. Kraus, First & Main LLC, Chesterfield Highlands Historic District, Colonial Heights, VA, nomination document, 2012, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Boulevard • Danville Avenue • Hill Place • Lafayette Avenue • Lee Place • Lynchburg Avenue • Norfolk Avenue • Pickwick Avenue • Richmond Avenue • Route 1 • Route 301 • Suffolk Avenue • Westover Avenue East