Belmont

Charlottesville, Virginia boomed in the 1890s. At the crossing of two railroad lines, the Norfolk & Southern and the Chesapeake & Ohio, the small city in the Piedmont region added industry to its functions as a county seat and home of the University of Virginia. Textile mills, lumber, masonry and produce firms clustered near the railroads. The mills attracted workers who needed a place to live.

In 1891, a large estate south of the city was subdivided. A map drawn in that year by “C. E. Dickerson, Engr.” for the Belmont Land Company, and copied in 1932, shows a sophisticated layout based on a grid of streets, with mid-block alleys, a boulevard, a park, and a gradation of lot sizes. Lots at the north are 30 feet wide, those in the middle are 48 feet wide, and at the south large “villa lots” are shown. No villas materialized. This area developed slowly along other lines, with some attached houses under construction today.

The country house of Slaughter W. Ficklin, called Belmont and built in 1837, still stands on the high ground of Belmont Avenue. The modest brick mansion was converted to apartments, with an ungainly addition. If you stand in the parking lot of Hinton Avenue Methodist Church and look south, into the back yard, you face the original front of the house, with its two-story porch and Greek Revival details.

The upper half of the tract was developed first. Many of the houses were drawn and built by the Charlottesville Lumber Company, which had a mill located on Avon Street near the railroad. L. W. Graves founded the company with partners in 1892. (Relocated north of town and renamed as Better Living Building Supply, it still exists.) The closeness in dates implies that the new subdivision and new lumber company were related. Graves bought lots in Belmont and built houses on them, probably on speculation. Newspaper advertisements for Charlottesville Lumber at this time show lathe-turned balusters, doors of various panel types, windows, shutters, beaded boards, and shingles in a range of shapes. All these are visible nearby on houses built between 1890 and 1920.

A few model house designs repeat with variations. Here also are turrets, bay windows, and gingerbread, or machine-tooled wooden decoration, all in vogue at the turn of the twentieth century. Red brick and stucco alternate with clapboard wood siding, with roofs of slate and metal on the better houses. Close spacing contributes to a neighborly feeling, along with modest size, ubiquitous front porches, and the lack of garages facing the street. These are tucked away on the alleys or around a corner. Some have been converted to secondary dwellings, workshops and artist studios.

A white-bearded character lived in one of these alley garages, like a hermit in the garden. A retired carpenter and food co-op manager, Robert Brandon Smith III described himself as a political activist. He ran for seats on the city council and state legislature as a Green Party candidate. He rode a bicycle through Belmont, buttonholed people on Main Street, and offered his opinion on any topic.

Including a subdivision called Carlton to the northeast, the city government now defines Belmont as 403 acres, with a population of 4,000. Its borders are the railroad on the north, Moore’s Creek on the east and south, and Sixth Street on the west. Belmont is mixed as to income and race, renters and owners, single and multifamily housing. A public elementary school is sited in the middle. There are six churches, several corner groceries, hair salons, gas stations, car repair, and other small businesses. Bus lines run through Belmont, and a bridge carries Avon Street over the railroad to connect to the center.

Belmont and places like it are models for the New Urbanism movement, which began in the 1970s at Yale and Cornell Universities. A list of bullet points for a New Urbanist plan includes walkability, mixed use, mixed housing types, density, public transportation, and connectivity, which means a rational street plan with multiple traffic routes. Cul-de-sacs, a favorite planning idea of the 1960s, are forbidden.

Sustainability is on the New Urbanist list, too. A bit harder to define, sustainability includes rainwater collection, energy conservation, solar devices, local sourcing of food and materials, and less dependence on automobiles, with their thirst for petroleum. In my walks through Belmont, I see hybrid and electric cars, rain barrels, solar electric panels, greenhouses, fruit trees and edible gardens. Neighbors walk with and without their dogs.

Belmont Downtown, a village center, clusters at the broad intersection of Monticello Road and Hinton Avenue. Here are five restaurants, some law and design offices, an exercise studio, a tire company, a grocery, and a mechanical contractor. Two blocks away, Spudnuts may look like a well-worn shoe, but the fresh donuts smell heavenly. The recipe uses potato flour, hence the name. People come from all over the city, and they leave with boxes of a dozen. Family-owned and run, the shop has the original street sign and interior from 1969.

An objection to any grid street pattern is that it ignores topography, making some streets unduly steep, and wasting potentially dramatic sites such as hilltops and riverbanks. In fact, many of the rights-of-way in Belmont were never fully graded and paved. Meridian and Castalia Streets exist only as fragments, whereas the map shows them running all the way through the tract from north to south. A stream wiggles diagonally through the grid, ignored both in plan and in practice. And the grid was drawn to the bank of Moores Creek, creating avenues and lots which were never platted.

On the other hand, hills and valleys animate the grid, and trees and gardens soften it. Parts of Belmont look downright picturesque. Topography figures in three features: the site of Belmont Mansion, the site of a small public park, and the irregular course of Monticello Avenue. The mansion, as noted, stands on the highest ground. Soon after 1891, it lost most of its yard to more house lots, but a few majestic oak trees recall the original landscape.

Belmont Park occupies the next highest ground, the southern tip of a low ridge. At first, this area was called “The Grove,” and the developers briefly ran a streetcar line to it, drawn by horses from the center of town. They built a Pavilion for the entertainment of country-goers, perhaps reflected in the recreation building that stands today in the northwest corner. Several large oak trees are probably survivors from the nineteenth-century grove.

The idea of incorporating a park in the plan may derive from the residential squares in the West End of London, or from examples in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, and other American cities. In Belmont, development around the park was limited to small, detached one- and two-story houses. There was no need for the higher density of townhouses. The park has swings, playground equipment, a basketball court, concrete walks, grassy areas for children to run and play, and newly planted trees, including flowering dogwood, redbud, magnolia and cherry. Residents use the park all day, every day.

Monticello Avenue looks like a traffic artery that was later cut through the grid. But it appears on the 1891 map as it exists today, making two wide bends and running southeast atop a ridge. It more or less parallels Monticello Road, the original route, which crossed Moores Creek by a bridge that has since vanished, from town to Jefferson’s mansion. Probably, the developer felt that a boulevard would tie the tract together. The existing routes of Monticello Road and Old Scottsville Road, now Sixth Street, lay on the edges of the tract, so they could not provide the desired focus. Improving them would also have required the cooperation of adjacent property owners. As a solution to an urban design problem, however, Monticello Avenue lacks verve. It is not wide enough to be gracious, it provides no vista, it does not relate to the park, and it creates awkward street intersections. Today, as part of Virginia Route 20, it is in fact a traffic artery.

East-west thoroughfares are called Avenue, and north-south ones are called Street, though all are about the same width. The colorful names remain in use, with exceptions. They imply that the developer was fond of Shakespeare and traveled to England. Belmont is the name of Portia’s estate in The Merchant of Venice, an association which suggests Rialto. Avon recalls the bard’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. From there, it is a short leap to Salisbury Plain and the neolithic monument of Stonehenge, which brings in a Druid. Blenheim is the Duke of Marlborough’s palace near Oxford, while Castalia may indicate poetic inspiration. By prosaic contrast, Levy and Bolling commemorate two of the investors.

Except for Monticello Avenue and Avon Street, the streets of Belmont are quiet, with no through traffic. The neighborhood appeals to families with young children, while retired residents age in place. The old houses are affordable, though small and in need of updating. Many sprout additions in back or on top. New houses pop up here and there, on a rare vacant lot or to replace one torn down. These are larger, more expensive, and often in a modern style that contrasts. If diversity is the goal—architectural and social—Belmont shows how diversity looks on the ground.

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