Church Hill – Richmond’s Crown Jewel
Richmond, Virginia is a city with history dripping from the walls. Nearly every side street, back alley and renovated apartment is saturated with the lives and stories of a city that has seen a remarkable, and sometimes tragic, existence. In no place is this truer than the deeply storied neighborhood known as Church Hill. This area encompasses the neighborhoods just past downtown and the infamous Shockoe Bottom, and includes some of the most memorable locations in American history.
Perhaps Church Hills most notable site is St. Johns Episcopal Church, made famous by Patrick Henry. On March 23, 1775, the revolutionary delivered the unforgettable, Give me liberty, or give me death speech in a daring push to have Virginia troops committed to the Revolutionary War. The church still stands in monument to the actions of those dedicated to the freedom of the American nation. As with most Southern cities, war touched almost everything. The site of the largest Civil War hospital in the United States can be found in the area now known as Chimborazo Park, in the heart of Church Hill.
No historic area is without its share of tragedy. After the Civil War ended, the city of Richmond sought to rebuild and help heal the wounds of a devastated populace. The Reconstruction brought new industry to the area, including the construction of a railroad tunnel slated to run under Church Hill. This construction, known as the Church Hill Tunnels, was sadly, never to see fruition. A tunnel collapse during renovations in 1924 left workers trapped underground, buried under the rubble. The bodies were never recovered. Further destruction took place when Hurricane Gaston battered the area, resulting in a massive sinkhole when another portion of the ill-fated tunnel collapsed.
It cannot be said, however, that every bit of Church Hill trivia is related to war or disaster. Located in the Hill is the Wills Store, Richmonds oldest commercial building. Most of the architecture in the area dates back to the Reconstruction, and although portions of the area have been subject to neglect and misuse, a powerful movement for the preservation of the historic structures has helped to vastly improve the quality of the old buildings. The dedication of Historic Richmond has seen a burst of renovation is the once rapidly declining neighborhood. Everywhere can be seen the signs of revitalization and a return of community pride.
In a city with a its roots buried deep in American history, Church Hill offers a great deal to those that take the time to explore it. The revitalization of the neighborhood is bringing back to life an area that many once thought a lost cause. Walking the streets of this notable (and sometimes, notorious) district can serve as a reminder that dark times of war and depression, tragedy and healing will leave an indelible mark on those that survive them. No trip to Richmond would be complete without a visit to view the steps of St. Johns Church, to be made mindful of the past, in the hopes that we might build a better future.