Architect: Wilfred Emory Cutshaw
Address: 122 West Leigh Street
The Leigh Street Armory (or the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory as it was known upon its completion) was built in 1895 as the home for the African American Military Battalion of Richmond. The building was designed by Wilfred Emory Cutshaw who used the turrets and crenelation typical of a medieval fortress to evoke the building’s purpose. Cutshaw was Richmond city’s chief engineer and architect at the time and was responsible for such important projects as the current layout of Monroe Park and the pump house in Byrd Park. The building is among the most monumental remaining in Jackson Ward after the construction of I-95 ravaged the neighborhood in the 1950s. It stands as the oldest surviving Armory in the state of Virginia and possibly the oldest African American Armory in the nation.
The armory served as a major center for African American culture in Jackson Ward. In his insightful guide to African American Architectural history in Richmond, Selden Richardson explains that the armory hosted events such as “balls, displays, banquets, and fairs” and was “a major achievement for blacks in Richmond.” Clearly, the building functioned as a social hub and an icon of equality and progress for the city’s African American population.
The African American battalion was established in 1876 but had no permanent home until the completion of this building which put the organization of par architecturally with the four white battalions in Richmond. While the armory was largely funded by the city government, this funding was secured through the influence of prominent black businessmen such as John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the Richmond Planet. Armstead Walker (husband of noted African American bank president Maggie L. Walker) was hired as contractor for the project.
In 1899, during the wake of the Spanish American War, the city of Richmond had the armory converted into a school. Monroe Elementary operated from this building for a 40 year period which was followed by several decades of annex classroom space for other area schools. The armory has been in total disuse since that time. The building received federal grant money in 2002 to stabilize the building’s structure and exterior under the Save America’s Treasures program.
In December 2011, a $600,000 grant from the state of Virginia was given to the city of Richmond to revitalize the Leigh Street Armory. When complete, the building will serve as the new home for The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, currently located on 3 East Clay Street. The Leigh Street Armory will once again play a vital role in the rebirth and life of Jackson Ward