Friday, October 11, 2013

Sepia Saturday: The House That Violetta Built

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.




This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt of a ship under construction has given me an opportunity to display some of the photos that had been stuffed into an envelope and forgotten for many years.  They are of my grandaunt Violetta Davis Ryan’s apartment building under construction. 

She was just a fairly young woman in the early 1930s when she broke ground at 473 South Mason Street in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Her goal was financial independence.

Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s
Breaking ground at 473 South Mason Street

Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s
Supplies delivered to the back yard

Her plan was to build an apartment building with two floors and a basement, with two units on each floor. 






















Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s

Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s

Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s












Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s
Violetta was there to supervise - no surprise there!

She would occupy the left apartment on the first floor and rent the others. 


Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s

Construction at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA early 1930s
Look at that scaffolding!


Completed house 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA - front
Violetta's apartment was #1.  In the 1970s, she created a hall
through back-to-back closets and made #1 and #2
one big apartment.

By 1940, the house had been fully rented for at least 5 years, according to the census of that year.  Violetta and her husband Dick Ryan along with her mother Mary Frances Jollett Davis shared the one apartment.  Other renters included college professor Clyde Shorts and his wife and daughter, teacher Mona Lyon (who remained Violetta’s lifelong friend), factory owner Michael Mintzer and his wife and daughter, and telephone company engineer Henry Newman and his bride and baby.


Completed house 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA - back

In no time Violetta must have realized she had attic space that could be put to better use.  A renovation to the top floor brought her total to 7 apartments.

And what a lovely building she created too.  The fine details reflected in part the style of the day but also they were the result of Violetta’s desire for “nice things,” things like wood floors, beautiful wood moldings, brass doorknobs, brass chandeliers, fireplaces for each renter as well as one in the backyard.

Apt 6 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA  1973
Apt #6 - Note the beautiful woodwork,
fireplace, built-in bookshelves,
and just a snip of that brass chandelier.
Fireplace in the backyard of 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA
Violetta said that residents often held parties
together in the backyard.


Storage in even the basement apartments was generous with several deep closets, a kitchen pantry, and built-in bookshelves.  The four main apartments all enjoyed a beautiful porch facing South Mason.














While these photos would be considered just old photos to others, they are most fascinating to me because of the history.  The house at 473 South Mason was more than the Mecca of my youth when family vacations always included visits with Violetta.  It was home to many in my family at one time or another.

Violetta’s sister Velma lived for awhile in Apartment #6 in the basement, the same one I lived in as a bride.  Across the hall in #5 lived my cousin Glenn and his bride Rita.  Several years later my sister lived in #5 while in college.  The attic apartment (#7) was the newlywed nest for my cousin Barbara (Glenn’s sister) until the baby came along signaling they had outgrown the place. 


We youngins came and went but some of the residents were there a long time.  In fact, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t there.  Apartment #3 was home to Mrs. Ruth Cooper and #4 to Miss Rosalind Trent and her brother.

Ruth Cooper 1952
from 1952 yearbook
Madison College
Miss Rosalind Trent 1952
from 1952 yearbook
Madison College
Mrs. Cooper and Miss Trent were colleagues of Violetta’s at Madison College.  Mrs. Cooper was the sweetest little lady.  We always drove her to Richmond at Christmas so she could be with her family.  Miss Trent must have been the youngest of the three as she was still teaching English at the college even though Mrs. Cooper and Violetta had retired.  I took at least three English courses from Miss Trent, two during the same semester.  She even let me submit the same essay for both classes. 




Whenever I’m in Harrisonburg, I avoid driving down South Mason because my cousin assures me the house is just not the same, it's sad to say.  Like an old ship decommissioned and slated for scrap, 473 South Mason has lost her stature as a grand and desirable place to live.  I prefer to remember this house when it was one of the jewels of the neighborhood. 


Please visit my neighbors at Sepia Saturday to see what they’ve constructed this week. 


37 comments:

  1. A lovely story about a new house and its history. Violetta was a woman of vision. It is sad to learn that the house is in disrepair. Is it still owned by someone in the family?

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    1. No, it's not owned by a family member. And I'm not sure the house is in "disrepair" as much as just minimally cared for. The renters are college kids who can be rough on a house. Chairs get left out all over the place following parties -- you get the idea.

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  2. That's too bad. It's a beautiful building. I would like to have a family apartment like that.

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    1. It is indeed a beautiful building and great place to have lived.

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  3. What a lovely building and how lovely to have had long term tenants and such great family connections.

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    1. It does say a lot that people chose to live there for a long time.

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  4. What a beautiful house! It's difficult to see a family home fall out of the regard of new owners.

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    1. I agree that it's sad that a new owner sees the income potential but has no emotional tie.

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  5. Well done to Violetta for making her mark with such a fine building, so carefully thought out. I bet the tenants just loved living there.

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    1. It always seemed like a congenial group of renters, for sure. I don't ever recall Violetta having problem tenants.

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  6. It is (was) a beautiful building. I wonder who her architect was, or who designed the apartment building and the homes inside. No doubt she had a lot of input into the arrangement of the rooms, sizes, etc. The apartments must have been quite large, at least they look so from the photographs. It's sad the building is in a poor state these days.

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    1. I don't know about the architect, but I see Conrad and Son as builders. I tried to find information about them but was unsuccessful. They are roomy and comfortable apartments. Apt 6 is one-bedroom. Apt 5 has a Murphy bed. Lots of options.

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  7. This is one of the best house tales I've read, Wendy. Houses deserve genealogy study as much as people. As homes they sheltered generations of families and tenants, posed as background to hundreds of photos, and served as the giant shoebox for everyone's stuff. Family bibles might have all the names and birthdates, but houses know all the stories.

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    1. Whenever I am in an older home, I have similar thoughts about previous owners. I wonder about children who ran through the halls, about parties on the lawn, things like that. The house is still there but its owners just pass through leaving their mark in various ways.

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  8. What a great story behind that building and all its past tenants that you knew! Very interesting, thank you for sharing it with us.

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  9. What a fun place to live! Lots of fun stories with the renters. Violetta's apartment building was so neat with the fire places, built in book shelves. My apt. had a bed that came out of the closet and I had the sweetest little kitchen.

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    1. I can still hear the creak of the wooden stairs. And remember Violetta's pink bathroom. I bet a pink tub, pink sink, and pink toilet cost a pretty penny back in the day!

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  10. A woman of strength and business skill. I love it when people have a 'desire for 'nice things.''
    Hazel

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  11. That's the type of apartment I would like. It would be nice if someone in your family could buy it now and fix it up.

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    1. That would indeed be a wonderful thing to be able to keep it in the family. But I don't see any takers.

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  12. What an enterprising person she was. I love the approach - giving us the history of a building : a sepia apartment I suppose.

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    1. Having lived there, I have enjoyed looking at the building from the ground up and behind those walls before there were walls.

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  13. I wonder how many of us could write so much about a house we once lived in - with or without family connections. A most interesting post.

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  14. Oh there is so much in this post that I love. I love your Aunt's vision. It's so important to tell stories like this. I like how you've numbered the apartments in the photo so we can get an idea of what it was like. How thoughtful to have built-in bookcases. It looks like a fantastic place. Mike I like your idea of a house as a giant shoe box !

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    1. Most "modern" apartments I've been in are nothing but a collection of boxes with windows, no personality. These apartments have real character.

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  15. What a strong lady she must have been, to have a vision and see it through - and in the 1930s!
    We visited my husband's grandparents house when we were in Holland last year and it was a dump - verging on a trash and treasure shop but without much treasure sadly.

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    1. It's hard to look at a neglected building that contrasts so much with happy memories.

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  16. A visionary, that's for sure!

    My parents' house was built in 1957 and had a pink toilet, bathtub, and sink in a pink bathroom with pink cabinets and pink/gray tile. I remember it fondly because, uh, it looks exactly the same way today. LOL!

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    1. I bet that bathroom still looks good! Maybe not "HGTV-worthy" but worthy!

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  17. I just had a look at Google streetview and it looks OK to me, but then you're more familiar with it and would notice differences. Good story, nicely written.

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    1. Yes, I looked too, and was surprised that it looked better than I had thought it would based on my cousin's report. That big mailbox is an eyesore, but I'm sure the old ones nestled in the wall inside are too small by today's mail standards. I think this must have been a good day before party revelers left everything out. And the bushes look rather sraggly.

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  18. I really enjoyed this post...great pictures of a house, and I'm amazed they are just of a house, er apartment. Someone (you?) must have thought highly enough of it to memorialize it on film. Thanks. Of course having it belong to your family, having lived there, it made a great story!

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  19. The attic apartment would be my personal pick.
    I love the details she brought to this place.
    But I would personally pass on the pink everything...
    Not in my color palette, I'm sure!!!
    I never got to see my grandparents' house once it was sold in the 1960s to another family,
    but my mom visited them and said they did good on the place.
    Maybe this house here will finally fall into good hands, one day, before it's too late.
    :)~
    HUGZ

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  20. An impressive building (it looks larger on the photos than in google streetview). I guess students are living there now, which indeed doesn't improve the quality. The house itself looks like an old colonial building, Violetta had a good architectural taste. If somebody would chop down the tree left of center, and the mailbox, and hire a skillful gardener, it would look tiptop again (at least from the outside).

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