Saturday, May 30, 2020

Sepia Saturday: Landlady

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

This week’s Sepia Saturday photo of a man digging a hole brought to mind photos I have shared before of the construction of an apartment building. With inheritance from her father and probably a bank loan, my grandaunt Violetta Davis set her sights on financial independence by building a home that would generate rental income too.
Construction of Violetta Davis Ryan's apartment building 1935
Jacob Conrad's crew preparing to lay the foundation
at 473 South Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA

It was 1935. Violetta was a school teacher and principal. She hired J. W. Conrad & Son Contractors and Builders for the job. The plans called for 5 apartments. She would live in one and rent the others. Her early renters included faculty at Harrisonburg Teachers College (now James Madison University – GO DUKES!) where she was also on the staff as supervisor of student teachers.
Framing the basement
Framing the basement
Violetta supervising the construction of her home
Violetta supervising the construction of her home.
I wonder if that is Jacob Conrad on the 2nd floor in dress shirt and hat
or the man Violetta is talking to.
Violetta's home 473 South Mason St Harrisonburg, VA
The finished product. The center door opens to a common hall
and stairs with doors to the apartments on the left and right.
Decorative iron grates below the first floor windows hide the fact
that there are basement windows too. 
Back view of the apartment building
The back of the building soon after completion
In 1936, Violetta married Virgil “Dick” Ryan. He was a business man, an entrepreneur, who owned a news stand and bowling alley. Newspaper articles indicate he had a good eye for opportunity. Whether it was HIS idea or Violetta’s to add on to the apartment building in 1937 is anyone’s guess. In several news articles about the building boom in Harrisonburg, the Ryans were named among owners and contractors who were building or remodeling.
Report of permit to remodel Daily News Record 25 Mar 1937
Apparently the Ryans spent $20,000 to add an apartment
to the 473 South Mason Street building
from the Harrisonburg Daily News Record 25 Mar 1937

Evidently this is when Violetta’s apartment building went from 5 apartments to 6 when the attic was converted into a one-bedroom apartment.
Back view with attic apartment after renovation 1937
The attic apartment 
While Violetta was the OWNER of the apartment building, Dick seemed to be the manager, if the rental ads are any indication.
from Harrisonburg Daily News Record 22 Jun 1940
from Harrisonburg Daily News Record 31 Jul 1940
Dick died young in 1941 and Violetta remained on her own the rest of her life. Whatever she learned about business from her husband she put to good use. In 1950, she purchased another apartment building just down the street. She always referred to it as “the Hartman house.” I never understood the significance of that name until a search in NewspaperArchive turned up an obituary for Roy S. Hartman. It turns out Roy’s wife was Dick Ryan’s sister. That means Roy was Violetta’s brother-in-law.

In 1940, Roy and his wife Edna lived in this apartment building. Google images show it is now a typical college apartment building looking rather worn. However, it used to look much neater. 
"Hartman House" from Google Maps
The summer before my senior year in college, Violetta offered me the attic apartment. It was CUTE. Those windows facing the street were in the living room OR possibly a bedroom, depending on how a renter would use the big open area just inside the entrance to that apartment. The renters at the time placed their beds in what more logically seemed like a kitchen-living room combo. Anyway, it was a cute apartment but I opted for the convenience of campus life.

Between Violetta and the Hartmans lived Edgar Sipe and family. According to the 1930 and 1940 censuses, their home was a single-family home, but I remember it as two apartments because Barry and I lived upstairs from 1975-1976. It was also one of Violetta’s properties but I have been unable to determine when she purchased it. Mr. Sipe died in 1943, so sometime after that, for sure.
"Sipe House" from Google Maps
We entered through the door on the left which opened to a landing
where we hung our coats before going up the stairs.
This apartment was HUGE. I wish I had pictures. While the 2 bedrooms were large with good closets, and the living room boasted those beautiful windows, and the eat-in kitchen had a real pantry, it was the bathroom I remember best. It had BLACK tile around the tub, black and white mosaic floor tiles, and the original pedestal sink. It was so pretty, but honestly, I never wanted black tile after a year of cleaning that bathroom. It really showed lint and dust.

Apartments were not the only properties Violetta invested in. She also owned a building that she referred to as “the store building,” whatever that meant. For a time, she rented it to John Edge for his piano and guitar business.

from the Harrisonburg Daily News Record
6 Jun 1959
Violetta was very much a woman with a head for business. And it all started with digging a hole.

Make your way to Sepia Saturday to see what others have dug up for this week.

© 2020, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Violetta was certainly a canny business woman. All her buildings are so attractive - I love the styles of brick with white trim! Had to laugh at your comment about black tile. My kitchen counters are black granite and I hate it for the same reason - it shows EVERYTHING and it takes no time at all for the dust and crumbs and etc. to show up again right after I've cleaned with tile cleaner and polish. I feel like roping off the kitchen to everyone for the rest of the day! (sigh)

  2. Good for her to have the business sense to invest in real estate for the income stream. Very wise to do so! I can't imagine black tile around the tub. I wonder if that was fashionable at the time.


  3. Sounds like she planned well for her future. A very nice looking apartment building.

  4. She sounds like a woman before her time. Educated and independent. I like her already.

  5. I agree with Sandra, Violeta was a woman ahead of her time, I love that style of American houses with the veranda and balcony. A great post for week’s theme.

  6. Incredible that you have the photos documenting construction. Violetta was clearly a very bright businesswoman.

  7. I agree with the others, Violeta was impressively ambitious and ahead of her time. I continue to be amazed at your collection of photos.

  8. She was very proactive about her future. Love all the photos and your stories about it.

  9. What an interesting post! Glad the building is still standing.

  10. Great to see and hear about your Aunt's property ventures. A most enjoyable posting.

  11. It was this post that persuaded me to post for Sepia Saturday this week. I have nothing so impressive as Violetta's buildings. I am pretty sure I would have moved into that attic apartment as a senior in college! But then I was living at home and not on campus.

  12. A woman in 1935 (and single at that time) to be that outwardly enterprising is quite a story! Someone to be very proud of.