A Rich History
The history of the LGRA is closely tied with the history of Ginter Park itself. Our building has been a school, a community center, a church, even the home of a professional basketball league
Lewis Ginter, a Richmond businessman and philanthropist, was born in 1842 in New York, New York. Mr. Ginter formed the Sherwood Land Company to develop residential neighborhoods north of Richmond, Virginia. His idea was to plan spacious residential communities incorporating schools, churches and community centers. The first of Ginter’s efforts, his namesake, was Ginter Park. Lewis Ginter died in 1897 and is buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.
In 1906, the Lewis Ginter Community Building was built at the southeast corner of Hawthorne Avenue and Walton Avenue, by Ginter’s niece, Grace Evelyn Arents. In 1980 the name was changed to Lewis Ginter Recreation Association Inc. The building was first used as a Schoolhouse and Town Hall, including the municipal offices for the Ginter Community.
In 1914 Richmond annexed Ginter Park into the city. In preparation for its incorporation the new Ginter Park School on Chamberlayne Avenue was built. After the city annexed Ginter Park the “old schoolhouse” became the community center. The mover behind the center was Grace Arents. In her travels West, Miss Arents saw community centers which offered recreational facilities for every age. She and her sisters, Mrs. Young and Miss Joanna Arents, provided funds in 1921 to remodel the building and add a gymnasium and install a lending library.
They presented the building to the Ginter Park residents as a memorial to their uncle. Her only stipulation was the residents agree to support the center by membership dues. Following the annexation, the “old schoolhouse” was then used by various Ginter Park organizations for meetings and social gatherings, including Ginter Park Woman’s Club, Lewis Ginter Masonic Lodge, the Mother’s Club, Junior Woman’s Club, Ginter Park Garden Club, Schools of Dancing (Ella Binford & Julia Harper) Dance Revues, Ginter Park Cotillion, Ginter Park Newspaper Carrier Boys and Ginter Park Parent-Teacher Association, just to name a few. Also Ginter Park Baptist and Saint Thomas Episcopal Churches had their beginnings in the community building, as did American Legion Number 38.
In the first years the membership was not large enough to support the center. In desperation, Charles Taylor asked over a hundred residents to underwrite the building for three years. Again Grace Arents came to the rescue. She contributed $100,000 to finance an outdoor swimming pool and other improvements. The popularity of the pool was immediate and membership more than doubled. The underwriters were paid back. Every summer residents have walked, biked or come by car to use the pool and cheer the championship swimming teams.
In the 1920’s, The Ginter Park Citizen, a weekly paper for the Community Building, was published and made available thru the Building and its Board of Directors then chaired by Frederic Jones. Throughout the ensuing decades the neighborhood has been known for its family oriented opportunities. In that spirit, the Lewis Ginter Community also hosted daily after school programs and dance cotillions on Fridays. Classes in reading/writing and art were routinely offered to the membership.
Unfortunately, the decades of heavy usage began to erode the association’s structural beauty and utilization of the building began to decline.
By the late 1970’s the community house stood largely unused and neglected. The maintenance requirements were draining the finances of the Association and the building seemed destined for demolition. Some of the members felt they should cut their losses and focus only on running the pool. According to the late Bill Thorn, a longtime neighborhood resident and professor of history at the University of Richmond, there was a move within the association to tear down the building. At that time Mr. Thorn organized a group of volunteers and began cleaning up the neglected structure. They scrubbed decades of grime from the hardwood floors, touched up chipped paints and cleaned out the cluttered rooms. The Association earmarked funds to repair the roof and replace windows broken by vandals. The plan at that time was to pay for some of the buildings annual upkeep costs by renting the facility out for various non-profit civic and cultural activities. Among the first tenants were the Concert Ballet of Virginia, which used the auditorium for rehearsals, and the Northside Cooperative, which used the kitchen to store and distribute food to its members.
Since that time the LGRA building has come a long way. The structure is now in the best condition it has been in many years. The facility is almost continually rented for activities of all types. Classes are offered in Aerobics, Yoga and Aikido. LGRA is also the home of The Traditional American Dance and Music Society which holds dances on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month in the auditorium. Orchard House, an all-girls middle school was founded at LGRA. Seven Hills School, an all-boys middle school, was also founded at LGRA. Both of these organizations have since moved to permanent locations.
LGRA owes a debt of gratitude to Bill Thorn for his preference and vision. He took a dilapidated structure destined for demolition and started it down the road to becoming the viable neighborhood asset it was when it was first constructed.
Special thanks to:
Anne Thorne and Lewis Ginter’s RICHMOND by Wayland W. Rennie and David D Ryan.
Some of this information was taken from a story appearing the Sunday, November 5, 1978 issue of the Richmond Times Dispatch.