Richmond’s iconic Pump House once hosted galas, weddings, and community events in addition to being the city’s main water source. Friends of Pump House is working to restore the building to its former glory.
There is never a shortage of public renovation projects in the city of Richmond, but few have lasted as long as the project to repair the James River Pump House, often called the “Castle on the James.” The Gothic-style building has had a long journey in its 140 year lifespan, but has since fallen into disrepair. Currently, only two organizations — Friends of Pump House and the nonprofit Enrichmond Foundation — are pushing for the restoration of this historical site.
The House dates back to 1882 when it functioned as the primary source for the city’s water supply. On the top floor, however, it doubled as a dance hall for the residents of Richmond. Gala events and parties were held there regularly, and it became a central space for the area’s nightlife.
“It was an open-air ballroom,” said Friends of Pump House President Cassi Patterson. “You could see the trees. The breeze comes in, and that’s where people held social events like weddings and community gatherings.”
At first, this area was only used by the city’s upper-class population. It eventually grew to be a popular space for Richmond’s middle and lower classes as well; that is, until 1924, when according to the Richmond Times Dispatch, the popularity of Pump House began to decline with its wealthier patrons. Around the same time, much of its machinery was scrapped for the American war effort. Pump House was shut down, and eventually sold to the First Presbytarian Church.
Once it fell out of use, Pump House sat virtually abandoned, wearing away and passing between various owners until it once again landed in the city’s hands in the 1980s. After that, various projects to restore the historical site did their best to maintain and repair the location, though with limited resources and funding. Right now, those efforts are spearheaded by Friends of Pump House and Enrichmond.
According to Patterson, Friends of Pump House was formed in 2017 by Joe Costello, a master’s student in VCU’s Urban Regional Planning Program. Part of Costello’s final thesis included a plan to “revitalize the Pump House,” and included the formation of this organization. To accomplish their goal, FoPH needs to perform plenty of renovations.
“Right now, we’re working on projects to make it safe to open to the public,” said Patterson. “There are a lot of things we need to do to make it safe for the general public.”
The list includes adding bathrooms, elevators, and accessibility options for the disabled, in addition to fixing general repairs like structural weaknesses. The end goal is to not only make the space available to the public, but to also establish a museum on the bottom floor while restoring the event space to its former glory.
In efforts to raise money and spread awareness, Friends of Pump House holds private tours of the building as an exception to the usual “no public allowed” rule. They also hold events and accept donations on their website.
The cost for all of these renovations lies somewhere in the millions, according to Patterson, meaning the organization is a long way from raising the money needed to fully restore Pump House. The restoration of this historical site is perhaps one of the least-contentious government projects in the area. After all, the profits generated by the newly-restored Pump House are planned to go back to the James River Parks System, further improving Richmond’s outdoor public spaces.