2008-05-07 / Family

A history of Bon Air

Weekend parade and festival celebrate dual anniversaries
By Diane Dallmeyer

Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer
The Bon Air community is known for its charming two-story Victorian homes.
Today, if one were to go to the intersection of Buford and Rockaway roads in northwestern Chesterfield, he would be at the center of what was in the late 1870s a wonderful Victorian resort village. The city of Richmond was thriving at the turn of the 20th century, and suburbs began to develop in areas like Bon Air, Chester and Midlothian. Bon Air, with its quaint, Victorian nature, is a favorite of many metropolitan-area residents today, as it nears the annual celebration of its birthday this summer. This village retains some of the aura of those days, with shops that fill specialty niches and a definite attitude among residents that they are living in an area rich with local color and history.

In the mid-1800s, summer resorts were popular among people with disposable means. The tidewater regions had threats of malaria and heat and humidity, and residents escaped to places like White Sulphur Springs. In the early 1870s, a group of businessmen thought it would be a good idea to build a resort closer to Richmond. Along the line of the Richmond and Danville Railroad was a spot with higher elevation, featuring woodland and farms, called Brown's Summit. The Bon Air Land and Improvement Company of Virginia, comprised of these businessmen, was formed in 1877. Their goal was to create a resort village with improved land, streets, roads and lanes. The opportunity to make money on transporting vacationers was not lost on officers of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, and they agreed to build a depot in the resort area, as well as to give owners reduced shipping rates for building supplies and commuter fares.

Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer
Historical signage is common in Bon Air.
The Bon Air Hotel was the first building erected in 1880. It was a large, three-story, wood-frame building with public rooms and 36 guest rooms, verandas, grounds landscaped with riding trails, croquet and lawn tennis courts, archery ranges, baseball fields and even a field for jousting! A bowling alley and billiard room was in a separate building erected soon after, just for the men. The public immediately became interested in this luxurious accommodation with its proposed village surrounding, and 178 lots were sold or leased very quickly.

The first seasons were such a success that the Bon Air Hotel added a 20-room annex in 1881 and a church (Bon Air Christian Church) the year after. Five years later, "The Steps" were erected, an elaborate wooden staircase with multiple platforms built into the hillside beside the railroad tracks. Trains made the trek between Richmond five times daily, and excursion runs once each weeknight. The cars could be rented for private parties, and church and civic groups would bring their members out for picnics and day-parties. Some families rented suites at the hotel for the entire summer while others built summer "cottages" along the well-laid-out streets of Bon Air.

The Bon Air Hotel burned to the ground in 1889, and the nature of the village changed. The hotel's poor insurance coverage precluded rebuilding, and the resort immediately suffered. A smaller inn was built, but without the rooms, and the social amenities of the old resort, and the village evolved into a commuter village. This change was facilitated by the improvement in sanitary conditions in the city and the successful streetcar system opening in Richmond in 1888, which extended out to Bon Air.

The census of 1896 listed 30 households, and Bon Air remained a close-knit village community, populated by railroad executives, war veterans and business executives. One well-known resident was George S. Cook, one of America's most popular photographers, and it is due to his resources that we have a very complete visual record of life in Bon Air before the turn of the century.

The year 1917 brought the end of the resort era with the closing of the Bon Air Inn and the cessation of rail service, but Bon Air saw other kinds of growth. After World War II, subdivisions and shopping centers sprouted up in the area, and it is now part of the larger Richmond/Chesterfield metropolitan region. Efforts by the Bon Air Historical Society and others dedicated to preserving the community's unique past and individuality have established the annual Bon Air Victorian Day celebration, a charitable fundraising event popular throughout the area, which will be held this year on May 10 (see box for details).

Len Tuck, president of the Bon Air Historical Society, agrees that it would be great to travel back in time to see what resort life was like for wealthy residents in the 19th century, and his society is excited by its recently-found maps of the village from 1921, showing its large lots, grand houses and multiple outbuildings. The annual Victorian Day event is the society's yearly effort to present a snapshot of that time and culture.

Bon Air Victorian Day Parade and Festival

Sat., May 10 Parade starts at 11 a.m. from Bon Air Baptist Church, 2531 Buford Rd. Festival begins at noon, Bon Air Christian Church, 2071 Buford Rd.

Join the Bon Air Historical Society in celebrating its 30th anniversary, in conjunction with the Bon Air Volunteer Fire Department celebrating its 60th anniversary. The parade will feature many vintage fire vehicles. Richard McKann, host of WRVA's home improvement program, is the parade grand marshal. The festival features food, vendors and family entertainment. For more information, call Len or Robin Tuck at 560-3551.


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