Historic Structures

Building Description Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia

Mathew Brady documented the Civil War's calamitous effect on Richmond in a series of panoramic photographs taken immediately after the hostilities ended in 1865. Several of his photographs included the James River's southern bank and the Manchester commons, where cotton and flour mills operated. These pictures suggest that the original portion of the mill remains largely intact and in its original condition. These views show that the cotton mill's building retains its original fenestration and overall appearance. One reason for the building's architectural integrity was the cotton mill's modest financial success, which did not allow the company owners to alter the main structures or to expand into other areas along the Manchester canal.

The Manchester Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company building included two major sections, Mill #1 and Mill #2. Mill #1 is a rectangular, four story brick building, eleven bays long and three bays wide, with load-bearing brick walls of common American bond and a rock-faced, coursed ashlar foundation. It measures about 50* wide and 100' long. Three-step parapet walls extended over either gable, with two slightly elevated square points (possibly chimneys), protruding from the middle step, centered over the roof. On either side of a centered, semi-circular arched window with a semi-circular brick arch above, are two quarter-round windows, each with a quarter-round brick arch above. Like many nineteenth century cotton mills, its pitched gable roof originally included a clerestory and a cupola over a stairtower on the south elevation.

Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia

Mill #2, built after Mill #1 (probably in the early 1840s), consisted of two rectangular brick sections; one three bay by six bay structure perpendicular to the river and joined at its southeast corner to a second section that paralleled the river. Both had three-step parapet roofs, and rock-faced coursed ashlar foundations. In the Brady photograph, the L-shaped Mill #2 appeared to be a three-story version of Mill #1 without a clerestory roof monitor window. A frame bridge with at least three windows connected the two mill buildings.

Beside the two main mill buildings, several smaller structures erected on the site during the nineteenth century included a building for the "picker room," first mentioned in 1871. This structure still stands today although in poor condition. By the 1880s, additional buildings on the site included a brick boiler room and a small frame office.

Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia SOUTH AND EAST ELEVATIONS OF PICKING ROOM

The cotton mill owners replaced Mill #2 with a new building sometime between 1886 and 1895. This three-story structure, destroyed by fire in 1984, was five bays wide on its east elevation, eight bays wide on its west elevation, and sixteen bays across its northern facade on the second and third floors; the first floor had only six bays. By the mid-1890s all but the two eastern first floor windows were infilled with brick. All windows were twelve over twelve sash with a three course brick arch and a concrete sill.

Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia SOUTH ELEVATION, WESTERN ADDITION AND PICKING ROOM

This new structure conformed to the boundaries of the older Mill #2 and enlarged these boundaries on the north elevation. The new structure stands on top of the old mill's foundation. Currently, the foundation windows are visible exactly as they appeared in the Matthew Brady photograph. Also, a photograph taken during the 1890s clearly showed the two different sections of Mill #2's foundation.

The prominent cupola atop a stair tower and a clerestory monitor window distinguished cotton mill structures in America during the early and mid-nineteenth century. The ringing bell awakened laborers each morning, sent them off for lunch during the day, and dismissed them from work at night. According to architectural historian, William H. Pierson, the cupola symbolized the capitalist mill owner's authority over his laborers and reminded them that factory production required workers to supplant themselves to the fast paced regimen set by machines. But the cupola was more than a symbol, it also had a functional role. By locating the stairway on the exterior wall of the mill, builders saved interior space for machinery and protected against the spread of fire by closing off the flow of oxygen between floors.

The Manchester cotton mill's eight-sided cupola stood about 18' above the south elevation's stairtower. This cupola had a dome top and open sides. It rested on a square stair tower that was centered on the south elevation. The stair tower had windows on its side and front elevations.

Though the clerestory window had no symbolic value, it was also a central feature of early cotton mill architecture. Clerestory windows turned attic floors into viable work spaces. The added light enabled workers to see as they manipulated fine threads and fabrics, while increased ventilation dissipated some of the intense heat and the floating cotton fibers and dust generated by the factory's machines. The clerestory window was the "trap door" type, meaning that it flared out from the roof ridge, as though the top half of the roof were raised slightly, leaving a space for a row of monitor windows. The clerestory did not run the total length of the roof, but stopped a few feet short of the parapet walls at each end.

Mill #1's cupola and clerestory were probably original to the building's date of construction. They both survived until the mid-1890s. The stair tower stood at least until the 1930s.

A photograph taken in the mid-1890s shows a stair tower without a cupola and a roof without a clerestory. Another photograph, also taken during the mid-1890s, shows the three-step parapet roof with slight alterations. This suggested that the roof underwent alterations on two separate occasions, once during the late-1880s to the mid-1890s when the cupola and clerestory were eliminated and again during the early to mid-1890s. A fire possibly precipitated these changes on one or both of the occasions. One source noted that a fire struck the mill in 1886 but no confirmation has been found.

In 1901, the Standard Paper Company purchased the site, converted it into a paper factory, and initiated several minor structural changes. A Sanborn map dated 1905 suggested that they expanded the third story frame bridge to the second story and added a steam boiler to the old picker room structure. Between 1910 and 1919, the paper company made several more substantive changes in both Mills #1 and #2. Between 1910 and 1919 they added two large rooms in the space where the frame bridge previously existed. The existence of a corbelled brick cornice on the north side of the dividing wall suggests that the new owners added the south room first and constructed the northern room later. In the northern addition are joist scars on what was Mill #1's second and third floor exterior west wall, probably indicating the point where the bridge attached to the building. Between 1919 and 1952 a two-story addition to Mill #1's north side was built. This rectangular addition extends to the southern bank of the James River.

An interesting interior feature in Mill #1 is the presence of cast-iron columns on the first through fourth floor. If these columns are original they would represent an early use of cast-iron in American industrial buildings. Given the existence of major foundries in antebellum Richmond, cast iron was a locally available building material. In the building itself, there is no visible evidence of ghost marks in the floor or walls that would suggest replacement of earlier columns with cast-iron.

Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia Showing Cast Iron Columns
Showing Cast Iron Columns

If a remodelling did occur, it may have been just after the Civil War when the company invested around $50,000 in the mill. This investment, however, appears to have been for the purchase of machinery. Furthermore, by that time the use of cast-iron for structural purposes had become less popular. Prior to the Civil War, cast-iron was thought of as a fire-safe material. However, it was found to be more susceptible to shearing stress than wood and, if poorly cast, or cooled too rapidly following a fire, tended to collapse. Under the influence of powerful factory mutual fire insurance companies, mill owners began to select wood and later steel for columns, and these materials would probably have been selected for use in Mill #1 had there been a major remodelling in the last quarter of the 19th century.

On the other hand, there are several unanswered questions concerning the construction of Mill #1 that challenge the conclusion that the cast iron columns are original. First, why do the beams in the building line up over the window lintels instead of between the windows, as is usual practice? Does the presence of charred timbers under some lintels suggest that a major fire did occur? Does the plaster finish on the walls conceal evidence of joist pockets from earlier construction? These questions can only be adequately addressed through an intensive archaeological investigation of the structural components of Mill #1. The significance of the mills cast-iron column construction may not be fully known.

The cylindrical, cast-iron columns (4" in diameter) discussed above support the timber beams on each floor except in the basement where concrete columns are 1'-4" square. On the first, second , and third floor the columns are flanked on two sides by timbers 7" by 3-3/4". Cross-bolted at 1/3 points, these timbers are most likely later additions to strengthen the framing system. Several of these flanked columns were enclosed on the remaining open sides by non-structural planks, thus enclosing the entire column in a box measuring about 9" x 11". The fourth floor columns include no supplemental support, probably because they carry lighter loads. All columns are about 4" in diameter and are crowned by beam bearing plates. These plates have rounded ends with one bolt hole on either side. The columns travel 2 to 3 feet through the floor below, between the parallel beam timbers and rest on the top side of the beam bearing plate. The second and third floors are supported by beams consisting of two timbers bolted together, spanning each column bay. The beams rest on the beam bearing plates. The whole beam structure is 13-1/2" x 15-1/2". Each beam timber is 6" x 13-1/2". Fourth floor beams are about 7-3/4" x 9-1/2".

Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia REINFORCED COLUMN

The lower chord of the roof trusses support the fourth floor's ceiling and the attic floor. Three spliced 2" x 12" timbers bolted together make up the built-up truss chords which are 5-3/4" x 12". The southern-most truss chord is made of four 1" x 11-3/4" timbers which together are 4-1/2" x 11-3/4". Tie-rod bolts can be seen on the underside of the lower chord. The six-panel Howe truss has frame web members and vertical tie rods connecting the upper and lower chords which rest directly on the eaves. Bricks at the eaves have been removed to provide light and ventilation. The workmanship in these trusses suggest they are of early twentieth century construction. All tension members (except the bottom chord) are of ferrous metal, and compression members are of rough sawn wood. There is none of the "finish" or adornment common to early or mid-nineteenth century construction, such as chamfered edges on wood members, or decorative iron castings.

Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia ATTIC AND ROOF TRUSSES

In the western addition (constructed between 1910 and 1919) the round metal columns on the second floor are about 7" in diameter, while on the third floor they are about 6" in diameter. They support square wooden beams which rest on square beam bearing plates. In the southern addition on the third floor the roof beams rest on metal supports of varying heights to allow for the slope of the roof.

Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia SOUTHERN PORTION OF CA. 1918 ADDITION

All windows have solid single timber lintels and concrete sills. The semi-circular arched attic window on the south elevation is about one foot lower than the north window. The south opening may have been added after the stair tower's removal (after 1929) because the structure would have obstructed any light or ventilation from a window in this location. However, stylistically the window appears to predate the removal of the stair tower.

The floors throughout the mill building are tongue-and-groove planks about 3" to 4" wide. The attic floor, which is very weak, appears newer than the other floors. There are concrete floors in the western additions.

What is most curious about Mill #1's structural evolution is that it became less fire safe by the early twentieth century. For example, sometime after 1929 the paper mill owners removed the stairtower and moved the stairway inside the building, which not only was riskier, but also decreased usable space. Partial explanation for such deviations from standard industrial safety design can be explained by the fact that after 1901 the building was used primarily as a warehouse and did not house machinery.