Explore the Past - More Willow Lawn History

The Markel Building / Haigh Jamgochian:

The Markel Building
The Markel Building, 2019 (Photo by Tre Rockenbach)


Haigh Jamgochian with models of his proposed revolving hotels (left) and “Tree House” apartment building (right), 1960s
Haigh Jamgochian with models of his proposed revolving hotels (left) and “Tree House” apartment building (right), 1960s (Library of Virginia)


The Markel Building, on Markel Road immediately south of this GRTC Pulse station, was home to the Markel Corporation, founded by Sam Markel in 1930 to insure buses.  The insurance firm moved to the Willow Lawn area in the 1950s, and in 1962, it commissioned architect and Jackson Ward-native Haigh Jamgochian to create its new headquarters.  Inspired by a foil-wrapped baked potato, Jamgochian designed a round, three-story building composed of three 555-foot-long bands of crinkled aluminum separated by two bands of windows.  In subsequent years, Jamgochian proposed a number of innovative and futuristic concepts, including tree house-inspired apartment buildings and the addition of a Spiral Tower to the Richmond skyline, but his designs were met with resistance and disinterest.  His only other completed structure was the Moon House, a copper-clad fallout-shelter-style house built for local used-car mogul Howard Hughes (aka “Mad Man Dapper Dan”). The Moon House, which was located on Cherokee Road overlooking the James River, was demolished in 2005.  Jamgochian’s papers and designs are now housed at the Library of Virginia. Although the Markel Corporation has moved to Glen Allen, the Markel Building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, remains in use as an office building. (5310 Markel Road, 0.2 miles.)


The Faison Center:

The Faison Center, 2019
The Faison Center, 2019 (courtesy of The Faison Center)


A short walk down Byrd Avenue is The Faison Center, a facility that provides life-long programs for children and adults on the autism spectrum.  Established in 1999 by Alan Kirshner and Flo Markel Guzman after their granddaughter, Brittany Faison, was diagnosed with autism, The Faison Center promotes research, training, programs and support for autism and related disorders.  The private Faison School serves youth ages 5-22, teaching academics, communication and life skills, and providing evidence-based programs focusing on helping students achieve independence. The Faison Center also includes an Early Education Center, a Behavioral Health Clinic, an Adult Day Services program, and the Faison Residence, a gated 45-apartment community that provides a semi-independent, community-integrated experience by renting a third of the units to adults on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities and the rest of the units to members of the general public.  (1701 Byrd Ave., 0.3 miles.)


West End Antique Mall / Crossroads Art Center / Best Products:

Crossroads Art Center
Crossroads Art Center, 2019 (Photo by Tre Rockenbach)


Former Best Products (BEST) showroom
Former Best Products (BEST) showroom, 2019 (Photo by Tre Rockenbach)


Across Broad Street is a strip mall containing two of the area’s more unique shopping experiences.  The 53,000-square-foot West End Antique Mall presents such a maze of treasures that it offers a map of the 250+ vendor booths to shoppers.  At Crossroads Art Center, you can view the work of more than 225 artists, as well as take art classes. Across the road at 4909 W. Marshall St. is the first location of Best Products (BEST), a company run by Sydney and Frances Lewis from 1957 to 1997.  BEST was part of the catalog showroom retail trend, and it set itself apart from other chains by building architecturally avant-garde stores with facades that seemed to tilt, peel, crumble or wander away. The only remaining example of the BEST architecture is the Forest Building on Quioccasin Road, a cut-away structure with trees growing inside that is now home to West End Presbyterian Church.  In 1985, the Lewises donated a huge collection of modern art and Art Nouveau and Art Deco objects to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The museum’s Best Café is named in their honor. (West End Antique Mall, 2004 Staples Mill Road, and Crossroads Art Center, 2016 Staples Mill Road, 0.4 miles.)



Westwood Neighborhood
Westwood Neighborhood, 2005 (The Valentine, Maurice Duke Collection)


Westwood Baptist Church
Westwood Baptist Church, 2004 (The Valentine, Maurice Duke Collection)


About a mile south, where Willow Lawn Drive meets Patterson Avenue, is the location of Westwood, a community established in the early 1870s by a group of formerly enslaved people, many of whom had come from the Patterson Plantation.  Residents established Westwood Baptist Church in 1874, with a cemetery located behind the log cabin church. As Westwood grew, a school and several stores were added to the self-contained neighborhood. Today, Westwood Playground is located where the school once stood.  In 1921, the graves in the church cemetery were moved to a new cemetery at 8690 Quioccasin Road. Westwood Baptist Church’s original log cabin structure was replaced with its current brick building in the 1940s. After the city of Richmond annexed Westwood in 1942, an effort was made to evict residents and turn the area into a large public park, but the city abandoned these plans in the face of fierce community opposition.  Local historians have described Westwood’s growth and struggles over the years as a representative example of what African-American communities have experienced in the South. (Westwood Baptist Church, 915 Glenburnie Road, 1.3 miles.)


Explore the Past is sponsored by VCU logo and