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Atlantic City & Freemason, A Self-Guided Tour

FORT NORFOLK & THE VILLAGE OF ATLANTIC CITY

 
A Self-Guided Tour
 

The former Norfolk village of Atlantic City had quite a history.  Following are noteworthy historical highlights.

Situated along the banks of the Elizabeth River, Fort Norfolk was originally private property; but was the site where many Norfolk residents mounted an unsuccessful attempt to defend the city during the Revolutionary War. However, on January 1, 1776, Lord Dunmore led a naval bombardment of the city that would later be called “The Burning of Norfolk.”

In 1794, President George Washington commissioned the reconstruction of what would become formally known as Fort Norfolk.  The original eleven buildings were constructed between 1795 and 1809 and included the main gate, officers' quarters, a guardhouse, a carpenter’s shop, and a powder magazine. It is the last remaining standing fortification of President George Washington’s 18th Century harbor defenses.

In 1810, the original sea wall was reinforced and was 20 feet thick and stretched to 12 feet high. The fort also eventually boasted nine 18-pound canons. During the War of 1812, in an imaginative and determined attempt to stall advancing British ships, a chain was stretched from Fort Norfolk to the city of Portsmouth’s Fort Nelson.

By 1837, slave woman Rachel Collins had been working at Fort Norfolk for well more than 25 years, when she embarked upon a circuitous and magnanimous path to freedom.  In 1806, the Virginia General Assembly had passed a law that said any emancipated, “free,” Negro who remained in the state for more than one year, would forfeit their freedom and could be sold by a group called the “Overseers of the Poor.”  More than 30 years later, the Virginia legislature had a change of heart and announced that any slave emancipated since May 1, 1806 could petition local courts for permission to remain in Virginia and live free. When more than 60 years of age, Ms. Collins so filed a petition, yet with the support of more than 15 white soldiers for whom she cared. They stated, “By her services as a cook, washerwoman, nurse and her general good conduct, she secured the good will and confidence of all.” Ms. Collins was granted her freedom.


Fort Norfolk

It’s worth noting that Colley Avenue, the main street in the village of Atlantic City, was originally known as Fort Norfolk Road and boasted a horse racing track, with gambling, at its bottom.  The street was later named for a John G. Colley, whose property it bisected. In fact, the popular and picturesque Hague river inlet was once known as Colley’s Creek.

Streetcar service was extended to Atlantic City in 1893.  Later, a December 1899 article in The Virginian-Pilot touted the completion of the Atlantic City Bridge, a five-horse power, electric motor bridge, weighing thousands of tons and considered one of the longest bridges in the country at the time. It connected the village of Atlantic City with Norfolk city proper, at the foot of York Street. Previously, there had been a toll bridge that became the bargaining chip when the expanding City of Norfolk wanted to annex Atlantic City.  The only way that the village residents would agree was if the toll was removed. Atlantic City was annexed in 1890 and the bridge was completed nine years later.

In 1923, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers renovated Fort Norfolk for its district headquarters, which later were relocated to a modern building nearby.  The village of Atlantic City evolved into a thriving community of 135 acres, originally bound by Front Street, Raleigh Avenue, the Elizabeth River, and Colley Avenue.

Between 1955 and 1961, much of Atlantic City was razed to accommodate an extension of Brambleton Avenue and establishment of a medical center complex, which included Norfolk General Hospital, the Medical Arts Tower, the Municipal Public Health Center, and Children's Hospital of the Kings Daughters. In 1973, a medical school was opened, now the Eastern Virginia Medical School.
 

A Personal Reflection on the Village of Atlantic City
 

For former long-time African-American resident Douglas Tyler, an Atlantic City native who was born in an apartment building that once stood at what was once 710 Southampton Avenue, the village of Atlantic City holds fond memories. He is pictured here (left) standing on the site where he was born.  The other picture, circa early 1940s, shows his two elder brothers, with the apartment building in the background.

 Doug Tyler


Among Mr. Tyler’s memories, he fondly recalls the following with great clarity.

 

  • The row of warehouses and commercial sites that once stood along Front Street, to include Dixie Jute, Tidewater Construction Company, Ship Chandler, Johns Brothers Heating & Oil, Security Storage & Van, and the Colonial Stores produce warehouse;
     
  • Forest and Dunn boat and ship repair which was at the intersection of Wingfield Avenue and 3rd Street;
     
  • Odesky’s convenience store, which stood on the Northwest corner of Southampton Avenue and 3rd Street;
     
  • Nedal convenience store, which stood on the Northwest corner of Woodis Avenue and 3rd Street;
     
  • Tony’s bar and grill, which stood on the Southeast corner of Colley Avenue & Southampton Avenue;
     
  • Finklestein’s convenience store, which stood on the Southwest corner of Colley Avenue & Southampton Avenue;
     
  • Leiceister’s convenience store, which stood on the Northwest corner of Colley Avenue & Southampton Avenue.

 In addition to the apartment building where he was born, Tyler also well remembers: 

  • Where his grandmother lived at what was once 206 - 3rd Street;
     
  • The many houses that stood on 2nd Street and 3rd  Street, as well as Woodies Avenue;
     
  • Mrs. Ruby’s flower garden;
     
  • The church that once stood at the corner of Front Street and Colley Avenue;
     
  • That the backyards of white people and black people used to meet at the property lines;
     
  • Going crabbing at what was then known as Navy Landing;
     
  • The crazy-looking, but very impressive, sideways bridge that would open with its 2 spans opening laterally in opposite directions.

Most of these memories were of the area East of Colley Avenue, but he fondly recalled a number of landmarks that predominated the Western side of the village of Atlantic City as well, to include:  

  • The Washington Steamer that used to dock at Fort Norfolk;
     
  • Perry’s Shore, now more popularly known as Plum Point Park, which had a small swimming and fishing hole, but was also liberally dotted with pomegranate and plum trees;
     
  • Ballard’s Fish and Oyster House and J. H. Miles Seafood;
     
  • The Crisp Pak ice plant, which was recently converted into the luxury Riverview Lofts apartments;
     
  • The Greyhound Bus line storage and service depot;
     
  • A church which once stood on the corner of Wingfield and Colley Avenues;
     
  • Pembroke Elementary School, Colley Avenue and Pembroke Avenue

After demolition of the overwhelming majority of the village of Atlantic City, necessitating that all residents move from the area and find new domiciles, many former residents later began having reunions featuring such leisurely joint activities and games as fishing, crabbing, and “kick the can.” They later formed the “Atlantic City Bull Dogs” football team, developed as the centerpiece activity for fundraisers, they called "pound parties," to help neighbors who faired the worse during the earlier major transition.
 

THE HISTORIC WEST FREEMASON DISTRICT 

A Self-Guided Tour 

The historic West Freemason district is a neighborhood of some 14 blocks of 18th, 19th and 20th Century built homes. The entire community is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Nearly all the colonial city of Norfolk was destroyed in the Revolutionary War. West Freemason was laid out just after the war and houses were continually being built from the late 18th through the early 20th Centuries.  The network of marshy lanes that originally defined the Freemason district was eventually replaced with cobblestone paving, still in use today on the western end of West Freemason Street.  It is also worth noting that West Freemason was the first street in the city of Norfolk to have gas lamps. 

The West Freemason district was highly regarded and continued to be held in lofty esteem through both international and domestic conflicts. During the War of 1812, the Allmand Archer House, at 327 Duke Street, built in the Federal style (circa 1795), served as a headquarters for American officers.

Allmand House
 

The Selden House, at 351 Botetourt Street, which had been built in the Georgian Revival style in 1807, played a role in the Civil War. It served as the Norfolk headquarters of the occupying Union forces, between 1862 and 1865. A former owner of the house, Dr. William Boswell Selden had served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army and played host to Robert E. Lee. 

Selden House
 

The Federal style can also be seen in the Taylor-Whittle House, located at 227 West Freemason Street, which was occupied by Captain Richard Lucien Page early during the Civil War. Page had been commissioned as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant, initially assigned to the USS Enterprise in 1831; but he later switched to the Confederate States Navy and eventually served as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army during the war.

Taylor-Whittle House
 

The Glisson House, circa 1840, was erected, at 405 Duke Street.  The house was built in the Greek Revival style, by celebrated United States Navy Rear Admiral Oliver Spencer Glisson. Early during the Civil War, Glisson rescued a group of slaves who were being used by the Confederates as a human shield. Although this rescue contravened the Fugitive Slave Act, it was authorized by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on humanitarian grounds.

Glisson House
 

William Wilson Lamb’s Greek Revival townhouse, at 420 Bute Street, was where Lamb hid the famous Norfolk's colonial mace, when the city surrendered to the Union forces. The Lamb family would eventually provide the City of Norfolk with three generations of mayors. 

The architecture in the historic Freemason district represents a quite a broad range of townhouse styles, as diverse as the Federal to the Georgian Revival. Additional examples include the Greek Revival style, used in the design and construction of the Camp-Hubard House and Petty Dickson House, both on West Freemason Street, and the Richard Taylor House on Bute Street.  The Beaux Arts Classicism style was used in the design and construction of the 1904 Norfolk Public Library, which later served as the Norfolk Theatre Centre, at 345 West Freemason Street. The Jacobean Revival and Second Empire styles appear in different John Cary Weston houses, at varying locations on West Freemason Street. The Georgian Revival style can also be seen in the old Red Cross Headquarters on Bute Street and the porticoed George Roper House on West Freemason Street. 

Additional distinctive architectural styles that appear in the historic West Freemason district include the Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, Tudor, a Mid-19th Century Carriage House, as well as late 19th Century and early 20th Century designs.  But the remarkable homes, constructed over three centuries, only tell a small portion of the incredible history of the prominent neighborhood. There were also, of course, the extraordinary people. 

One of the most interesting and remarkable historical stories of 19th Century Freemason, stretching down to the Norfolk waterfront, is that of a slave by the name of Sam Nixon.  His master, a Norfolk dentist who recognized that Sam was one of considerable intellect, not only allowed him to keep the books for his practice, but also taught him dentistry. Eventually, Sam was dispatched to make unsupervised house calls on white patients, to include schooner captains on the Norfolk waterfront. 

In this, Sam saw a remarkable opportunity.  He eventually negotiated arrangements with several of the seafarers to stow runaway slaves on their Northern-bound vessels, thus becoming a stealth, yet prolific captain on the Underground Railroad. Later, concerned that there was increasing suspicion of his covert activities, Sam had to himself board a schooner and made a clandestine journey to the North, first landing in New Jersey, but eventually finding his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts. 

Shortly after his arrival in New Bedford, Sam Nixon changed his name to Thomas Bayne and opened a dental practice.  He was held in such high regard that, just prior to the Civil War, he was elected to the town’s city council.  He later returned to Norfolk during Reconstruction, opened up a dental practice, and became active in local politics, joining the Republican Party. Years later, a street would bear his name, Bayne Avenue, much of it siting in the recently renovated, stylish Broad Creek section of the city. 

The Pagoda
265 West Tazewell Street 

Lee Teng-Hui served as the President of the Republic of China, from 1988 to 2000.  Yet, in 1983, while then serving as the Governor of Taiwan, he had made a good will trade mission to Norfolk. He would later fondly recall his trip to Virginia’s popular coastal and colonial city and as the Chinese president, in celebration of the trading ties, he proposed a gift to accentuate the Norfolk riverfront. Thus was born the concept of converting a towering, old 500,000 gallon molasses tank into the beautifully adorned Norfolk Pagoda, also known as the Marine Observation Tower. 

The gift was from the Taiwan Provincial Government, which contributed some $700,000 for the project. The City of Norfolk kicked in an additional $300,000 for structural work. With materials for the tower manufactured in Taiwan and shipped to Norfolk, the conversion was complete in 1989. The Pagoda is prized as a distinctive architectural gem on the Norfolk waterfront, accentuated by lavish landscaping and a colorful koi pond.