The Heart of Richmond // Broad Street

In Richmond, Broad Street is easily at the heart of Richmond’s history. Even before Patrick Henry’s gave his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at St. Johns Church (located at 24th and Broad), nearly every era of Richmond’s past can be traced back through the 15 miles of Broad.

At the turn of the 19th Century, downtown Broad Street became the commercial, cultural and residential hub of the city. Its name was derived from the unusual width of the street, which was designed to accommodate the streetcars (originally horse-drawn), carriages, and pedestrians that traveled the street. By 1888, Broad Street was the main line for the first fully electric streetcar system in the United States.

It’s impossible to talk about the history of Richmond retailers without mentioning Miller & Rhoads and its cross-street rival Thalhimers. Anyone who has called Richmond home for any significant time knows these names — some can even recall the heyday of these once-iconic department stores.

In addition to retail, a handful of vaudeville and nickelodeon theaters lined Broad Street during the early 1900’s. The portion of Broad Street between 7th and 9th streets was know as Theater Row because of the concentration of performance art theaters. Venues such as The National, the Bijou, Regent, and the Strand were located side-by-side for the two-block stretch.

As Broad Street began to expand westward, the retail and commercial district eventually followed. With the rise of the suburban and automobile culture of the 1950s, downtown Richmond became less of a destination.

In recent years, though, Broad Street has been inching towards its former glory. The National Theater, which sat vacant for decades, finished renovation in 2007 and is now arguably the best live music venue in in the city. Steady Sounds — a local record store — Lift Coffee Shop, Comfort — a restaurant with a focus on classic Southern Cuisine — and the Virginia Library are a few of the small business and establishments that call Broad Street home today.

Perhaps my favorite component of the Broad Street revitalization is the monthly First Fridays Art Walk. Over the last decade, the art walk has grown to become one of the most prominent art and cultural events in the city attracting thousands of visitors each year. First Fridays is a fantastic cross-section of the art world — paint, dance, A/V, fashion, typography — all jammed into a few short blocks.

We will be bringing the Shockoe Design District to Broad Street this weekend in collaboration with Shockoe Denim, The Odd Couple, and Steady Sounds for the High Water Pop-Up Shop hosted by our friends at Black Iris Music (another beautifully renovated building in the arts corridor), located at 321 W. Broad Street, that will kick off tonight at 5 pm. The shop at Black Iris will also be open tomorrow from 12-5. See you there.


All pictures curtsey of the Valentine Richmond History Center’s Cook Collection and Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection.

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