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Reclaiming history

St. Luke building, first home of Maggie L. Walker’s bank, is being turned into upscale apartments to spur development in Gilpin Court

Jeremy Lazarus | 4/28/2017, 12:36 p.m.
Upscale apartments are taking shape in the long-empty St. Luke Building, the once vital four-story headquarters of a mutual aid ...
Margaret Stallings walks down the original wooden staircase inside the 114-year-old St. Luke building at 900 St. James St., which still has many of the coveted features of the city’s older buildings.

Upscale apartments are taking shape in the long-empty St. Luke Building, the once vital four-story headquarters of a mutual aid society where renowned Richmond businesswoman Maggie L. Walker once had a bank.

The owners, Margaret Stallings and her daughter Wanda Stallings, are moving ahead with a $3.5 million venture to install 12 large apartments in the historic landmark building at 900 St. James St. in Gilpin Court.

Call it a surprising development — and the biggest in decades — for an area largely occupied by a public housing community notorious for poverty, gunfire and crime on the north edge of Jackson Ward and Downtown.

Instead of seeing a wasteland, the Stallings family sees an opportunity to lead the revitalization of a down-at-the-heels section of the city that has only one way to go: Up.

“My brother, Ronald Stallings, has led the redevelopment of South Jackson Ward,” Wanda Stallings said, “and I want to lead the redevelopment of North Jackson Ward,” as the city has dubbed the Gilpin Court area.

The two areas are separated by an interstate highway, which in the 1950s was cut through what was then the center of Richmond’s African-American community.

To get this development underway and leapfrog largely stalled public plans for revitalizing the Gilpin Court area, the Stallings have partnered with developer Charles E. Ayers Jr., the owner of River City Ventures LLC, which is engaged in creating homes and apartments in The Fan, Church Hill and Hopewell.

“Sure we are pioneering,” Mr. Ayers said, “but we think this is a start to creating a better future for this area.”

The Stallings family owns 5 acres of land in the area. The success of this project would enable them to make plans for additional residential and retail development on what is largely vacant property, he said.

Backed by financing from Chesapeake Bank, Mr. Ayers said the St. Luke plans call for four one- and two-bedroom apartments with an average monthly rent of $1,100 to be completed in each of the three top floors. He said he is seeking to attract a medical services provider to the building’s first floor.

The exterior will be fenced and include on-site parking and space for a community garden and other activities. A fountain that was once part of the property also will be reinstalled, said Wanda Stallings.

The project also will involve restoring for residential use an adjacent duplex at 902 St. James St. The smaller building once served as temporary housing for salesmen, bank employees and visiting officials of the Independent Order of St. Luke.

The interior of the historic St. Luke building is in surprisingly excellent condition, with original wooden floors and windows, high ceilings and other coveted features of older buildings in the city.

For the past few months, Mr. Ayers has been repairing exterior damage and getting the interior ready for construction. He said work was to start this week on the yearlong effort, although Wanda Stallings and Mr. Ayers said City Hall now is requiring them to obtain a special use permit.