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Personality: Joseph P. Costello

Spotlight on founder of the nonprofit Friends of Pump House

5/11/2018, 8:17 p.m.
Joseph P. Costello first discovered the Pump House in Byrd Park in the summer of 2013. He was with friends ...

Joseph P. Costello first discovered the Pump House in Byrd Park in the summer of 2013. He was with friends when he visited the Gothic Revival structure situated just north of the James River and Kanawha Canal off Pump House Drive. It was constructed of local granite in 1883, with annex buildings added in 1905. “I was blown away by the beauty of the building,” Mr. Costello says.

The 27-year-old now is dedicated to having the public enjoy the beauty and history of the building. Last year, after conducting research and putting together a plan through his master’s program at Virginia Commonwealth University, he founded Friends of Pump House, a nonprofit working toward revitalizing the building for public use once again.

The Pump House “is standing there empty, decaying and not being used,” Mr. Costello says. “The Friends of Pump House is keeping it on life support. It is in a public park and, once restored, it could be used for private events, parties and other activities as it was used until the mid-1920s.”

Still owned by the City of Richmond, the building has a unique history as a true multipurpose public work, Mr. Costello explains. The downstairs housed equipment that pumped water from the river and the canal to the Byrd Park reservoir, the city’s main water supply at the time.

But the floor above the equipment was designed as a social venue, with an open-air dance hall or pavilion for events. Think “high-society dance parties,” Mr. Costello says. “Think Great Gatsby. The well-to-do would arrive by trolley or bateau boat,” he explains.

Designed by Wilfred Emory Cutshaw, Richmond’s city engineer from 1874 to 1907, the Pump House was placed on the site of the first canal system in the nation, part of George Washington’s vision to connect Richmond to the Kanawha River in West Virginia, Mr. Costello says.

“The canals were dug by enslaved people and the pump house was built by recently freed people and immigrant laborers,” he says. “In the 1920s with the advent of the car and new pumping technology, the building fell into disrepair and was vandalized heavily. The pumping equipment was sold to the Japanese before World War II. The city actually sold the building in the 1950s to First Presbyterian Church, but then bought it back.”

Through the efforts of Ralph White, former manager of the James River Park System, and Dr. William E. “Bill” Trout III, a writer who has mapped and charted many of Virginia’s waterways, “the building has been upright from the 1980s until now,” Mr. Costello said.

As part of his VCU master’s thesis in urban and regional planning, Mr. Costello drew up a plan for the Pump House’s revitalization after talking with Nathan Burrell, superintendent of the James River Park System, other experts and stakeholders.

He started the nonprofit last year, partnering with the Enrichmond Foundation, which handles donations and grants. Already, the group has raised $33,000 to get the project going.

“Resurrection and cleanups are not easy chores. Monthly cleanups are making a dent in removing nearly century-old debris and yards of coal dust and dirt,” he says.