Richmond Walking Tour: The Train Station, the Water Tower, and “Elvis at 21” at VMFA

As much as I wanted to see the rest of the monuments, I had to veer off to get over to the Science Museum. My goal there was twofold: to track down the hallway where Elvis strolled out by himself, transistor radio blaring, and to go see the water tower mentioned in those posts I link to. I realize this is so specific as to be vaguely insane, but this is how my mind works. These landmarks still exist, and that gentleman in the posts I link to in that hallway post, had figured it out in a detective-like manner, and it was really beautiful the way he did it. It was the water tower that brought it all together. It just so happens, too, that I am a tiny bit obsessed with water towers anyway, and love the glimpses I get of them peppering the New York skyline. They’re so whimsical, little conical huts perched on tops of buildings. So my interest was twofold: Elvis and water towers. Like I said: vaguely insane. But very very “Sheila”.

Once I left Monument Avenue, I was in a strictly residential area, with nice homes, sidewalks, beautiful little gardens, but I could sense that I was approaching some huge space coming up. The landscape would change. I reached Broad Street which was a gigantic avenue. Along one side were crappy office buildings (some abandoned), fast food restaurants (now closed, up for lease), and random storefronts, none of which seemed to be open. Not a welcoming landscape at all (although I did sit down at a table outside a now-closed hot-dog joint, and regroup for a second, looking at my map and planning the rest of my day). On the other side was a vast open space with the Science Museum, once Broad Street Railway Station. You can really sense that once upon a time this was where all the trains shuttled into town. Hence, the space. Train stations are often isolated like that, and this one certainly was.

I approached that magnificent structure and, naturally, had to look for the water tower. Felt a gleam of pleasure when I saw it, peeking over the back.

If I had to analyze why seeing that water tower made me so happy … I would have to say that I love it when things don’t change, when a landscape maintains its character (even down to such details as that). I grew up in a protected colonial town – where the buildings on the main street have dates on the side of it, dates like: “Built in 1732”. That street has never changed. If you are there at certain times of the day, you might be able to fool yourself that you have gone back in time. Of course you drove to the next town and you see a McDonalds and a Home Depot, etc., but I love small enclaves of changelessness. Certainly an old water tower is not on the level with a place where Washington once slept, but in a way it’s almost more important. I am not anti-progress, but I do love honoring history. That’s one of the reasons why the landscape in Los Angeles is so evocative to me, especially the signage: the old-fashioned swoopy-lettered signs on sticks above buildings, floating in the air in this elegant old-fashioned way.

Seeing signs like that satisfies me on a very deep core level.

We just don’t see signs like that on the East Coast. And New York, forget it: you have to SQUINT to find history here (and it is here!) That’s one of the reasons why Battery Park and lower lower Manhattan is one of my favorite neighborhoods – the court houses, the financial districts, the stock exchange … these are buildings with some heft, some history. You can FEEL it. However, the water tower isn’t there to honor any sort of history. It seems to be just forgotten, one of those forgotten buildings, a relic of a past that no longer exists, a company that no longer exists. As a matter of fact, the warehouse the water tower perches on top of looks pretty beat up and abandoned (although there were guys doing something at a loading dock when I went over there). So stuff must be stored there. But clearly, in Elvis’ time, it was a bustling busy factory. The signs still exist. It was fascinating.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

It was around 11 a.m. at this point. A school day. The museum seemed totally empty. Clearly if I had visited on a weekend, it probably would have been swarming with people. Using the posts here as my guide, I walked around to the side where the IMAX was, just to orient myself. It was obvious that the building had been added onto, and that the original building stopped right where the IMAX started. Hence, Elvis walking down that hallway which led to the outside in 1956.

In 2012, he would be strolling right into the IMAX theatre lobby. And if you look closely in the upper right window, you can see the water tower.

For a while, I just hung around outside the train station because it was such a beautiful building and I really had it all to myself. It is now designated a Historic Landmark, because of its history as a train station, and that is part of its charm. Although it is a Science Museum, you can FEEL its history as a train station, it is still visible, palpable, every where you look. I lOVE that. I guess what I love about all of this is being in a place where the space-time continuum sort of folds in like an accordion, and you can actually SEE the past, superimposed on the current-day. It is my favorite kind of historical place.

Gorgeous! What an impressive building.

But then I went inside and my mind was blown even more. The lobby was obviously the lobby of a railroad station once upon a time, although now, it being a science museum and all, it is filled with giant life-size mobiles, a huge dangling biplane, and other scientific objects, all beautifully placed. The lobby was empty. Across the way was the ticket desk, but I had the place to myself. I wandered about that beautiful space to my hearts’ content. I wasn’t looking at it as a Science Museum. I was folding the accordion of time and seeing, everywhere, the railroad station that was once there. They have left those relics in place, thank goodness.

Behind the plane is the entrance to the Science Museum itself. A giant exhibit with a huge blue and green globe blocked off the rest of the museum. However, if you looked up, you could clearly see the vastness of the space itself, the area where passengers disembarked and came forward into the main lobby.

That one photo illustrates my pleasure in such historic and yet still currently used spaces. It has two eras going on simultaneously: the exhibit in the front, dark and sleek and modern, and the architecture itself, which is from another time and used for another purpose.

As I stood there, looking at that accordion-fold of time, I glanced to my left, and there was the hallway.

Squee! Excitement! So it was obvious in the layout: Elvis got off the train in that area behind the exhibit, strolled through that vastness, emerged to the area where I was standing, and turned right to go to the exit (which he could have clearly seen in 1956) where he could get a cab. Alfred Wertheimer hovering along behind him, shooting him all the way.

I walked down the hallway. To my right were giant windows which overlooked a huge pit filled with some kind of science-game room, enclosed. On the other side of that pit were old-fashioned windows which looked out on what was still a railway yard, with a bright yellow train pulled up on the tracks.

I stopped where Wertheimer had stopped to get that famous picture of Elvis, strolling through the train station, radio blaring, by himself. Ready to go to the Jefferson Hotel, shower, shave, and meet up with the girl whom he had sent his cousin to fetch in Charleston. Elvis is ready for all sorts of action. The two shows he had coming up, and his date with some gal who called his hotel room and was willing to travel all the way to Richmond just to hang out with him. He’s feeling pretty good. He’s got the Steve Allen Show to film the following day, and although he is not happy about the tuxedo and the hound dog bit, he’s trying to be a good sport about it. The Colonel says it will be a good thing. His appearance on the Milton Berle Show got him in a ton of hot water, and that is still percolating and boiling over at this particular moment. The Steve Allen appearance was supposed to bank those fires a little bit. (It ended up having the opposite effect, because fans went nuts with criticism over how Elvis had been “tamed” by Steve Allen. They did. not. like. it. Let him wiggle, we love his wiggle!) But at that moment, when Elvis strolled down that hallway of Broad Street Station, he is trusting to fate. He’ll do what is expected of him, he will try to be polite, he’s learned his lines for the skit, he has his script in his bag to go over during his free time at the Jefferson, and in the meantime, he’s got two shows to do and a ready-and-willing woman meeting up with him in about an hour. Life is really good.

Standing where Wertheimer stood when he took that picture of Elvis.

It was very satisfying. I could feel the past all around me. I can feel it anyway, I’m always on the lookout for other eras still existing alongside our own, and I thank so much the gentleman who tracked down the “Elvis hallway” in those posts, because it was fun to follow in his footsteps. I could feel Elvis walking by there, breezy in his suit, ready for some breakfast and a shower.

Mission accomplished, I went outside over into what is now the IMAX parking lot. Beyond the parking lot, there are still railroad tracks, and a couple of old-fashioned trains sitting there. Just beautiful.

I was salivating to get over to that water tower, clearly visible from where I stood. Hell, it was visible from blocks away probably, and as a matter of fact, as I left Richmond later that day, and careened by on the highway further to the north, I could see that damn water tower against the lowering light. Beautiful!

Surrounded by a giant vacant parking lot, the building looks pretty rough, with broken windows.

And the swoopy old-fashioned signage pleased me very much.

I hung out around that building for about half an hour. It’s my kind of building. I was getting hungry so I found a sandwich joint on Broad Street, chowed down, and then headed back into the residential area to find the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. By this time, I actually was getting tired. I am used to walking a lot, but I had been walking for four hours straight at that point. But it was okay, there was plenty to engage me. I crossed back over Monument Avenue, right at the Stonewall Jackson monument, and continued on that street, which was where the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts would be located. There are giant houses and churches along that avenue, with massive gardens and plots of land. Beautiful and stately. Then I started to see some more official buildings, other museums, and libraries, a Confederate museum with a big cannon out in front. I knew I was close. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a huge slick building, with fluttering banners showing their exhibits all along the sidewalk. I looked for a banner of Elvis but didn’t see one. The main exhibit there now is the Mummy exhibit, which I actually did want to see, but felt I couldn’t spare the time. I wanted to be on the road by 3 and it was now around 1 o’clock. I would hang out at the museum for an hour, then walk (Ugh!) all the damn way back to the hotel.

There were bus tours of high school students, with harassed teachers trying to keep everyone in line. I bought a ticket. On the wall was a big exhibit announcement, with the picture of Elvis on the train, staring right at Wertheimer’s camera in a disarmingly honest and open gaze. I was so excited. As I walked by the gift shop, I saw a lifesize cutout of Elvis and an entire window display filled with “Elvis at 21” memorabilia.

Strange. Medieval tapestries next to the King of Rock ‘n Roll. It was awesome.

What would Elvis at 21, strolling down that hallway, have thought if he knew that one day an entire exhibit devoted to his time in Richmond would be on display at the Museum there? It’s all so strange. And beautiful. And perfect. Elvis couldn’t know, he couldn’t predict. He could just believe in himself, and keep launching himself out there into the spotlight. That is what he did. And now, in 2012, an exhibit of 1956 photos is traveling the world. Because everyone wants to see Elvis. Still. It’s all rather emotional.

My time at the exhibit was the most emotional part of my trip. It was just phenomenal to see all of those photos, so huge, and existing side by side with an exhibit about King Tut and a Mummy’s Tomb. Beautiful and I think the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts did a phenomenal job with the layout of the Elvis exhibit. In a small alcove, there was a video screen showing some of Elvis’ 1956 performances on the Dorsey Brothers Show, so you could sit and watch him perform “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Baby Let’s Play House”. The exhibit itself took up two giant rooms. There weren’t that many people there. Beside each photo was text from Wertheimer, and quotes from other people who knew Elvis at that time. There was Gladys Presley, larger than life, captured on film by Wertheimer in a way that no other photographer captured her. He didn’t just capture her, he captured the relationship between Elvis and his mother, a relationship that causes much speculation but is really quite simple.

Elvis is still holding that freshly laundered and bleached pair of underwear that his mother just handed to him.

They loved each other. He got to be a baby with her. She babied him. They talked baby talk together, they had their own language. He needed to be babied. He had grown up in a harsh environment and became famous when he was still a teenager, not fully formed yet. He felt no need to grow up when he was with her. And yet he also referred to her and his father as “my babies”. He knew he was responsible for taking care of them. He was providing for his mother, and nothing gave him more pleasure. He had grown up in a house where the father was (forgive me) a bit useless, and had even gone to prison for 9 months when Elvis was 2 years old for altering a check. Elvis would have no memory of that time, not in his conscious mind, but that little baby was THERE when his dad went away and it made an impression, obviously. He felt protective of his mother, it drove him crazy that she had to work like a dog, and it was his goal to set her up in life so she would never have to work again. Providing for her was a main motivating factor for this loyal loving young man. And it is obvious that it was HER he felt that way about. When she died, he did not overwhelm his father with gifts. He had put his dad to work for him, in a way that he NEVER would have done to Gladys. Having her work for him would have been unthinkable. And when Vernon remarried a couple of years later, Elvis never really accepted it. It had been him and his mother against the world and he still felt that way, only now he was alone in it. That’s what those photos capture. Gladys Presley only had two years left to live at the time those photos were taken. It’s sad to look at them. You know the psychic rupture that that is going to cause when you see the intimacy of their body language.

It was so cool to hang out with all of these well-known photos, except to see them in another context, in giant sizes. They take on a whole other aspect when seen writ so large. They become Mythic. They really do.

I left the exhibit regretfully after an hour. I didn’t want to leave. I found myself almost in tears, and then laughed at myself.

I headed back down some random street, knowing the direction I needed to be going in, and knowing that I was vaguely in line with the road that would lead me to the Mosque Theatre once again, which then would get me to Main Street, back to my hotel.

I was tired.

I was happy.

It had been a really really excellent day.

I had a long drive ahead of me. But I would reach home by 10 p.m. According to plan. Everything had been perfect.

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9 Responses to Richmond Walking Tour: The Train Station, the Water Tower, and “Elvis at 21” at VMFA

  1. Kent says:

    The King was spotted in Richmond! Elvis needs water towers… Elvis needs water towers…

  2. sheila says:

    hahahaha Elvis Needs Water Towers and Cookies and Crackers!!

  3. Heather Foster says:

    Hey, thanks so much for linking to the Smithsonian’s blog article about Elvis in Richmond. We’ve had an absolute blast with the exhibition, and it sounds like you have too! Be sure to join the exhibition’s Facebook page:

  4. sheila says:

    Heather – I was so impressed by that series of blog posts at the Smithsonian, tracking down the changes in that train station and where Elvis was probably walking. It (and the exhibit, of course) was a major motivator for me traveling to Richmond. I thought the exhibit was wonderful. It was great to see those pictures so large, and so spread out. It was quite emotional. I will definitely follow along on Facebook!

  5. Thanks for the inspiration Sheila. I just added Richmond to my Dream Trip of Virginia Historical Sites (some day, some day). Hoping I can catch the photo exhibit in Memphis or Nashville later this year.

    And I don’t think you’re the least bit insane!…I mean, I understand perfectly! (feel free to insert maniacal laughter here)

  6. debra t says:

    Thanks for taking me along on your Elvis trip. As I have posted before I particularly like the photos with his mama. She lost her other boy at birth. I can’t imagine that pain.
    I bet she poured in so much love to her remaining son..he was the most precious thing to her and it’s palpable in these photos. I love to look at photos of moms who really love their sons. I got a few of my own.
    Thanks again. I went to their facebook page. Maybe someday the show will come out west to Seattle.
    Deb T.

  7. sheila says:

    Debra – I know, the pictures are so amazing. They are both very vulnerable and unembarrassed about their bond.

    I know she was a worrywart – and I think she had probably expected that Elvis would get a job as a truck driver, or an electrician, marry a nice girl, and always be near her. He became famous so young – and many people who knew her say that she never had a moment’s peace once he started performing regularly. He was gone constantly. You look at his schedule for 1955, 1956, and he was really only at home for a couple of weeks, all told, and maybe a weekend here and there. So it’s not like they had any time to ease into the separation. It was as though he had been deployed to a foreign country or something.

    He did his best to calm her down, calling her every day. But I think she never got over the feeling that she had lost him, essentially. She was proud of him, but his fame was more than she bargained for. Proud of him, yes, but sharing him with millions of fans? That would be hard for anyone to deal with.

    The images of her wandering around Graceland in her housedress, aimless, lost, having a chicken coop put in the front yard so she would have something to do … it’s kind of heartbreaking, and I think it broke Elvis’ heart too. She wasn’t really suited to live in the lap of luxury – he said that years later, she didn’t care about material things, she never changed.

    It’s sad.

    Conversely, I am glad that Elvis had that strong mother’s love for as long as he did. Even though her death ruined his life in many ways, at least he had that love until he was 22 years old. He was gonna need it. If she had died when he was 5 or 6 … you know, it would have been even worse for him.

    It’s a fascinating story and I am so grateful we have the pictures of them that we do. How many rock stars have mothers who are almost as famous as they are, and are acknowledged to be so much a part of their story??

    A book I highly recommend – is Elvis and Gladys, by Elaine Dundy. This may not be a popular opinion but I think it’s a better biography than Guralnick’s. It was written earlier, so some of her facts are wrong – certain things had not been uncovered – but it is an incredible attempt to understand this bond, and understand what it meant to Elvis. Fantastic book. Kudos to Elaine Dundy.

  8. Larry Aydlette says:

    My daughter and I went to see that exhibit in Boca Raton two years ago. It was great to see those photos at the proper size. Black and white rules. We stocked up at the gift shop, too — Elvis snow globe, book, guitar pick, etc.

  9. sheila says:

    Larry, I’m so psyched you saw it too! I was going to buy an awesome Elvis flip-book at the gift shop but then didn’t. They did have some great memorabilia, really cheesy and fun.

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