Richmond Walking Tour: The Mosque and The Monuments

Robert E. Lee’s horse’s north-facing ass

After soaking up the elegance of The Jefferson Hotel, it was still only 9:30 or so, and I had a lot of ground to cover. I exited the Jefferson Hotel up on the Franklin side and then walked down the hill to the Main Street side. I took Main Street up the couple of blocks to Monroe Park, and the Mosque Theatre was on the other side of the park. I could see the two tall horn-like turrets up above the trees of the park. Main Street, Richmond, early morning, from that vantage point is a beautiful sight.

The park was quiet, with people walking their dogs, and sitting on benches. There were giant trees. I walked across the grass, and slowly the Mosque Theatre revealed itself in all its glory. What a structure, man.

It was built in the 1920s. Originally, films played there, but shows came to town as well and played the Mosque. The Ziegfeld Follies, giant New York stars like the Barrymores. Concerts, vaudeville entertainments, Rachmaninoff, you name it, the Mosque had it. In 1941, the Dorsey Brothers played there with their new young singer, Frank Sinatra. During World War II, the Mosque was commandeered as the headquarters for the Anti-Aircraft Command of Richmond. Along the front wall are the ticket windows under a little overhang, and the stone at the bottom is water-stained. The rest of it gleams in yellow brick. The minarets and turrets are topped with greenish copper, and the windows and arches are decorated with terra cotta ornaments. The detailing is incredible.

The marquee is the same one that was there when Elvis played there, except in the 50s there was a fancy art-deco sign above the marquee that said “MOSQUE”. Wertheimer has a picture with the same framing as my last photo there, with “Elvis Presley, Saturday, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.” in the marquee where it now says “Disney’s The Lion King”. I am so glad they haven’t really changed that marquee, even though it is really tiny and is dwarfed by the building. They certainly could have torn that overhang down and come up with something more flashy, a video screen, neon. But they haven’t. It remains old-fashioned, and there is a charm in that.

A dude buying a ticket, where tickets have always been sold, from the very beginning.

The Mosque is right up against the park, across Laurel Avenue, and I wonder if the fans had spilled back over into the park. I know they had completely surrounded the building, rending the air with excited screams so loud that Elvis had to peek his head out of the bathroom and ask people to quiet down for a little bit so they could rehearse. This was not the Elvis of the Vegas years, who would be rushed into the building 10 minutes before show time, and hustled out seconds after the show ended. Elvis hung around. During the short cab ride from the Jefferson to the Mosque, Elvis occupied his time strangling his date. Wertheimer writes in his book:

The cab drove up Main St., drifting through the still heat until it landed at the rear of the Mosque Theatre. I had expected Elvis to march directly up the backstage ramp, it was only twenty minutes to showtime, but instead, he laid back and held court with a the few young ladies who had gathered, all primly dressed in their Sunday best and ready with their Brownie cameras. For someone who was moving up pretty fast he never seemed to be in a rush. He always had time for the fans.

There are pictures of all of the fans gathered by that ramp, all those nice little Southern girls in pretty summer frocks and white gloves, all screaming their heads off.

Here is Elvis arriving at the ramp, half an hour before show time. You can see his mystery date at his side.

Of course I had to find that backstage ramp.

But he was up close and personal with all of his fans at this point. He had already played Richmond, the fans were thrilled to have him back. There are almost 5,000 seats in the Mosque. He played two sold-out shows that day (remembering that there were other people on the bill with him, another thing which shows that 1956 was a different world than even 1957 when Elvis would not only be a headliner, but nobody would come before him or after him. He stood alone.)

I saw the Mosque twice, one in the morning, and one later that day as I returned from my walking tour and was heading back to the hotel. So I got to see it in two different lights, morning and late afternoon, which was great because it’s the kind of building that changes depending on the quality of light. I imagine it can look pretty bleak on a rainy day. But those yellow bricks and those green domes burst into splendor in the long light of afternoon. Spectacular.

I wandered around the building, scoping out all the back entrances. I wondered which window Elvis had leaned out of, begging people to be quiet. I wished I could find the stairwell where he kissed his date. But it was enough to just see the thing. It has a storied history. New York often doesn’t honor its history, architecturally anyway. I never even saw the original Penn Station, but it is like a wound in my soul to think of what was torn down. It is a blight upon my city’s history. Especially considering the disgusting “modern” building erected in its place. How could you?? I think. There are certainly landmarks, but not like these old movie palaces. Of course our Broadway theatres have tons of history, and maintain the beauty of the original structure, in many cases. But there the Mosque stands, now called The Landmark, with a giant Lion King banner, and the ghosts of Duke Ellington and Ethel Barrymore and Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley literally shimmering in the foreground.

I continued on my way after my time at the Mosque. My next step was the Science Museum, which was originally a train station where Elvis would disembark when he came to town. The only reason I wanted to go there was to see that transformed hallway, but it ended up being such a beautiful structure all on its own that it was a wonderful place to hang out. The day was gorgeous. I walked across the college campus which surrounds the Mosque Theatre, all the college kids out and about, adorable and busy. I had my route planned out, I would walk up Monument Avenue and see the statues of all the traitors. Siobhan told me about Robert E. Lee’s horse’s ass facing North, and she also told me about the controversy around the most recent addition to the walkway, a statue of Arthur Ashe. Arthur Ashe, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. Sure. Makes sense. But she was more laughing about the controversy around the statue itself: Ashe holding up a tennis racket with all these little kids around him, and it looks like he’s about to go postal. Like … really? I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t sure when I would see my first monument. Then I basically turned a corner and saw this:

Just a wild guess, I’m not sure, but I think I’ve hit Monument Avenue.

That’s the first monument on the avenue and he sits in the middle of a big grassy traffic circle. That’s J.E.B. Stuart, a Confederate general. There were a couple of people walking dogs, but mainly I was alone. The houses lining the Avenue are phenomenal, stately mansions, prime real estate obviously.

Robert E. Lee’s statue was the first one up. It went up in the decade following his death, and is huge. Ridiculously huge. Again, it’s in the middle of a big grassy traffic circle with (amazingly) no gates or fences. So you can walk right up to it, and loll about on the blazing white marble steps at the base if you liked.

I had already walked quite a ways, so I chilled out there for a while, drank some water, looked up at Robert E. Lee’s horse’s ass.

I went to Stonewall Jackson’s monument which, like all the others, was enormous.

These are gorgeous statues but there’s such ugliness here, the statues emanate a dark angry light. It can’t be wished or rationalized away.

I couldn’t keep on that path, I had to veer off to go to the Science Museum and then on, over the Monument Avenue again, to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where Elvis at 21 awaited me.

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15 Responses to Richmond Walking Tour: The Mosque and The Monuments

  1. tracey says:

    ‘Dammit, I have a very interesting life.’

    You do, Sheila, you do.

    “Robert E. Lee’s horse’s north-facing ass.” Hahahahaha.

    On a random note — and this is so totally random that I won’t pursue it unless you want to hear it or don’t know it already — do you know what the horse’s raised/not raised legs mean on a statue? There’s a whole meaning to it. Which is so irrelevant to this post that I hate myself for even mentioning it.

    Okay. Dork out.

  2. tracey says:

    Okay. Entering dorksville …..

    Lemme get it straight. (Think, Trace.) Okay. If the horse in the statue has both legs raised, the man on the horse died in battle. If the horse has one leg up, the man died later from injuries sustained in battle but not on the field. If the horse has both legs down, the man died of natural causes.

    I cannot even explain why this is interesting to me. It just is.

    Now leaving dorksville …….. come back soon …………….

  3. sheila says:

    Interesting! So does that check out here? Let me go back and look.

  4. sheila says:

    Lee – natural causes
    Jackson – died in battle
    Stuart – died in battle

  5. tracey says:

    Hm. Why do I find Jackson died of pneumonia; Lee, natural causes; and Stuart from a bullet sustained in battle? Oh well. Now I’m confused, which is pretty normal for me. ;-)

  6. sheila says:

    I’m confused too. I think the pneumonia is related to a wound he sustained in battle.

  7. tracey says:

    It’s so dorky because whenever I see a statue like this now, I’m always checking it out to see if it, uhh, checks out and it always has.

  8. tracey says:

    So Stuart died AFTER the battle — so that’s the 1 leg. He didn’t die on the field, so to speak.

  9. tracey says:

    All right. Now I feel stupid. I’ve never really dug around that much on this — just accepted it at face value thereby being drawn inexorably into the Secret Cult of the Horses’ Legs. Turns out, it’s not necessarily true. It sometimes is and sometimes isn’t.

    So wow. It IS a cult.

  10. tracey says:

    FYI: I’m starting deprogramming now.

  11. sheila says:

    // Turns out, it’s not necessarily true. It sometimes is and sometimes isn’t. //


  12. tracey says:

    And look, I almost drew you in.


  13. sheila says:

    We’ve all been in cults before. It’s okay.

  14. Pingback: From 1956 to 2012: Follow Elvis’ journey through Richmond « The Mystery Train Blog

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