Richmond is well-known for its rich history. As the capital of Virginia, not only is it the hub of our state’s government, but it also offers a lens through which to view the last 400+ years of our nation’s history. From Colonial times to present day, Richmond has been a key player in the development of our nation as a whole. Naturally, that means when it comes to visiting interesting historical sites and museums, you have plenty of options. But that’s not all that Richmond offers. And so today, we’re going to take a look at some of the more unique sites you can visit in the Greater Richmond area.
If you’ve got some extra time on your hands this summer or have family or friends visiting from out of town and want to show them some of the unique sites that make Richmond truly special, we’ve got just what you’re looking for. From a building that was inspired by a baked potato to a “ghost” church, Richmond’s unique sites have made national “weird and wonderful” lists for years, showing up on sites like Atlas Obscura, The Crazy Tourist, and more.
Today, we’ve picked our five favorite unique sites in the Greater Richmond area. But keep in mind, that while each of these unique sites are special in their own way, in keeping with the Richmond area’s tradition, they each offer some sort of special history. In other words, they’re not strange just for the sake of being strange. In fact, to make the list, we wanted each site to offer the following:
- Free visiting or viewability
- A unique backstory
- Historical significance
If you haven’t already visited the following five unique sites, then you’ll definitely want to add them to your summer bucket list. Whether you’re giving out of town visitors a tour or just want to show your kids something a little different, these five unique sites will remind you that Richmond is truly one-of-a-kind!
Mechanicsville – This open-air church is not called the “ghost church” because of actual apparitions, rather because today, the wall-less structure is merely a ghost of what it once was. This site’s long history began in the 1740s when Samuel Morris, a brick mason in Hanover County, built a “reading house” on his property to serve as a meeting place for religious dissenters and named it “Polegreen Church” after George Polegreen, a former landowner from the 1600s. The church was unique in that when the colonies were first founded in 1607, the Anglican Church was the only recognized religious group. It wasn’t until the Great Awakening of the 1730s that colonists began exploring other religious ideologies. The Polegreen Church was home to a congregation that rejected the Anglican Church as the sole form of religious expression and is considered one of the first non-Anglican churches in the nation.
In 1747, a young Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania named Samuel Davies arrived to pastor the congregation in Hanover. Davies was the first non-Anglican minister licensed to preach in Virginia and remained with the Hanover congregation for 12 years, during which time he served as a pioneer in promoting education for black slaves, as well as becoming a well-recognized hymn writer and one of the state’s greatest orators. A young Patrick Henry attended the church under Davies and cites him as a mentor for his own oration skills.
The church stood for more than a century until it was destroyed by fire during the Civil War. The congregants could not afford to rebuild the church, and the site fell into ruin until 1990 when the Presbytery of the James sought to preserve the site by locating the church’s original foundation. In 1991, the site was listed on the Register of National Historic Places and an open-air steel structure was erected to show the historic structure’s former dimensions. Today, visitors can learn about the religious and historic significance of the site, picnic on the grounds, and even get married in the church!
Location: 6411 Heatherwood DriveMechanicsville, Virginia 23116
Petersburg – When it comes to building houses, most folks prefer to build with materials like brick, stone, or wood. But when times are tough, just about anything will do as was the case for Oswald Young when, in 1934, he purchased more than 2,200 headstones from a local cemetery for $45 to build his house. The tombstones came from nearby Poplar Grove National Cemetery and had once marked the final resting place of Union soldiers who had died in the siege of Petersburg which lasted for nine months at the end of the Civil War. During the Great Depression, the marbled headstones were replaced with lower maintenance markers and so, Young seized an opportunity to pick up some cheap materials. Stories vary, but some say that Young turned the names and inscriptions on the stone inward and plastered over them, but the more likely story is that the bases of the stones were cut off and the top halves (with names and dates) were laid flat on the graves, while the bottom halves became Young’s building materials. Young used the stones to build his house, pave the walkway, and even construct the fireplace and chimney.
Naturally, the house is said to be haunted. Whether ghosts roam the halls or not, there’s no denying that it’s definitely one of the state’s more unique sites – so much so that it has even been featured in the book “Weird Virginia.” Today, you can drive by the house located in a residential neighborhood in Petersburg. If you want, you can also visit the recently renovated Poplar Grove National Cemetery where the Union soldiers are buried.
Location: 1736 Youngs Road, Petersburg, VA
Artists get their inspiration from a wide variety of places. Some are inspired by nature, others by emotions, and others still by experiences they’ve had. However, there aren’t many who would claim that their inspiration came from a baked potato. That is unless, of course, the artist in question is architect Haig Jamgochian. Jamgochian, a Richmond native, was commissioned to design a headquarters location for The Markel Corporation in 1962, and drew his design based on a foil-wrapped baked potato. Each floor of the building’s exterior is wrapped in a 555-foot piece of unbroken aluminum – the material influenced by the presence of Reynold’s Metals in Richmond and the length chosen because it’s the same as the height of the Washington Monument. Much of the aluminum was “crinkled” by Jamgochian himself with a sledgehammer.
Digital Journal called the Markel Building one of “The World’s 10 Ugliest Buildings” in 1992, but ugly or not, it’s definitely worthy of making our list of unique sites! Today, this giant ode to aluminum foil stands as the only remaining piece of Jamgochian’s work after his “Moon House”, a bulletproof glass house with a crescent moon-shaped roof that he designed for Howard Hughes, was torn down.
The Markel Building is located near downtown Richmond just a block off of Broad Street and less than three miles north of the Science Museum of Virginia.
Location: 5310 Markel Rd, Richmond, VA 23230
While not as “weird” as some of the other sites we’ve mentioned so far, there’s no denying that the Grand Kugel, located outside of the Science Museum of Richmond, is one of the most unique sites in Richmond – and one of the coolest. A “kugel” is a perfectly spherical ball that sits on a matching concave platform with only a thin layer of water between them. The water allows the ball to roll easily within the stand, regardless of how large the ball is. And in the case of the Grand Kugel, large is an understatement. Originally unveiled by the Science Museum of Virginia in 2003, the first Grand Kugel was carved from an 86-ton block of South African black granite, measured 8 feet, 8.7 inches in diameter, and came with a $1.5 million price tag.
Unfortunately, the first installation began to crack and had to be replaced in 2005. Today, the Grand Kugel sits in front of the museum and although it weighs 29 tons, it can be moved with the slightest touch. The Guinness Book of World Records has recognized Richmond’s Grand Kugel as the largest of its kind in the world. While there is a cost for admission to the museum, visits to the kugel are free.
Location: 2500 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220
A cemetery may not always be your first choice for a family outing…unless you’re planning a trip to Hollywood Cemetery, that is. In fact, in addition to being one of the richest and most beautiful historical sites in Richmond, Hollywood Cemetery is the second most-visited cemetery in the nation. This 135-acre “garden cemetery” offers incredible scenery and river views and serves as the final resting place of two American presidents, six Virginia governors, and two Supreme Court justices, as well as thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers and a variety of other notable figures.
But what makes this charming and eerily beautiful space one of our favorite unique sites in Richmond is the abundance of ghostly statues and sombre mausoleums that fill the grounds. And as you might imagine, a place like this doesn’t exist as long as it has without acquiring a legend or two. Some of the more famous stories surrounding this site include a vampire said to live in the mausoleum of W.W. Poole, the ghost of a little girl who plays with the cast iron dog set to watch her grave, and moaning spirits that come from a pyramid built in 1869 to honor the 18,000 enlisted Confederate troops buried at Hollywood.
Urban legends aside, if you’ve never seen Hollywood Cemetery for yourself, be sure to take advantage of their free daily admission, free virtual tours and/or a variety of other guided tours.
Location: 412 South Cherry Street, Richmond, VA 23220
For more great resources, sites, and entertainment in the Greater Richmond area, be sure to visit our entire Best of Richmond series – only on Richmond Mom!