The Richmond History Podcast

Monday, May 14, 2012

Armitage Manufacturing Company

Continental Can Company, photo by Jeff Majer

Driving down Williamsburg Ave in Richmond's east end, Fulton Gas Works stands out as a landmark, but few pay any attention to the warehouse across the street at 3200 Williamsburg Ave, or realize that the two complexes are linked in their histories and at one time were linked physically.

First National Bank, 825 E Main St. RVA, photo by Jeff Majer
The section of the building that faces Williamsburg Ave is the oldest part of the building and was built in 1900 to replace the original building that burned.  The property was bought and developed by the Armitage Manufacturing Company from George T. King who ran the adjacent Richmond City Mill. The Armitage Manufacturing Co. made building materials including tarred felt, oil, black varnish roofing papers, paints, and 2 &3 ply roofs from the coal-tar by product from Fulton Gas Works across the avenue.1  At one time there was even a train trestle elevated over the street from the Fulton Gas Works' coal shed to the east side of the Armitage building physically connecting them.  Armitage products were used in many prominent buildings including the Jefferson Hotel, The American National Bank, The Mutual Insurance Building, The Richmond Cedar Works, and The Galliano Flour Mill, to name just a few in Richmond and they even supplied materials as far away as the Panama Canal project.  Three generations of The Armitage Family, who were from Pennsylvania, ran the plant in Richmond.  At the time it would have been surrounded by other industries like Richmond City Mills, Shockoe Tobacco factories, and the Industry from Rockett’s Landing.

Loading Docks added in the 1950's, photo by Jeff Majer
Not only did they supply materials for prominent buildings, their building is significant as well. It was one of the first buildings designed by Noland & Baskervill (now Baskervill & Sons), who has had their hands in many prominent building including, but not limited to the 1904 addition and renovation of the Capitol.2

West side of the building, Photo by Jeff Majer
In 1913 Armitage went bankrupt and the building was sold at auction.  The next long-term occupant was The Fibre Board Container Company.  The company founded by David & Leo Donati, life long residents of Richmond's East End, moved into the factory in 1916 and began supplying corrugated shipping containers to Richmond's industrial companies including American Tobacco.  The Robert Gair Company Inc., a national paper and container manufacturer acquired the Fibre Board Container Company.  In the 1890's Robert Gair invented the folded, precut cardboard box and created an empire replacing expensive wooden boxes with cheap corrugated cardboard.3  The Fibre Board Company became one of about 25 firms absorbed by The Robert Gair Company.  This Richmond plant became one of the most productive of the 22 corrugated plants run by the Gair Company, employing about 150 people from Church Hill, Fulton and even as far away as Charles City County.  The employees were about 60% white and 40% black and made up of both men and woman.  They made cardboard containers for the Shockoe tobacco companies, DuPont, BF Goodrich, Planters Peanuts, and more.  During WWII tobacco retained its first place slot in Richmond's economy but paper packaging became number two, much of which was for the Federal Government and the war effort.

East side Loading dock, Continental Can Co can still be seen at the top of the wall, photo by Jeff Majer
Continental Can Company bought the plant in 1956, trying to diversify into paper packaging.  In 1977, the Continental Group as they became known moved out closer to the airport and then sold the building in 1979.

Much of the complex is hidden in the woods, photo by Jeff Majer
The building facing Williamsburg Ave dates to 1900 but there were additions added in 1928, 1930, 1954, 1960, and 1974.2  In the 50's the loading docks were added and a large barrel roofed, metal bowstring truss was added to the north east corner of the ware house for paper storage.

For the last 37 years Jim Carreras has owned the building and he has told me that it is mostly used for storage.  They have had some interest in developing the 4.56 acres property but nothing has come though...yet.  For more information on development or availability call 804-358-2342.

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  1. And you call yourself HISTORY!!! Don't you know why that "train trestle" was there? Take a walk just a wee bit up the tracks behind the building and hello, there's the entrance to the eastern terminus of the fabled and notorious Church Hill Tunnel! That trestle carried the tracks from the tunnel portal back out to the main line.

  2. Dear Anonymous,
    Thank you very much for you sassy comment. Yes I am very aware of the trestle from the Church Hill train tunnel and as far as I can tell, no that is not the one I am talking about, so that is why I didn't mention that. As the Fulton train yard was the largest in VA it would have been a bit too busy to have much smaller loads of coal simply crossing the street, and the majority of the traffic would have been moving east while the trestle I am talking about would have only carried stuff west. If you have some information that I am not aware of I would love to know what it is. Please come back to question me more often. The dialog is what its all about.

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