The Little Sisters of the Poor
The Warsaw Condominiums
On August 30, 1830, a square lot of land bordered by Harvie, Main , Plum Streets, and present-day Floyd Avenue was purchased by William Anderson. Located just outside the Richmond city limits at the time, a large brick house named the “the Warsaw ” was built on the newly-purchased land. The Warsaw ‘s owner, William Anderson, was a wealthy investor who owned a number of businesses within the city of Richmond , including a grocery store, barber shop, and the Washington Tavern. Insurance papers show that Anderson ‘s Warsaw property consisted of a large house with two smaller outlying buildings (a kitchen and stable). All buildings were made out of brick and had wooden roofs.
At the time, the Warsaw was the “only substantial new house built in the Sydney [neighborhood] area during the period from 1819-1838” (Carneal, 45). It soon became substantial for another yet another reason. In 1832, just two years after William Anderson had purchased the land, he rented the Warsaw to Andrew Stevenson, a Virginia Congressman who served as Speaker of the House from 1827 to 1834. The Stevenson family remained in residence at the Warsaw until he was appointed the American Minister to the United Kingdom in 1836. After the death of William Anderson that same year, the Warsaw property was transferred to his daughter, Mary Gilmer, with her father-in-law, Thomas Walker Gilmer (also the Governor of Virginia), serving as the land’s trustee. Mary Gilmer and her Presbyterian-minister husband, George Hudson Gilmer, owned Warsaw until it was bought by the Richmond Catholic Diocese in 1877.
In 1873, James Gibbons, Richmond ‘s fourth Roman Catholic Bishop, called on a mendicant order of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, to open a much-needed hospital for the elderly. Six members of the order arrived in Richmond On October 13, 1874, including their Mother Superior, Sister Virginia. Upon their arrival, the Little Sisters first set up the St. Sophia Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor at Marshall and Ninth Streets. As a hospital and home for the elderly, St. Sophia’s was open to “poor, aged, white persons” and soon became pressed for space (Fogarty, 231). As a result, Bishop Gibbons purchased the Warsaw property in 1877 to better suit the growing needs of Little Sisters.
Immediately after the Warsaw was purchased, the property underwent a large renovation to make it suitable for St. Sophia’s. The most important task was the creation of additional space. The existing brick house was simply too small to adequately house the number of elderly residents under the Little Sisters’ care. As a result, new north and south wings were added to the original structure, which was not demolished but rather “enveloped” within the new, Italianate-style, larger building. The transformation of the Warsaw property from house to hospital is also important because it remains “as the city’s major institutional structure of the period” ( Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission).
A second wave of renovation occurred in 1894. With St. Sophia’s yet again filled to capacity, more space was needed. This renovation, designed in the Second Empire style, added a new south wing to serve as a convent as well as an entire fourth floor addition. With more free space, the basement was completely remodeled for use as a large kitchen with facilities for dish washing, laundry, and storage. A new outbuilding was also created to house a community room, guest suite, barber, and a large footbath. By this time, the only existing outbuilding of the original Warsaw property was the stable, which was used by St. Sophia’s for storage. The still-prominent brick and iron retaining wall was also added at this time, in part for security, but mostly out of necessity. As the Fan District underwent large-scale expansion, the streets surrounding St. Sophia’s were subsequently lowered, making a substantial retaining wall necessary to support the grounds surrounding the institution.
St. Sophia’s Home continued to remain in use throughout the twentieth century, and as late as 1939 there were 15 sisters serving approximately 160 residents. With the exception of some modernization, there was very little was change to the property. In 1976, it was decided that the Little Sisters of the Poor and residents of St. Sophia’s would move to a new modern complex in Henrico County . After the order and residents departed, St. Sophia’s sat abandoned until 1982. During its six-year unoccupied period, the building fell into a great state of disrepair (in part due to vandalism). Interestingly, St. Sophia’s was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places as a Virginia Historic Landmark for its unique architecture in 1980. Two years later, Area Corporation, a local Richmond redevelopment firm, began a large-scale restoration of the St. Sophia property. The former institutional building was slated to be repurposed into a luxury condominium complex named “The Warsaw” after the original house built by William Anderson.
The redevelopment of St. Sophia’s Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor into the Warsaw Condominiums is unique because of the care taken to preserve the property’s historical and religious integrity. While necessary steps were taken to completely modernize the complex, wherever possible original architectural details have been preserved. One example of this is in the preservation of much of the original chapel structure. While it now houses a number of condominiums, the space has been divided into four floors, with a master bedroom now occupying the top floor of chapel’s chancel, or alter area. Although the original chapel windows have been replaced with modern ones, they still retain their original shape. Inside the main hallways, arched doorways and original windows have also been preserved. The basement, once used as the kitchen for the entire institution, has been altered very little and is now used for storage. Grand archways and vaulted ceilings that seem out of place for a normal basement or cellar still exist, in addition to a fireplace and bricked-in windows that perhaps belong to the original 1830 house.
Outside, the stable of the original Warsaw house is also still present, although it is now used for office and storage space. A large undated stone Marian grotto built by the Little Sisters of the Poor also remains close to the retaining wall bordering Floyd Avenue . Although the Little Sisters wished to take the grotto along with them, its immense size made it impossible (They were, however, able to transport the statues that would have occupied the grotto). Any crucifixes or other religious paraphernalia that existed within the original St. Sophia structure have also been removed by the order. Upon their departure, the Little Sisters of the Poor did leave two large paintings of nuns with the new owners. These paintings now hang prominently on the first and second floors, serving as an homage to the former occupants. As a private residence, the Warsaw Condominiums are gated and not open to the public; however, many of its exterior historical architectural features are visible from Harvie Street .
The Warsaw Condominiums
1401 Floyd Avene
Richmond , VA 23220
Personal Interview, The Warsaw Condominiums Manager
Area Corporation. The Warsaw : Restoration of a Dream . n.p ., n.d.
Carneal, Drew. Richmond ‘s Fan District . Richmond : The Council of Historic Richmond Foundation, 1996.
Fogarty, Gerald P. Commonwealth Catholicism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form for St. Sophia Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor . Richmond , VA : 1980.
Profile Prepared by Erica Johnson