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A look back at the history of Grubbs Auto Service - soon to be the VCU Maker Garage.
A look back at the history of Grubbs Auto Service - soon to be the VCU Maker Garage.

VCU Engineering’s newest building has a past

What has the site of VCU’s upcoming Maker Garage been up to these last 130 years?

New College of Engineering signs installed on VCU Maker Garage
UPDATE 4/4/19: New signage installed on Maker Garage

The industrial-chic brick building at 12 W. Cary Street, known to the community for decades as Grubbs Auto Service, will soon reopen as VCU’s Maker Garage. Here, students will design and build high-performance Formula SAE cars, Hyperloop vehicles and other pieces of transportation’s future.

Like all repurposed structures, this one has a past. VCU is simply its newest caretaker. Let’s take a walk down Memory Lane and discover the history of this familiar cinder block structure, of the brick home that once stood in its place and why the site’s connection to transportation makes this a natural home for the next generation of vehicles.

VCU Engineering is simply the newest caretaker of the storied property most recently known throughout the community as Grubbs’ Auto Service.
VCU Engineering is simply the newest caretaker of the storied property most recently known throughout the community as Grubbs’ Auto Service. (Photo by Dan Wagner, VCU College of Engineering)

Little is known about houses that may have stood on this block of Cary Street before the late 1880s. The end of that decade, however, was a time of record growth and prosperity for Richmond. Population soared to 81,000 and upscale neighborhoods were proliferating.

12 W. Cary first appears in the Richmond City Directory in 1889 as a family residence. The owner — and possible builder — of the house was William Gibson. A carpenter by training, he and his wife, Jesse, had immigrated to Virginia from Scotland some time before 1860. In Richmond, Gibson became a prosperous contractor who oversaw major building projects for the city. He was building the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart when he died in 1903 at age 79.

The December 20, 1903, Richmond Times-Dispatch obituary of William Gibson. A wealthy builder whose company built the Richmond City Jail and worked on the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Gibson is the first known resident of 12 W. Cary Street.
The December 20, 1903, Richmond Times-Dispatch obituary of William Gibson. A wealthy builder whose company built the Richmond City Jail and worked on the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Gibson is the first known resident of 12 W. Cary Street. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Around the time Gibson’s house was built, Richmond was gaining international fame for a major engineering achievement: the world’s first electric commercial trolley. More than 60 cities worldwide attempted this feat before Richmond succeeded. For this reason, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway is listed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as an IEEE Milestone for 1888.

Richmond’s expanding trolley map made Gibson’s house increasingly desirable. By 1900, streetcars ran along Cary and Main Street, and on First Street, a block and a half east of the house. The alley directly behind the house even connected to a streetcar maintenance bay.

Trolley tracks from the alley to the back of the current building’s interior are still visible.
Trolley tracks from the alley to the back of the current building’s interior are still visible. (Photo by Dan Wagner, VCU College of Engineering)

After Gibson’s death, his daughter Margaret F. Buchanan and granddaughters Jessie and Isabelle Buchanan continued on in the house. As evidence of their means, in 1909 all three women are listed on the manifest of the S.S. Furnessia ocean liner returning to New York from Glasgow, Scotland, perhaps from visiting relatives.

Mrs. M.F. Buchanan, Jessie Buchanan and Isabelle Buchanan, Gibson’s daughter and granddaughters, are listed on the manifest of the S.S. Furnessia, an ocean liner returning to the U.S. from Scotland in 1909.
Mrs. M.F. Buchanan, Jessie Buchanan and Isabelle Buchanan, Gibson’s daughter and granddaughters, are listed on the manifest of the S.S. Furnessia, an ocean liner returning to the U.S. from Scotland in 1909. (Image courtesy of FamilySearch, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

“No. 12 W. Cary St.” was listed for sale in 1907, described as a “very desirable Brick Dwelling” with nine rooms and “modern conveniences.” It had four subsequent inhabitants: a politically-minded sheriff, a family of clerks, a tailor and a thrift shop. It also has at least two significant connections to Richmond’s Baptist community. (See timeline below.)

An ad for a “very desirable Brick House” at 12 W. Cary ran in the June 2, 1907, Richmond Times-Dispatch.
An ad for a “very desirable Brick Dwelling” at 12 W. Cary ran in the June 2, 1907, Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
From John E. Epps’ March 12, 1911, obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Called “the honest blacksmith,” he served as the city’s sheriff and deputy city sergeant.
From John E. Epps’ March 12, 1911, obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Called “the honest blacksmith,” he served as the city’s sheriff and deputy city sergeant. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Moffett Booker grew up at 12 W. Cary Street. He was the minister of historic Branch’s Baptist Church 1951 - 1962.
Rev. Moffett Booker grew up at 12 W. Cary Street. He was the minister of historic Branch’s Baptist Church 1951 - 1962. (Photo courtesy of James Dillard)

In the 1940s, busses and cars made the trolleys less relevant. On November 25, 1949, Richmond’s trolleys made a final parade down Main Street before the history-making streetcars were ceremonially burned.

Over time, Cary Street became increasingly industrial. In her 1950 book “Old Neighborhoods of Richmond,” Richmond historian Mary Wingfield Scott lamented that “Cary Street, once a prosperous residence-district, has become a speedway to the financial district . . . . One old house after another has given place to a filling station. . . and the arid waste of gas-tanks.”

In keeping with the trend, the Electrical Equipment Storage Company bought 12 W. Cary in 1950. The original house stood for another decade. On June 22, 1960, the Electrical Equipment Storage Company demolished the house to make way for its new building, the structure that would later become fondly known as Grubbs Auto Service.

The original brick house was demolished June 22, 1960, to make way for a new cinder block industrial structure with a bigger footprint. This image from the property card at the City of Richmond Assessor’s Office depicts the new building’s footprint alongside a crossed-out sketch of the earlier building’s
The original brick house was demolished June 22, 1960, to make way for a new cinder block industrial structure with a bigger footprint. This image from the property card at the City of Richmond Assessor’s Office depicts the new building’s footprint alongside a crossed-out sketch of the earlier building’s. (Image courtesy of the City of Richmond Assessor’s Office)

The current building covers the footprints of both the house and the trolley maintenance station behind it. Traces of the latter survive. Trolley tracks from the alleyway into the back of the current building are still visible. In the very back of the interior is the elevated platform that gave technicians access to streetcar motors.

The current building includes the former streetcar maintenance station that was behind the original house’s backyard. Trolley cars could pull into the station from the alley. The elevated platform gave mechanics and electricians access to the car’s systems.
The current building includes the former streetcar maintenance station that was behind the original house’s backyard. Trolley cars could pull into the station from the alley. The elevated platform gave mechanics and electricians access to the car’s systems. (Photo by Dan Wagner, VCU College of Engineering)

The Electrical Equipment Storage Company remained until 1977. The building was sold in 1979 to Thomas and Hazel Harris for $65,000. It became Harris Automotive Repair, a four-bay garage that operated until 1986.

The Electrical Equipment Storage Company, the first of three businesses to occupy 12 W. Cary Street after the new structure was built.
The Electrical Equipment Storage Company, the first of three businesses to occupy 12 W. Cary Street after the new structure was built. (Image courtesy of the City of Richmond Assessor’s Office)

In 1987, William and Audrey Grubbs bought the property for $175,000 and opened Grubbs Auto Service, which was celebrated by customers for its service and prices. “I asked my coworkers and friends and they all highly recommended Grubbs' over by VCU,” one customer said. “I was not disappointed. It was a friendly, mom and pop-style car service and the cost was very reasonable!”

William and Audrey Grubbs bought the property in 1987 and opened Grubbs Auto Service, beloved by its many customers for friendly, reliable service and good prices. Upon the death of her husband in 2017, Mrs. Grubbs sold the building to the VCU College of Engineering Foundation.
William and Audrey Grubbs bought the property in 1987 and opened Grubbs Auto Service, beloved by its many customers for friendly, reliable service and good prices. Upon the death of her husband in 2017, Mrs. Grubbs sold the building to the VCU College of Engineering Foundation. (Photo by Dan Wagner, VCU College of Engineering)

Upon the death of her husband in 2017, Mrs. Grubbs sold the building to the VCU College of Engineering Foundation. When students and their professors move into their new Maker Garage, the past and future will converge. Computers and flat-screens will flicker alongside old-school wood- and metalworking tools. New inventors will use them all as they imagine — and build — powerful new vehicles this space’s former occupants could have only dreamed of.

Special thanks to Janina Holly for research assistance.

12 W. Cary Street | Timeline | 1889 - 2019

DateEvent
1889 - 1903

Residence of William Gibson and family
William Gibson was a Scottish-born carpenter who became a successful contractor in Richmond. By 1889, Gibson was widowed and lived at 12 W. Cary with his daughter Margaret F. Buchanan and granddaughters Jessie and Isabelle Buchanan. He was building the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart at the time of his death in 1903.

1903 - 1909

Residence of Mrs. M.F. Buchanan and Jessie Buchanan
Daughter and granddaughter of William Gibson.

1909 - 1911

Residence of John E. Epps and family, plus one servant
John E. Epps was a blacksmith who rose through the political ranks, serving on the city council and general assembly. Called “the honest blacksmith,” Epps was Sheriff of Richmond from 1902 until his death in 1911. He was also appointed deputy city sergeant in 1909. Epps lived at 12 W. Cary with his wife Ellen and two grown children: William (age 26 and a paper mill clerk) and Leila (age 21 and a railway office clerk). Oscar Lipscombe also lived there as a servant.

1911 - 1939

Residence of James M. Booker and family
James M. Booker was chief clerk of a hotel. Booker and his wife Leila had four children by 1920: Mary (age 19 and a government clerk); James (age 11); Moffett (age 5) and Wallace (age “2 ¾”). The 1930 census reports the senior Booker was no longer working and James Jr., now 21, was a bookkeeper for a chemical company.  

1940

Residence and workplace of Richard H. Mann, Tailor
12 W. Cary’s final resident was a tailor named Robert H. Mann, who was there for one year. The address appears to have been Mann’s residence and workplace, indicating that the house may have been reconfigured as a store front with a residence upstairs.

1941 - 1949

The Baptist Goodwill Center
The house was repurposed as the Baptist Goodwill Center. These centers at the time were often part second-hand shop and part jobs program through which unemployed people could be trained and hired to mend donated clothing and repair household items. Another, possibly related, connection exists between the house and Richmond’s Baptist history. James Booker’s second youngest son, Moffett Booker, was the minister of Branch’s Baptist Church from 1951 through 1962. Branch’s Church built a large new sanctuary in 1948, a year before the Goodwill Center closed and three years before Rev. Booker became Branch’s minister.

1949

The end of Richmond’s trolley era
In the 1940s, busses and cars made the trolleys less relevant. On November 25, 1949, Richmond’s trolleys made a final parade down Main Street before the history-making streetcars were ceremonially burned. This portion of Cary Street became increasingly industrial.

1950

Electrical Equipment Storage Company
The Electrical Equipment Storage Company bought 12 W. Cary in 1950. The original house stood for another decade.

1960

Electrical Equipment Storage Company’s new building
On June 22, the Electrical Equipment Storage Company demolished the brick house to make way for the building that would later become known as Grubbs Auto Service. The building covers the footprints of both the house and the trolley maintenance station behind it. Trolley tracks from the alleyway into the back of the current building are still visible. In the very back of the interior is the elevated platform that gave technicians access to streetcar motors.

1979 Harris Automotive Repair
Thomas and Hazel Harris purchased the property for $65,000. It became Harris Automotive Repair, a four-bay garage that operated until 1986.
1987 Grubbs Auto Service
William and Audrey Grubbs bought the property for $175,000 and opened Grubbs Auto Service, which was celebrated by customers for its prices and service.
2017 Sale of Grubbs Building
Upon her husband’s death in 2017, Mrs. Grubbs sold the property to the VCU College of Engineering Foundation. Together with the college, they have further invested in remodeling the building so that engineering students will have cutting-edge makerspace facilities that will enable them to innovate and develop new technologies for 21st century transportation.
2019 VCU Maker Garage
VCU College of Engineering opens the Maker Garage, a makerspace for high-performance automotive projects.