What's inside secret vaults found under The Wickham House in Richmond

Posted at 10:50 AM, Feb 19, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. -- At the corner of East Clay and 11th Street in Richmond, a new addition is revealing an old secret.

You can’t see it at ground level. To catch a glimpse, you must go below. Way below.

“Yes. They did build them to last,” Peter Post, with Peter Post Restoration, said. “Everything this side of you is under the street.”

Construction crews recently replaced the front steps of the 1812 Wickham House at The Valentine Museum.

The work revealed a pair of long-forgotten underground vaults.

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“The ingenuity that it took to create the space, and no one knows about it the surprise of it is quite giddy,” Post said. “It's quite exciting. This is the kind of thing that is quite exciting. Spaces like this in old buildings."

It’s a place where time has stood still for decades.

No electricity and no windows.

“I think this vault was built between 1820 to 1840,” Post said.

It’s dark, dank, and dungeon-like, but Post sees beauty in the brick.

“I am continually always fascinated and in wonderment about what they got done with the tools that they had back then compared to what we have today,” he said.

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Christina Vida, with The Valentine, said the museum is researching just who built the sturdy structures.

“The essence of over 100 years of work and labor and preservation really does hit you,” Vida said. “These weren’t just spaces for your home. These were places of Black labor, so we wanted to make sure while we were replacing the steps, we wanted to document the labor literally under our feet.”

Before refrigeration, Peter said underground vaults like these were used in the 19th century as cold storage to keep food from spoiling.

“They were all craftsmen back then. They did excellent work that has stood the test of time,” Post said.

On this day, Post led a small group of curious staff members and donors on a tour of the cramped quarters.

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Towards the end of the 1800s, Post said the rooms were converted to store coal to heat the home above.

“I’m very excited about it. Especially all of the uses. Especially because it is subterranean and mysterious,” Post said.

As you walk through life remember to always look up. But remember it is always fun to think about what secrets lay below.

“It is a thrill every time I go down one because it is a time capsule,” Post said. “It takes you back.”

Because the vaults are very difficult to reach, they will not be open to the public.

The work on the Wickham House’s steps should be wrapped up in the coming days.

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