|Born||April 24, 1824
New York City, New York
|Died||October 2, 1897
|Occupation||Tobacco business, real-estate developer, military officer, banker, philanthropist|
|Known for||Allen & Ginter, Jefferson Hotel, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Ginter Park|
Major Lewis Ginter (April 24, 1824 – October 1, 1897) was a prominent businessman, military officer, real estate developer, and philanthropist centered in Richmond, Virginia. A native of New York City, Ginter accumulated a considerable fortune throughout his numerous business ventures and became Richmond’s wealthiest citizen despite his exceptionally modest demeanor. While the Jefferson Hotel, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, and Ginter Park embody some of Ginter’s major urban contributions to Richmond, many of his philanthropic gifts were given anonymously to charitable organizations and individuals in need. His continued devotion to Richmond is captured in his famous remark, “I am for Richmond, first and last.”
Lewis Ginter was born to John and Elizabeth Ginter, a Dutch immigrant couple, on April 24, 1824 in New York City. His father owned a grocery store, but died soon after Ginter was born. Several years later, Ginter's mother died, leaving him to be raised by his older sister and brother with their relatives.
In 1842, at the age of eighteen, Ginter relocated to Richmond, Virginia to open up a shop selling toys. He had visited the city at least once before with an uncle. Ginter soon moved from selling toys to merchandising fine linens, and encountered great success. By 1856, he formed a partnership with his nephew, George Arents, and John F. Alvey to begin marketing wholesale linens. Ginter traveled throughout the United States and Europe in search of high quality linens and amassed a considerable fortune before the beginning of the American Civil War. Preparing for unpredictable times, Ginter invested in large quantities of tobacco, sugar, and cotton that were stored in Richmond warehouses in order to protect his wealth.
Although he was originally from the North, Ginter supported his adopted home in the Confederacy by buying Confederate bonds and waiving outstanding debts. In 1861, he joined the Confederate Army and received praise from his superiors for his heroic and logical behavior on several occasions, which earned him the nickname “The Fighting Commissary.” Ginter eventually rose to the rank of Major under Generals Joseph R. Anderson and A.P. Hill, and retained this title from affectionate Southerners long after the war ended. Ginter was present during Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, and returned to Richmond several days later.
Upon his return to Richmond, Ginter found the city in a state of total disrepair. His warehouse stores of tobacco and sugar were destroyed during a citywide fire, though his cotton remained unscathed. With little economic opportunity in Richmond, Ginter decided to return to New York City to pursue a career in banking. He joined the firm Harrison, Goddin, & Apperson and encountered great financial success. But his regained fortune was short-lived. The Panic of 1873 forced Ginter to use his personal fortune to settle heavy debts his firm incurred. Having lost all of his wealth once again, Ginter decided to return to Richmond.
Return to Richmond
In 1873, Ginter joined John F. Allen to form Allen & Ginter, a partnership selling foreign made tobacco. Shortly after, Ginter thought of manufacturing Virginia made cigarettes to compete with foreign products, and Allen & Ginter released their first line of domestic cigarettes as the "Richmond Gems" in 1875. Early production began in a factory with twenty young ladies who hand-rolled the cigarettes. The domestic cigarettes enjoyed phenomenal success, and Ginter began designs for more brands. Allen & Ginter soon released "Perfection," "Napoleon," "Virginia Pets," and "Old Dominion." By 1888, the company employed over 1,000 workers and cigarette production increased from 100,000 per month to 2,000,000 per day. Allen & Ginter eventually opened offices in London, Paris, and Berlin in order to meet foreign demand for their products. With growing competition in the tobacco industry, Ginter commissioned custom designed cigarette machine rollers. Allen & Ginter continued to prosper until they merged with J. B. Duke, Kinney Tobacco, and Goodwin & Company to form the American Tobacco Company in 1890. Ginter was offered presidency, but declined and remained a director until his death.
Although Ginter had lived in Richmond for several decades, he did not purchase his first home until 1886. He invited his brother, George, and sister, Jane Arents, and her three daughters, Grace Evelyn, Joanna, and Minnie, to live with him at 405 East Cary Street. In 1888, he built a Late-Victorian three-story house at 901 West Franklin Street, currently known as the Ginter House. This construction sparked a trend as many elegant, new homes soon popped up along Franklin Street.
Ginter was inspired by the suburban developments in Melbourne and Sydney that he visited on one of many business trips marketing for Allen & Ginter. Beginning in 1888, Ginter and John Pope began purchasing large tracts of land on the northern side of Richmond in Henrico County with the intention of developing suburbs. Their purchases included Westbrook Plantation, which they developed into a grand country estate. The Westbrook house included a private barbershop and one-lane bowling alley, and earned a reputation as "one of the grandest homes in the South." Ginter and Pope divided the large swaths of land into residential plots and provided many extravagant amenities, such as fresh artesian wells, tile sewer lines, roads covered with crushed stone, and the extension of the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, the nation’s first electric tram system. The neighborhood, known as Ginter Park, attracted the Union Theological Seminary and was eventually annexed to the City of Richmond. Ginter also had a hand in developing several nearby neighborhoods. He established the Lakeside Wheel Club in 1894, and built a nine-hole golf course and a small zoo.
Always eager to improve Richmond, Ginter hired architects Carrere and Hastings in 1892 to design a world-class hotel known as the Jefferson. An estimated 5-10 million dollars were invested in the realization of the hotel before it opened on October 31, 1895. Upon opening, it was immediately praised as one of the finest hotels in the country. Ginter commissioned Edward V. Valentine to create a life-size sculpture of Thomas Jefferson from Carrara marble to be displayed as the centerpiece of the upper lobby. Additional novelties included exotic palm trees from Central and South America, numerous antiques, Turkish and Russian baths, electric elevators, and for a brief period, alligators in the outdoor fountain. Not only did the Jefferson become an icon of Ginter’s immeasurable dedication to his adopted city, it symbolized Richmond’s growing post-war prosperity.
While working as a banker in New York City, Ginter met John Pope, a young messenger boy who delivered packages to Ginter’s firm. Pope was born in New York City in 1856 to a German immigrant family. His father was a shoemaker, and Pope acquired the delivery job at the age of 14 to help his family make ends meet. Ginter recruited Pope to join his newly formed tobacco company, Allen & Ginter. Shortly thereafter, Ginter relocated back to Richmond, and brought Pope along with him.
The two began an enduring partnership that would last for the remainder of their lives. Pope quickly became Ginter’s trusted business partner and assumed a number of executive roles, including Vice President of Allen & Ginter in 1888, and President of the Crystal Ice Company, James River Marl and Bone Phosphate Company, and Powhatan Clay Manufacturing Company. Like Ginter, Pope was involved in a number of philanthropic activities, and strove to avoid the public’s eye.
Ginter and Pope remained lifelong bachelors and lived together until Pope's death in 1896. Pope was buried in a plot in Hollywood Cemetery that Ginter had reserved for himself. While their relationship was never explicitly romantic, Ginter reportedly "never sought the company of women."
The death of Ginter's close companion John Pope left him noticeably distraught. Ginter also suffered from diabetes, and his health quickly declined before being bedridden at his Westbrook estate. After two months of severe debilitation, Ginter died on October 2, 1897. His funeral was regarded as one of the largest in Richmond's history, and he remains interred in a private mausoleum in Hollywood Cemetery, overlooking the James River.
At the time of his death, Ginter had amassed one of the largest personal fortunes in the South. His enduring commitment to Richmond is evidenced in his significant investments in real estate, business, and most notably, his philanthropic activity. Even while Ginter was traveling abroad, he reportedly ordered items from Richmond to support local merchants. His will included gifts to almost every charity and public institution in the city. The remainder of his wealth was left to his relatives, including his niece, Grace Arents, who continued in her uncle’s charitable footsteps. Arents adapted the Lakeside Wheel Club into a progressive farm that was known as Bloemendaal, which she later set up to become Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. She also developed St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, St. Andrew's School, built playgrounds, and funded numerous schools and medical institutions. In 1897, the Richmond Dispatch praised him as "one whose public spirit and broad charity have made his name familiar and honored throughout this city, which he loved so well, did so much to build up and beautify."
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