Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Grace Evelyn Arents (1848–20 June 1926), philanthropist, was born in New York City, the youngest of three sons and three daughters of Stephen Arents and Jane Swain Ginter Arents. Her father, a cedar cooper, died in January 1855. Jane Arents's unmarried younger brother Lewis Ginter, who had been in the mercantile business in Richmond between 1842 and the outbreak of the Civil War, returned to that city from New York in 1873. By 1879 Jane Arents and Grace Arents were living with him in an affluent and fashionable Richmond neighborhood. At his death in 1897 Ginter was one of the wealthiest tobacco manufacturers in Virginia and one of Richmond's greatest benefactors. He left his estate to his nieces and nephews, among whom Grace was often said to have been his favorite.

Shy by nature, Grace Arents carefully guarded her privacy throughout her life. However, her charitable generosity, which followed the example set by both her uncle and her mother, brought her much public notoriety. She developed a special concern for the plight of the local poor and on their behalf unselfishly made donations that were often unsolicited and anonymous. Joining Saint Paul's Episcopal Church after moving to Richmond, Arents was introduced to its mission offshoot, Saint Andrew's Church in the Oregon Hill community, by her friend Annie Woodlief Jeffery, with whom she had run the short-lived Richmond Circulating Library in 1879 and 1880. After her mother's death in July 1890 Arents took Saint Andrew's under her protective wing. Beginning with her donation of a pipe organ for the church in 1890, Arents acted to meet nearly all of its financial needs by donating property, financing the construction and maintenance of a number of new church buildings, and contributing $70,000 for the erection of an impressive Gothic Revival church that was dedicated in 1903.

The church became a social center in its working-class neighborhood, due largely to Arents's philanthropic efforts. She also built a public bath close to the church and began a library nearby, which in 1899 became the first free circulating-library in Richmond. In her will she provided funds to guarantee the library's continued operation after her death under the guidance of the Saint Andrew's Association, of which she was a founding member and director. The library subsequently became part of the William Byrd Community Center. Ginter's Franklin Street mansion, which Arents had coinherited with an older sister and then acquired in her sole right as her own residence in 1900, later housed the Richmond Public Library for several years.

Recognizing a need for educational and social improvement programs in the neighborhood, Arents instituted a church sewing school in 1894 and a kindergarten in 1895. The success of the kindergarten program persuaded Arents to underwrite the building of Saint Andrew's School in 1901. To finance the tuition-free institution, she built several comfortable houses in the vicinity and endowed the school with the proceeds from the rents. The buildings were the city's first subsidized housing units. Saint Andrew's School educated boys and girls in both trade and academic subjects and offered evening classes for working adults. Arents went on to donate funds and a city lot for the construction of an elementary school for basic public education in Oregon Hill. Completed in 1912, the Grace Arents School (now Open High School) stands at the corner of Pine and China Streets.

Arents funded similar improvements in Ginter Park, the area that her uncle had developed in the city's Northside. She had in fact supported so many charities and institutions in Richmond by the time of her death that the author of her front-page obituary in the Richmond News Leader wrote that it would be impossible to list all of the libraries, recreational centers, schools, churches, hospitals, and similar institutions that she had aided. She gave personally to many of the city's clergymen, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, for programs to care for the poor and sick and to educate children. She also established a hospital for poor children at Bloemendaal, a property in the Lakeside neighborhood of Henrico County, near Richmond, originally acquired by Lewis Ginter to house the Lakeside Wheel Club. The Instructive Visiting Nurse Association, of which Arents was a strong supporter, began its home-care program in the city in the 1910s and thereby reduced the need for institutional care for sick children. She then moved to Bloemendaal herself and lived the final decade of her life there in quiet seclusion, continuing her philanthropic work.

Arents's greatest personal pleasures were reading (despite her extremely poor eyesight), gardening, and travel. Although few of her papers survive to shed light on her deliberately private life, two extant foreign travel diaries reveal a hunger for knowledge. She indulged her love of gardening during her residence at Bloemendaal. By developing the property as an ideal small farm of approximately seventy-two acres, she made it a model of land use to Virginia farmers and gardeners. In her will, which she wrote and dated on 26 July 1925, she granted her friend Mary Garland Smith a life interest in Bloemendaal, after which it was to become the property of the city of Richmond. By 1981 the trust that she created for the farm amounted to $2.6 million, and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden at Bloemendaal subsequently became a major horticultural center in Virginia.

For much of her life Arents refused to be photographed, never had a portrait painted, and seldom appeared in public, even in association with one of the many charitable institutions she had founded or endowed. Grace Evelyn Arents died of a heart attack at Bloemendaal on 20 June 1926 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Sources Consulted:
Mary Holt Carlton, "Grace Evelyn Arents: Child of Light," Richmond Quarterly 4 (fall 1981): 49–51; feature articles in Richmond News Leader, 19 Dec. 1946, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 30 Aug. 1970, and Richmond Style Weekly, 24 Feb. 1998 (portrait); year of birth on gravestone corroborated by age given in United States Census Schedules, New York City, 1850, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Arents's commonplace book, 1868–ca. 1876, and her travel journals, 1888 and 1896, both in Lewis Ginter Papers, and some Arents letters in Bagby Family Papers, all in Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond; William N. Glenn, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and Its Environs (1978); Mary H. Mitchell and Robert S. Hebb, "A History of Bloemendaal," Bloemendaal: The Newsletter of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens 1 (autumn 1986), 3–18; vertical files, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond; vertical files, Richmond Public Library; obituaries in Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 21 June 1926, and New York Times, 22 June 1926.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by George C. Longest.

How to cite this page:
George C. Longest,"Grace Evelyn Arents (1848–1926)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Arents_Grace, accessed [today's date]).

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