Richard Alvin Siewers, for nearly a quarter of a century before his death in 1909, was one of the outstanding building contractors of the city of Richmond, Virginia. Through his business, he contributed in a large measure to the constructive progress of the city in its most bustling modern period. Siewers Lumber & Millwork Inc. is still a family-run business, operated by Richard Siewers’ grandsons and great-grandsons. The story begins on January 3, 1859, when Richard Siewers was born in Hoexter, in the province of Westphalia, Germany. Richard was the third of five children of Adolph and Elizabeth Siewers. His father was an educator, who spent most of his career engaged in the duties of superintendent of a college in his home province. After passing through primary school, Richard received a liberal education in the Arts and Crafts College in his native city, where he graduated with high honors, being proficient in structural designing. He would combine that skill with the practical work of a builder during his life’s work.
In 1880, a few years after the death of his parents, Richard came to America and settled in Richmond, Virginia. For a time he was employed as an architect in the offices of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. One of his characteristics was a tremendous energy for work, and in those early years he employed his nights studying English and otherwise preparing himself for the career of an American citizen and businessman.
During the 1880s, Richmond construction was big business. Although the Civil War had been over more than 15 years, many Southern cities, including the torched Confederate Capital, were still rebuilding from the devastation. Recent immigrant Richard Siewers, recognized opportunity when he saw it. Through constant application and careful thrift, he was able to take up the contracting business. In 1884, in association with Henry Miller, Richard founded a building company and lumber yard at Canal and Belvidere streets, under the firm name of Siewers & Miller. Sometime afterward he acquired the interest of his partner and continued the business, including the mill and lumber department, under the firm name of R.A. Siewers. Some of the notable buildings in Richmond area which stand today as good examples of the substantial work of the Siewers contracting firm are the Shenandoah Apartments, the Bishop’s Residence and the Rectory of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the Knights
of Columbus Home, the Jewish Club, the Merchants Cold Storage Plant, as well as a great number of fine Richmond city residences.
As a devotee of the Golden Rule, Richard Siewers ran his business on the principle that the customer is king, a philosophy he passed on to his sons who took over the business. When Richard died in 1909 at age 49, he left the business to his wife, Sabine Siewers. One of their sons, John C. Siewers, was in his early 20’s when his father died and took over daily management of the company. About 10 years later, John’s brother Frederick W. Siewers, Sr. joined the business and the two ran it together. To keep the company afloat during the Depression, the two brought home only enough money to pay for food. When their mother died in 1936, they became joint owners. Both men retired shortly before their deaths in the late 1960’s and mid 1970’s.
After the death of Frederick Siewers, Sr. the company was passed to the third generation — Frederick’s sons Frederick “Freddie” W. Siewers, Jr. and John “Johnny” C. Siewers, II. Freddie graduated from Virginia Tech in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in building construction and then served two years in Korea. He followed his father into business in 1954, entering the sales and production departments and later receiving a master’s degree in commerce from the University of Richmond. Johnny came into the business in 1959 as an accountant with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia.
Under the guidance of Freddie and Johnny Siewers, the company increased its retail business, stocking a wider variety of lumbers and building products. The two also chose the company’s new location when construction of Richmond’s Downtown Expressway in 1974 forced Siewers Lumber to move from its 90-year-old site to its current site at 1901 Ellen Road, near the Diamond.
Freddie Siewers’ sons, Freddy Siewers, III, and Richie Siewers, mark the fourth generation of the family and the third set of brothers to work at the firm. Freddy and Richie Siewers are both graduates of Virginia Tech and started working full time at the firm in 1979 and 1985, respectively. Freddy Siewers is president, and Richie Siewers is executive vice president. These two brothers have helped bring computers and new product lines to the company. Under their management Siewers Lumber added a 4,000 square foot showroom in 1996 and a 12,000 square foot storage facility for special orders in 2000.
Two more family members joined the business near the turn of the century. Richie’s and Freddy’s younger brother, Michael, and Johnny’s son, John Siewers III. Michael joined the business in 1994 after graduating from James Madison University. John Siewers III joined after receiving a degree from the University of Virginia. They are now working at the sales counter in the showroom.
Despite changes the 42-person company has made since the horse-and-buggy age, it still has a niche market in Richmond for hand-crafted mouldings and reproductions of old-style doors and lumber. Siewers specializes in custom mouldings, doors, windows and lumber for renovated homes and businesses, many of which were built by the company’s founder. When original woodwork is missing, Siewers Lumber’s employees often know the style used in a particular era. A walk through the company’s warehouses reveals samples of partially burned doors and crumbling window mouldings, waiting to be recreated by Siewers craftsmen.
Many of the plant’s skilled workers also are second- or third-generation Siewers employees, having learned the woodworking trade from fathers, uncles, or grandfathers. Knowledge of hand-crafted products and past building styles makes Siewers Lumber a valuable asset in Richmond. Whether a home is 30, 60, or 100 years old, people look for quality service and quality materials, a trademark of Siewers Lumber.