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Boatload of Possibilities

The new restaurant at Rocketts Landing fuses modern architecture with industrial beauty.



Traveling from the west, there's a wow moment for those approaching the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing, a casually elegant new restaurant.
This occurs when one confronts a soaring, industrial smokestack that emerges from a new, skeletal structure of steel and glass. But the evocative drama is just beginning. While the towering stack and the attached former streetcar power plant building are reminders of once-bustling activity along the James River, the enveloping, lower, towerlike modernistic structure, housing a stairwell and elevator, is an adventurous and excellent example of how old and new can be mixed architecturally.

The treatment reminded me of a similar but far grander situation years ago when the Washington Monument was encased in scaffolding during a restoration. There, architect Michael Graves' grid system was hailed as a temporary masterpiece. And if Graves' gesture changed the way we perceived a familiar, 555-foot obelisk, what CMSS Architects, with offices in Richmond and Virginia Beach, has achieved on the riverfront here alters and freshens the way we view industrial buildings that were built locally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This period was an economic heyday for a city charging full-steam ahead after the devastation of the Civil War. Richmond boasts two types of architectural reminders from this period that followed the Confederate years. Inescapable are scores of classical monuments to the Lost Cause. But just as impressive are the stolid red brick industrial structures that span the city from Tobacco Row in the East End to the U-Haul building, a former tobacco plant on Lombardy Street near the Carver neighborhood. While the interiors of many of these buildings have been transformed to new living and work spaces with the economic boost from historic preservation tax credits, their restored exteriors remind us of what Richmond of an earlier day looked like.

In contrast, the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing renovation and expansion is testament to the positive things that can happen when a sophisticated and sympathetic client eschews tax credits to allow for major architecturally modernistic approaches to a renovation project.

Here, where Old Main Street and Route 5 meet, the two-story brick power plant that served the streetcars in East Richmond, comprises four levels that reach down to the riverbank and rises two stories at the street. The core, older building (with unsurpassed riverfront views) has been restored and awaits business and retail tenants. On lower levels, the Virginia Boat Club has already established facilities.

It is at the top of the old power plant building where the visual excitement has been enhanced. A mostly glass and steel pavilion has been built on the building's southwestern, or river side. This is topped with a butterfly roof angling upward in a clear declaration of modernism.

Rather than attempt to blow out the unforgiving concrete, bunker-like floors and walls of the old power plant (and lose potential rentable space), the developer and architect decided to basically add onto the old structure with a restaurant level and an attached service tower for the stairway and elevator. A brilliant idea was to keep the stairwell open-air — a la Eiffel Tower — and thus enhance the strong industrial aesthetic. There is nothing phony here — no decorative gewgaws — just honest structural elements.

It is exciting to approach the new restaurant by climbing this staircase. As one ascends, the views change. The downtown skyline comes into view, then the river moving below, then a teasing glimpse of the restaurant's open-air terrace. The experience is akin to moving through an Escher-devised space.

One enters the restaurant, smartly designed by H.L. Reed Design and the Johannas Design Group, through a small lobby. This leads to an expansive, light-filled dining room. Plate-glass windows enclose the room on three walls, but many open to the out-of-doors. Seats at the bar face out, upstream toward the skyline.

From the open deck on a recent evening the views were lively: A volleyball game was underway riverside, an occasional boat puttered up the river and newly installed floating docks held watercraft. While it wasn't Santa Monica, it was pretty idyllic for an old city on the fall line.  

Strangely, Richmond's never had a destination riverfront restaurant. But even if one doesn't come to dine, the Boathouse is worth a trip: Climb the modernistic, scaffoldlike tower and enjoy unparalleled views of the river and cityscape. And consider what else might be possible on the riverfront. 


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