Arts & Events » Architecture

Broken Necklace

The loss of the Eighth Street Office Building is greater than you might think.



First the good news: If you go downtown to the 700 block of East Broad Street and examine the dramatic new federal courthouse that's taken shape, you'll see how the building drew major cues from the elegant former hotel across Eighth Street. The two structures are singing a harmonious duet.

And while the courthouse's new bold structure makes an unusual, 90-degree arc that embraces the corner of Broad and Seventh streets, it's solidly anchored to the city grid by a right angle it forms near Broad and Eighth. This squaring-off echoes brilliantly in mass and placement, that former hotel next door, now the Eighth Street Office Building.

But there's more. Internationally known architect Robert A.M. Stern designed the courthouse to be the same height as its neighbor. Tastier still, the courts building has an entablature and attic level that pays homage to the Eighth Street building's glory — the classical entablature that tops the high rise like a wreath crowning a Roman emperor.

Stern didn't try to top the bravura entablature of the Eighth Street Office Building (which was inspired by Michelangelo's roofline of the Farnese Palace, arguably Rome's grandest palazzo). That kind of detailed craftsmanship is all but impossible today.

Instead, he complemented it with a simpler, but equally strong, performance at the top of his building, which provides an aesthetic conversation at its finest: architecture not as a regurgitation of past motifs, but rather design evolving from an understanding of neighboring structures and from "reading" the language of the surrounding streetscapes.

Now the bad news: If you haven't ventured downtown lately, get on it. This elegant architectural conversation will be short-lived. Like trains passing in the night, the Eighth Street Office Building will be dust before the first case is heard at the courthouse.

Preparation for demolition has begun on the Eight Street Office Building. But it could be worse. Originally, whoever makes these decisions within Virginia government had decreed that both the Eighth Street as well as the Ninth Street office building (on the opposite side of the block at the corner of Grace and Ninth streets) would be torn down to make way for parking and new office space. But after considerable outcries from historic preservationists, the state co-opted those voices through "Kumbaya" sessions and compromise. The Ninth Street Office Building would be saved and restored. The Eighth Street Office Building would be sacrificed.

Designs for a massive new office building on the site, which would stretch along Broad from Eighth to Ninth streets, are now being circulated. They show a neo-modern structure that calls attention to itself like a hyperactive child. With a variety of materials, irregular rooflines and weirdly placed setbacks, it would snake along Broad Street like a giddy conga line. But that's a discussion for another day.

Consider this a last call for those who enjoy the power of good architecture. Go downtown and enjoy a final look at what's being lost.

East Broad Street, which has already unnecessarily seen the Thalhimers department store, G. C. Murphy Co. and a number of other handsome retail buildings demolished, is about to lose a real grande dame. The 12-floor Eighth Street Office Building, completed in 1911 and designed by Norfolk-based John Kevan Peebles, was originally an extension of the Murphy Hotel (which was torn down some years ago).

Its exterior is a textbook lesson in early high-rise design. Before modernism swept the design world, architects were trained in classicism and followed strictly prescribed proportions. Here, at the base, is a two-story podium. The "shaft" where columns would go consists of eight repetitive floors. Marble quoins and vertical implied-pier columns run up the surface of the building. On the top two floors, the entablature is capped by the richly articulated cornice.

It doesn't get any better than this.

So why is the building being ditched?

First, it's been neglected for a decade or so since a plywood, protective pedestrian walkway was built along Broad and Eighth streets. This signaled, whether truthfully or not, that the building wasn't safe. Is the cornice crumbling? Who knows? But the building has been forced to play the role of invalid.

Secondly, the Eighth Street Office Building is being replaced by parking to serve Capitol Square. Couldn't another spot have been found, perhaps the vacant land east of Capitol Square and Governor's Street?

Finally, consider the irony: The Eighth Street Office Building was designed by John Kevan Peebles, architect of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the legislative wings to the Capitol. VMFA is being given the full treatment in its reconfiguration and expansion, and the Capitol has just received a spectacular renovation. We pay homage to these state landmarks with one hand while destroying an equally fine and prominent Peebles building with the other.

The Eighth Street Office Building has long been part of a spectacular procession of some of our city's handsomest buildings as they march up the south side of Broad Street from 14th: the highway department buildings, old Memorial Hospital, the Patrick Henry Building, Old City Hall, the General Assembly office-building complex, the threatened Eighth Street Office Building and now the Stern-designed courthouse.

Because they are plucking a pearl from this remarkable necklace, those involved should ensure that the Eighth Street building is replaced soon (monies have not yet been appropriated) and not remain a surface parking lot. And obviously, they must ensure that the new structure is architecturally worthy of what was sacrificed. S

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