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Got Apartments?

Richmond's roadside curiosity gets converted once more, this time into apartments.

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Now the landmark has opened its third act. Behold a rebuilt, reconfigured and considerably expanded building: Welcome to the Richmond Dairy Apartments.



This is good news in many fronts. The conversion rescues a spectacular, 20th-century commercial building from continued de terioration, while bringing 113 more apartments downtown.



The complex is terrific for Jackson Ward. Despite the district's handsome building stock and proximity to downtown, it hasn't pulled itself together compared to other old Richmond neighborhoods that are boom-boom. Jackson Ward needed this shot in the arm — a full block-front combining historic preservation, new construction and resettlement.



Sadly, the project's design falls short of what might have happened here. If architecture (at its best) possesses healing powers, expect no panacea here. As is often the case with contemporary construction, the automobile, rather then the texture and context of the setting, determined the solution.



The apartment complex fills the entire southern half of the 200 block of West Marshall. At the eastern end of the block, turning the corner at Jefferson Street, the original redbrick dairy fa‡ade was restored. This is peculiarly medieval in flavor: There are battlements along the roofline and pointed arches. C. M. Davis and Bros., the architect/builder of scores of early 20th-century Richmond apartment buildings, was designer and contractor in 1911. (Perhaps University of Richmond, whose West End, Gothic Revival campus was being built then, provided inspiration).



The medievalism and the milk bottles are a wild and wonderful combination. As Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi asked in his seminal book, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," "Why do buildings have to be either 'this' or 'that'? Isn't 'both' and 'more' compelling?"



Now, the dairy's innards have been gutted and the building expanded to stretch westward to Madison Street. It is an inverted U-shaped, four-story structure facing Marshall. The ground level mostly houses covered parking. Efficiencies and one- and two-bedroom apartments occupy the upper three floors. Some second-level units have large balconies that overlook Marshall, but mostly an on-site parking lot.



Too bad. The configuration could have been flipped so the U faced south. This way, the terraces would have gotten sunny, southern exposure and off-street parking hidden from street view. And rather than this too-deep set-back, the new construction might have been built flush to the sidewalk, respecting the consistent building setback that distinguishes Jackson Ward's mostly 19th-century feel.



While the 24 parking spaces that fill the U create a visual void and disconnect between the dairy and the neighborhood, ironically, the Madison Street front and alley facade are much more successful because they establish crisp, tough urban walls that come to the sidewalk — consistent with a number of nearby warehouse buildings.



Negative spaces such as this Marshall Street setback have no place in historic neighborhoods. In a city where property owners must jump through hoops even to alter their trim color or replace a garage door, why this configuration was allowed is puzzling. Automobiles were not part of the mix when the majority of Jackson Ward was built. Surface parking not only disses the neighborhood, but also the dairy building the project pretends to celebrate. The three milk bottles are dramatic and charming, but automobiles, by their scale and texture, overwhelm the pedestrian scale of the neighborhood and detract from the impact of the milk bottles.



With the nearby Virginia Fire and Police Museum, The Empire Theater, angled streets that break the grid and commercial buildings small and large, this is a neighborhood of singular charm. It's too bad The Richmond Dairy Apartments were established with the slam of a sledgehammer instead of the sweep of a light brush. S





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