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Other Side of the Tracks

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Two decades ago, a stretch of West Leigh Street behind the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Science Museum of Virginia was stitched with train tracks, an industrial field. But now that the street's been widened, repaved and attractively lined with crape myrtle and sycamore trees, the area's become a scrappy, but not unattractive, greensward.

While most of the train tracks are gone, a few buildings remain that evoke the period from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, when this district was a formidable industrial and manufacturing center. First established on the banks of Bacon's Quarter Branch (which fed Shockoe Creek) and later served by railways were businesses that supported the local meatpacking industry -- slaughterhouses, tanneries, ice producers, spice manufacturers and bottle makers.

Despite the disappearance of these industries, a number of architecturally worthy and evocative brick industrial structures survived to the 21st century. The most notable of these is the former Rosenegk Brewery on Hermitage Road, known more recently as the Todd Ham Building. Because this district wasn't considered a place where one would necessarily choose to live, eyebrows were raised a few years ago when the looming Todd Ham pile was renovated into a 100-unit apartment complex — the Todd Lofts Apartments — complete with swimming pool. A new generation had no qualms about living here: The building filled up.

On the heels of that revelation, heads really turned when work got under way two years ago on the Southern Stove Works buildings, across the street at 1215 Hermitage Road. Whereas the Todd is a tightly configured, compact structure, the Stove Works Lofts are a sprawling complex of relatively low-lying buildings. To the faint of heart, its spiderlike footprint defied transformation into an upscale, residential complex.

But never underestimate the motivational power of Richmond's attractive historic preservation tax-credit program — it ensures that every crumbling brick in the city has a shot at rejuvenation. And don't count out such visionaries as Richmond-based developer Aneka Guna LLC (the words mean "many uses" in Indonesian) and the local firm of Walter Parks Architect. They were undeterred in converting these structures originally built to manufacture iron stoves (the buildings were later bought by J.P. Taylor Leaf Tobacco Company) into contemporary living spaces.

If there's profound or even heroic beauty in antique industrial buildings, this developer and architect were determined to mine it while looking to the future: What's old is apparent; what's new is quite snappy.

The Stove Works complex consists of three long, red brick buildings that run roughly parallel to each other. Building No. 1, the northernmost (which was built in 1895 and was originally a foundry) has 47 mostly loft units. Building No. 2 was constructed in 1902 and has 111 apartments. Building No. 3, slightly curved to follow what had been a rail spur, contains 26 units.

Many of the apartments in this last building open directly onto an attractively landscaped recreation and pool area, designed by landscape architect Drew Harrigan.

Walter Parks Architect concealed virtually none of the industrial infrastructure of the old buildings in its transformation. Every living unit has vivid reminders of its industrial past — heavy wooden piers, steel beams, exposed brick walls, large windows or unforgiving concrete floors. Little wall-to-wall carpet has been used to soften the edges. And don't expect dropped ceilings. Multi-hued (as in stained) concrete floors have been maintained and polished where possible. New bamboo wooden flooring has been installed in loft units.

In Building No. 1, columns rise to support a skeletal truss system of steel beams. Old wooden ceilings have been sandblasted and old concrete ceilings cleaned.

It's with the new finishes — stair railings, landings, balustrades and light fixtures in interesting mixtures of materials and colors — where Walter Park added light, highly contemporary touches. What's old is bold. What's modern seems even bolder. It is a handsome performance.

Unlike in some other local industrial residential conversions, public spaces are given as much thought as private ones. In Building No. 1, the long, unifying corridor jerks from compact spaces to explosive skylight space to compact space again. In other hallways, such as in Building No. 2, any parallel lines have been eliminated and the hallways telescope from wide to narrow to add visual drama. Bold yellow and red walls inject energy into this building.

Apartment hunters will have their work cut out for them at the Stove Works. Most of the units are unique in layout, with differing arrangements of outer windows: Some of the units have no windows at eye level, but draw daylight from high windows and skylights. It's a highly industrial feeling. But the lesson here is "Never say never" when it comes to the possibilities of adapting unlikely spaces into livable places. And with the Stove Works Lofts joining the Todd Lofts Apartments as anchors for this transformational neighborhood, it begs the question of what kind of in-fill development can further animate this once-forgotten part of town. S



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