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Rebirth of Cool

The National brings neon, music, dinner and beauty to one of Richmond's most important — and desolate — blocks.



It wasn't that long ago that American main streets were being stripped of their pulsating neon signs. Considered old-fashioned and honky-tonk, getting rid of such noir-like features would surely help revitalize moribund business districts — such was the popular thinking in the 1970s and '80s. Broad Street and Hull Street, once colorful wonderlands after dark, became soulless and desolate.

Not only did the vivid signage disappear, but also retail. Larger forces were at work.

Therefore, let's celebrate that a glorious piece of crimson neon has returned to the northeast corner of East Broad and Seventh streets — embedded in the marquee of the National Theater. This marquee announces the entrance to the elegant, long-forlorn 1920s movie palace that's been brilliantly restored to house a new generation of entertainment.

With the recent opening of Gibson's Grill in the corner of the Italian Renaissance-style landmark, a $15 million restoration by private investors is complete. In the upper windows of Gibson's is a long band of purple light, a beacon for a stretch of Broad Street that's been denuded of street-front retail for nine continuous blocks, from the ramps of Interstate 95 to Fourth Street.

It's probably a miracle that the National is standing at all. Without kicking a dead horse, it's a fact that Richmonders are Neanderthal in destroying entire blocks of historic building fabric (as four nearby vacant blocks on Broad Street attest). On the 700 block, speculative developers purchased and demolished two theaters: the State, with its Art Deco front, and the Colonial, rivaling the National in architectural exuberance, although a faAade-ectomy was performed on the Colonial. Its elaborate front provides a festive entryway for the Theater Row office building, now owned by the City of Richmond.

The Historic Richmond Foundation, a nonprofit preservation group, went to the mat and actually paid rent on the empty National from 1989 until it could purchase the property. It finally bought the theater in 1991 for $1.25 million.

Groups such as TheatreVirginia and the Richmond Symphony considered the venue for a home, but old prejudices lingered. Bottom line, it was on the “wrong side of Broad,” a term that some white Richmonders of a certain age still use to describe the side of the street that had saloons, theaters and, most importantly, wasn't in the shadow of the Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers department stores.

It would be out-of-towners, Norfolk's RIC Capital Ventures LLC, who would buy the building in 2006. Thanks to their efforts, we can see and experience the building in all its old- and newfound glory.

The National was built in 1922 at a time when silent films and live productions shared the stage. Orson Welles was among the actors who performed here. Its architect, C.K. Howell, practiced here for a time and also designed theaters in Lynchburg, Danville, Greensboro, Atlanta and Charleston, S.C. He also worked on dozens of house designs here — in Ginter Park, Bellevue and on Monument Avenue — in a broad range of styles.

At the National — a three-part, gray-hued, brick structure — Howell fused elements of the Mediterranean Revival in the green tile roof and broad overhanging eaves supported by bold brackets. The central block is four floors and contains five bays that include a broad vocabulary of elaborate Renaissance-influenced architectural elements. The most glorious element is the entablature that features a frieze of nymphs cavorting high above Broad Street.

The two flanking parts of the building, two floors each, once contained retail space. By the end of the 20th century, though, the faAade had been modernized and mutilated. Now, with its renovation, its multiple-use space is a lesson in how Richmond should rebuild along Broad Street.

The building's new interior is a revelation, both in the theater and in Gibson's Grill. The architecture firm of David Johannas Associates and H.L. Reed Design had to work within strict historic preservation limits, but this is to the overall good.

The lobby areas, paved in original marble and newer slate, are intact. Here, as in the auditorium, the plaster is classical, 18th-century Adamesque (an entirely different and more delicate aesthetic than the exterior). Ferruccio Legnaioli, an Italian-born craftsman who worked his magic at a number of Richmond sites, originated these surfaces. The paint tones are lighter here.

Inside the hall, the walls have been painted deep, somber tones — purples, browns and golds — so as not to compete with what's happening on stage. Rather than Adamesque, it looks very 1920s — like a huge, wooden, floor-model radio cabinet.

In the former orchestra section the seats have been removed and the orchestra pit covered over. In the mezzanine and balcony levels are tables and chairs and fixed seating, respectively.

But all the changes aren't just cosmetic. Within the original space the architects built a structural armature that contains and supports new fire protection, mechanical, sound and lighting systems. In the stage house itself, this is a building within a building that can be removed, leaving the original structure intact.

The adjoining restaurant, provides its own pleasures architecturally. A large hole has been cut into the floor of the deep former retail space to allow for a sweeping steel staircase that leads to the lower level. The restaurant and a second bar continue tunnellike under the theater itself. The wall colorings and furnishings are darkly hued as in the theater. It's sexy, but not too much.

Broad Street has a destination that can serve as a family restaurant as well as a date destination. The names on the marquee may change daily, but what's ongoing at the National is an architectural and cultural landmark saved, protected, resurrected and rocking. S

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