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Small Development, Big Impact

The renovation of five late-19th-century buildings brings new life downtown.

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Cranes are swinging and walls are rising as the construction of condos, a federal courthouse, the Philip Morris research center and Virginia Commonwealth University buildings are reconfiguring virtually every downtown district. These are the big developments that make civic pooh-bahs salivate. But how many of these complexes will help reweave the center city intelligently from a humanistic, commercial and architectural standpoint? Time will tell.

Unlike those mega-projects, there's a celebratory and modest but not inexpensive (for its size) restoration that has been completed at the southwest corner of East Main and 14th streets. Here, five small, but handsomely detailed, commercial buildings that were built in 1866 (soon after the evacuation fire of 1865 near the end of the Civil War) have been intelligently and colorfully restored and reoccupied. From an economic, residential and pedestrian standpoint, their resurrection brings vitality to this busy crossroads where the lower financial district melds with Shockoe Slip and the Bottom.

The structures had been vacant for decades (one of them, popularly called "The Wedge" building, was about to collapse). But despite their forlorn appearance, the row managed to exude considerable dignity and never failed to charm passersby.

None of the quintet is higher than four stories, but each packs considerable punch with a facade displaying newly cleaned red brick or painted gray, yellow or green. These old classics pop against the foil created by the modernistic block-long structures across the street, such as the battleship-gray State Corporation Commission and a sprawling state parking deck.

Architects for the project were a Richmond-based team consisting of Historic Housing LLC and SWA Construction Inc.

It is miraculous that these five older buildings (as well as other restored buildings in the 1300 block farther up East Main) survived the 20th century when so much downtown fabric was lost to high-rise structures and surface parking lots. Downtown's 21st-century preservation record isn't getting off to a stellar start either with the loss on East Broad Street of much of the Thalhimers department store, which consisted of a row of handsome brick commercial buildings hidden beneath a 1950s sheathing of storm-cloud gray aluminum, and the sleek Woolworth's building. The buildings on the south side of the 400 block of East Broad, across from the Greater Richmond Convention Center, were also demolished recently for surface parking. These lost buildings all helped define Richmond's architectural character. They made our city distinctive from, say, Charlotte or Atlanta. By losing such structures and getting scant architectural energy in return (as the go-go, boom-boom cities to our south have accomplished), little is gained. Sadly, some of our community's precious DNA is sacrificed.

The five smartly restored buildings at Main and 14th streets possess all of the good bone structure — the DNA — synonymous with Richmond's commercial late-19th-century architecture. Their facades have Italianate features, cast-iron trim and characteristics of classical architecture (the cast iron was manufactured here as well as in Baltimore and Philadelphia) and are stepped gently to follow the shift in the downtown topography.

The slender building at 1321 1/2 E. Main St. is one of the city's most delightful architectural curiosities. At 7 1/2 feet wide, it may be downtown's narrowest storefront. But don't be deceived: Often referred to as "The Wedge," the floor plan fans toward the rear to create considerable interior floor space. The rounded and triangular pediments topping the exterior windows on the second and third floors, respectively, once heralded a kind of heroic entryway to Baldwin and Jenkins Boots and Shoes, the company that occupied the building in the 1870s and 1880s.

Now, the entire first floor of this and the adjacent structures is occupied by the buildings' owner, the Council for America's First Freedom. This educational organization is dedicated to broadcasting the continuing legacy of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The trail-blazing document of the Enlightenment was enacted by the Virginia Legislature in January 1786. At that time, the legislature met in the old Capitol, which was located on 14th Street, immediately south of where these five buildings now stand (the General Assembly moved to the current Capitol in 1788). The council also owns that historic site that is occupied by a surface parking lot and an empty commercial building, the handsome art deco-fronted Liberty Press Building.

With council offices on the ground level, the upper floors of the five buildings at 14th and Main have been reconfigured to accommodate 50 apartments. Thus the rehabilitation project should help repopulate downtown on a 24-hour basis.

One of the other considerable pleasures of this restoration project is that the buildings establish a sturdy and good-looking urban wall of buildings on the west side of 14th Street between Main and Cary. This stretch of 14th is a meandering roadway that gently snakes between the Mayo Bridge and the top of Shockoe Hill. It is one of our city's ancient thoroughfares, a cow path really, that predates the gridiron pattern that was laid out in the 18th century.

With this restoration, the evolving pedestrian activity along the canal front is reconnected visually and psychologically with the foot traffic on East Main. It makes walking these few, but critical, yards a pleasure again and helps considerably in reknitting the disparate but interesting architectural and infrastructural elements that make our downtown so fascinating and increasingly vital. S

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