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Space Aged

Forty years ago, Richmond's skyline went futuristic. Soon those buildings may go the way of the Cold War.

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The 1960s usher in America's fascination with space, technology and visions of the future. President John F. Kennedy embraces the moon. Interstate highways pierce the expanding suburbs. Television brings us such sensations as “Lost in Space,” “My Favorite Martian” and “The Jetsons.” Across the country, daringly original buildings rise on the skyline, expressing the seemingly limitless possibilities of the era.

Those who knew the Executive Motor Hotel in its 1960s heyday still remember it. For many Richmonders the unabashedly giddy modernism provided a first, and perhaps fleeting, glimpse of Jetsonesque architecture. Both inside and out, the sprawling complex at 5215 W. Broad St. near Willow Lawn signaled the future.

“I had my bar mitzvah there,” says Harry Thalhimer, a businessman and civic leader, of his coming-of-age party at 13. “I remember the stairway in the lobby.”

“We had 30 to 35 of his friends there,” recalls his father, Charles, who was an executive at the iconic former Richmond-based department store chain that bore the family name. “That was when kids came to bar mitzvahs and just a couple of adults stood around and watched.” Thalhimer and his wife figured the teenagers would enjoy the snazzy venue: “The Executive was just a strikingly new idea.”

It certainly was for me the first time I entered the hotel's soaring, light-filled lobby in the summer of 1964. Until then, what did I know of modernism? My parents never took me to a Cape Canaveral space shot or to New York City's glitzy 1964 World's Fair. We lived in a rambling house engulfed in old-fashioned shrubs such as lilacs and hydrangeas. Summers found us at one of the cottage-style hotels at Virginia Beach — the Avalon, Avamere or Halifax (names out of a Sir Walter Scott novel). I'd gone to North Side's stolid Ginter Park Elementary and Chandler Junior High schools. And though I'd been herded alongside my classmates into school auditoriums for televised space launches and splashdowns — and fully realized that we lived in the Sputnik era (yes, we honed duck-and-cover skills under our desks), I never knew what modern architecture — the future, really — looked like. Until, that is, the eighth grade, when my math teacher invited our class to her wedding reception at the Executive Motor Hotel. Forty-five years later I vividly recall the late afternoon light. It filtered through the sheer curtains of floor-to-ceiling windows that snaked across the front of the building like an accordion-fold glass screen. Underfoot, and adorning the walls, were colorful, and I later learned, imported, tiles from Italy.

Like Harry Thalhimer, I was entranced by the cantilevered stone steps, which extended from a gently curving lobby wall of walnut paneling. Beneath the open staircase jets of water gurgled and created ripples across the shallow pool, while in the reception room upstairs, light bulbs sprouted from chandeliers like galactic explosions.

Today, the Executive Motor Hotel, which opened in 1960, is shuttered and sits in a ruinous condition surrounded by unwieldy vegetation and chain-link fencing. Its decline is emblematic of many of the handful of once-exuberant midcentury modern buildings that were constructed in Richmond between 1957, the year the Soviets sent Sputnik into space, and 1969, when the United States responded triumphantly with Neil Armstrong's moon walk.

That extended decade saw an explosion of buildings that unabashedly celebrated the future. Architects and engineers used innovative materials, technologies and bold new forms that had been developed and perfected during World War II. They were employed in architectural and product designs that symbolically reflected the Space Age ideal of breaking earthly bounds. While the St. Louis arch and Virginia's sculpturally dynamic Dulles Airport (both designed by Eero Saarinen) are our nation's ultimate, high-style manifestations of the movement, Richmond is not without its own bold examples of the building type.

The Richmond Coliseum as well as two other — now-demolished — domed structures, the Lawrence Chrysler-Plymouth dealership (formerly at 4808 W. Broad St. at the intersection of Staples Mill Road) and Virginia Commonwealth University's Larrick Student Center (formerly the Virginia Civil War Centennial Center) in Court End could have been mistaken for spaceships that had landed in the night.

Only slightly less impressive in scale, the Executive Motor Hotel had kindred spirits in such nearby structures and forms as the Krispy Kreme store, Willow Lawn Shopping Center with its colorful masses of bubbles hanging from poles in the parking lot, and the Richmond Motor Company's satellite-inspired signs.

But Richmond's most iconic Sputnik-styled structure is an immediate neighbor of the Executive Motor Hotel — the Markel office building. Three huge aluminum pie plates appear to have been piled atop one another in a suburban parking lot and their edges hammered mercilessly.

“Populuxe” or “Googie Style,” as the usually commercial style is often called, has not held up as well as another, more chaste strand of modernism known as the “International Style.” The latter, often employed in more upscale buildings, is a simplified and rational architecture of steel and glass. Examples include such masterpieces locally as the WyteStone Plaza (formerly the Ross Building downtown at Eighth and Main streets), the General Assembly Office Building (the former IBM building at Ninth and Broad streets); the Philip Morris headquarters building on West Broad near I-64 (formerly Reynolds Metals Co.) which was Richmond's first suburban office complex when it was completed in 1957; and ChildSavers at 22nd and East Grace streets on Church Hill (formerly the WRVA radio station) by architect Philip Johnson.

What caused the demise of this short-lived and now fast-disappearing splash of futuristic and architectural optimism?

The more light-hearted and eye-catching architectural approach was stopped dead in its tracks by a sudden shift in national mood and sense of aesthetic appropriateness. In response to the assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; racial urban unrest; the escalating war in Vietnam and resulting protests; and Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, architecture turned inward, protective, brutalistic and fortresslike. The post-9/11 emphasis on security has only reinforced design trends that were established in the 1970s.

The list isn't long, but who established Richmond's Space Age-inspired architecture and how is it faring?

 


The Executive Motor Hotel
The year of Sputnik, 1957, was the year Richmond embraced modernism. Interstate 95 (then named the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike) was completed. Both local public radio and public television broadcast their first programs and Reynolds Metals opened the first suburban corporate campus. Willow Lawn and Southside Plaza, Richmond's first suburban shopping centers, received their full complement of stores.

Just a few yards west of Willow Lawn, Richmond developer Henry Stern, who already owned a 20-unit motel on Route 1, the Cavalier Manor, opened the first major hostelry outside of downtown.

“I selected Norman Giller whom I knew from the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo,” Stern says of picking an architect for the project. “He just was very talented.” Giller had made a name for himself in Florida on a number of projects, all distinctly modernistic.

Did Stern give Giller any instructions for the design of the hotel? “No,” Stern says by phone. “I told him to do it nice.”

Giller recalls the commission somewhat differently.

“At the time, Richmond's architecture was dominated by heavy, traditional brick buildings. Mr. Stern wanted his motor hotel to be one of the first ‘contemporary’ structures built in the city,” Giller writes in “Designing the Good Life: Norman M. Giller & the Development of Miami Modernism” (University of Florida Press, 2007). In the handsomely illustrated biography he explains that “producing a light, lively building that would catch the eye of speeding motorists was essential.”

“Richmond's virtually hurricane-free summers allowed me to incorporate larger expanses of glass into my design than was possible in South Florida,” he continues. “I placed double-height lobby entirely enclosed in glass along the front of the property. During the day the glass panels would seem shockingly transparent. At night, the entire pavilion would seem to glow.”

Glass curtain walls were so new to Richmond, Giller recalls, that developer Stern had trouble finding a local contractor to install them correctly.

The glass was reflected elsewhere too, Giller writes: “Reinforcing the feeling of motion and playfulness, I repeated the zig-zag pattern of the glass walls in the concrete porte cochere.”

A three-story-tall, curved rear wall anchors the sleek glass lobby as well as the front exterior.

There were 140 guest rooms in a rear extension that ran parallel to Byrd Street. These rooms opened directly to the outdoors and were easily accessible to the swimming pool, which featured underwater speakers so guests could listen to music while swimming.

A hotel brochure boasted of “strategically located luxury” with “space age” meeting facilities. “We always recommended it to guests over the John Marshall Hotel — or anywhere else,” Charles Thalhimer says of the cachet the hostelry possessed. (Once downtown's leading hotel, the John Marshall may be on the verge of being renovated and converted to condominium use.)

“I'll tell you this,” Stern's longtime friend Henry “Bo” Gunst says: “If Henry is going to do something, he's going to do it right.”

Stern also foresaw the future. A brochure advertised the hotel's location “in the heart of metropolitan Richmond,” though there was little commercial development west of it when it opened in 1960. A number of years later Stern would be a major developer of the far West End mixed-use complex, Innsbrook.

Today the former Executive Motor Hotel is a deserted ruin, devoid of its once glamorous Aclan. In 1999, however, it did serve as a major setting for a motion picture “Forces of Nature” starring Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck.


Civil War Centennial Center
Despite how entrenched traditionally Richmond architecture appears today, by 1960 modern architecture was the preferred curriculum in America's architecture schools and being reflected here.

Locally, Marcellus Wright Jr., a leading architect and city planning board member, was a strong advocate of such modernist principles as clearing old neighborhoods and replacing them with contemporary and signature stand-alone structures. It was under his influence and guidance that downtown's Civic Center was partially built. These buildings included City Hall — with its distinctive communications needle — a courthouse, the Richmond Coliseum and the Health, Safety and Welfare Building.

Part of the city's 18th-century grid system was obliterated in the process, an action that followed the general dictates of LeCorbusier, a highly influential European architect who preached out with the old. 

“It was all modern back then,” says architect Frederic H. Cox Jr., a partner in the Richmond firm Marcellus Wright Cox, Architects, who graduated from University of Virginia School of Architecture in 1956. “There were two icons — Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe,” he says. “You flunked — literally — if you didn't produce something that was modern. They didn't accept anything but modernism.”

So it's understandable how Richmond, even with its long and rich tradition of classic architecture, chose a dramatically futurist design for the Civil War Centennial Center, which opened in 1962. It was built on the northern edge of downtown on land cleared in the 1950s for the interstate highway, and north of the envisioned Civic Center of major public buildings.

The centennial center sat in isolated splendor and served as a visitor orientation center and museum until 1965, directing tourists and Civil War aficionados to nearby historical attractions and battlefields.

Father-son architects Walter Dorwin Teague (1883-1960) and Walter Jr. (1910-2004), were internationally known industrial designers who had created cameras for Kodak, hundreds of identical gas stations for Texaco and numerous pavilions for historical commemorations. For Richmond they created a large, aluminum-covered “centennial dome.”

The Teague operation had been promoted for the commission by Leslie Cheek, then director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Richmond's unrivalled arbiter of taste. Cheek also had established a number of high-style environments inside the art museum including the since-destroyed members' suite and dining room designed by the internationally acclaimed husband-and-wife team of Ray and Charles Eames.

Cheek called the new building “quite handsome.” But others didn't find it so. A city councilman dismissed it as a “grapefruit turned upside down over a donut.”

Soon after the centennial, the building became a student-activities space for the Medical College of Virginia campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and renamed the Jonah L. Larrick Student Center.

The midcentury modern landmark was demolished last year and is being replaced with a new dining and recreation center.

 


The Markel Building
Few modernistic buildings in Richmond are as recognized or as associated with their architects as the Markel Building, near the Executive Motor Hotel at 5310 Markel Road. Its design was begun by Jackson Ward-born architect Haig Jamgochian in 1962 and completed in 1966.

Inspired by the Guggenheim in New York, which had opened in 1959, the Markel Building is different from the landmark museum in that it has an aluminum skin that was crinkled by workers, including Jamgochian, wielding rubber mallets.

The architect, who had trained at Virginia Tech, Dartmouth and Princeton, practiced for a time in the Richmond firm of Frederick Hyland. He'd also studied and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Lewis Markel and Irvin Markel, Richmond insurance executives, reportedly were intrigued with Jamgochian's chutzpah when he very publicly proposed a treehouse form for a high-rise apartment house in a West Franklin Street block of mostly 19th-century structures. That design remained unbuilt.

In 1986 Henrico County designated the Markel Building a county landmark. It has thus fared better than most of the unique buildings of its era and continues to function as an office building.

 


The Richmond Coliseum
It's remarkable that two major midcentury domed buildings, the Centennial Dome and the Coliseum, were built in downtown north of Broad. But then, similar structures were the rage. Virginia Beach had its Dome, designed by Buckminster Fuller, Charlottesville had its scalloped-roofed University Hall and Norfolk had its Scope.

The architect of the Norfolk multipurpose arena, completed in 1972, was Pier Luigi Nervi, a prominent Italian designer who'd designed a similar, reinforced concrete structure in Rome for the 1960 Olympics.

According to Richmond architect Frederic Cox, the distinctive Nervi design should have been built here. He says that he saw the Palazzetto dello Sport while on his honeymoon. When he returned to Richmond and discussions of a downtown sports facility got under way, the young architect suggested, “You know, we really ought to get Nervi.” Cox wrote the noted Italian and received a three-page, hand-written reply. “It was the nicest letter I've ever received,” Cox says. “But he said that he had made a commitment to Norfolk to design its facility.” Cox says he thinks Norfolk officials heard that Richmond was interested and got to the aging master sooner.

“Gossip got out and you know how we dawdle here.”

Richmond, which had a number of prominent architects who had studied at Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania architecture school, then turned to a well-respected designer who'd been involved in revitalization efforts in that city, Vincent Kling. The Richmond firm of Ben Johns assisted in the design.

Some have likened the exterior to a Big Mac. But after 37 years, the Coliseum has stood the test of time. “The elaborately articulated exterior [inspired somewhat by the detailing on the Blues Armory next door] and the dramatic interior lobby arcade make this building one of the more successful of its type,” architectural historian Robert Winthrop wrote in “Architecture in Downtown Richmond.”

“It's a wonderful building inside,” architect Cox says. “The circulation is amazing. You can get 12,000 people out of that building faster than any other building that I know of.”

The building was built to straddle Sixth Street and be viewed from the retail district to the south. In the 1980s, however, the view was blocked when the 6th Street Marketplace food court was built, isolating the building visually.

So what's the future for Richmond's remaining examples of midcentury modernism? It is tenuous, at best. “There are no advocates of it,” Cox says.

Even Stern, the developer of the Executive Motor Hotel, seems to have little interest in discussing a textbook example of the style which he himself had built — and a building that is now documented in architectural history books. Having moved on, he cut short a recent telephone conversation on the subject. “I don't mean to be impolite,” he said, “but I have to go.” S
 
Style Weekly architecture critic and senior contributing editor Edwin Slipek Jr. teaches courses in architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University and architecture and Richmond history at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies.

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