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Suite Deal

The Miller & Rhoads building is ready to service customers again, and this time it has a pool. Now all it needs is company.

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Efforts to restore a modicum of respectability to downtown's East Broad and Grace streets, once a Mecca for discerning shoppers from Richmond to North Carolina, received a magnificent boost last month with the official opening of the Hilton Garden Inn within the former Miller & Rhoads. The former department store had been vacant since 1990.

The meticulously cleaned, restored and reconfigured eight-story building occupies three-quarters of the city block defined by Broad, Grace, Fifth and Sixth streets. A motor court and ramp to underground parking fill the rest of the block, where a Woolworth's once stood. Retail and dining spaces, including the beloved Tea Room, which once served the carriage trade, have been radically reworked for multiple uses, including 250 hotel rooms and 133 condominiums. In addition, at street level, behind large plate-glass windows through which mannequins once beckoned to potential shoppers, 21,000 square feet of retail space awaits tenants.

Developer HRI Properties worked with the Richmond firm of Commonwealth Architects on the ambitious, $103 million rescue operation.

Despite the recent restoration of a pristine exterior, physical context — something the developer and architect could not remedy — is lacking. Miller & Rhoads was once at the epicenter of upper-middle-class retail for a century here and it benefited by being cushioned on all sides by such fine clothiers as Berry-Burk, Greentrees, Montaldo's and Ardley's, plus a grand sister department store, Thalhimers. These have been shuttered or (in the case of Thalhimers) mostly demolished. Sadly, the handsome midcentury modern Woolworth's building that shared space with Miller & Rhoads was also demolished to become the hotel's brick-paved motor entrance.

When viewed from Broad Street, the building sits in isolated splendor between a weed-strewn vacant lot and a surface parking lot. While these may provide shovel-ready sites for future buildings, they're currently disfiguring. It also doesn't help that Miller & Rhoads sits amid newer, monolithic buildings that it never knew during its glory days — the clumsily designed Marriott, the dull Greater Richmond Convention Center and the architecturally more sympathetic federal courthouse two blocks away.

Also missing are pedestrians: Once-busy sidewalks are empty.

But stop the moaning, right? This adaptive reuse is as well-conceived as it is a valuable step in bringing life back to downtown.

The Miller & Rhoads complex consists of two conjoined structures. The section along Broad and Sixth offers the most consciously stylish front — a stucco and sandstone art deco faAade that was touted as Syrian when built in the depths of the Great Depression (name an American retailer that would describe their building in similar terms today). “Naturally, we wish to keep to the forefront and to be as modern as possible,” the store's president, Webster S. Rhoads, said at the July 1933 dedication of the remodeled faAade. Its graceful, low-relief patterns were designed by Carneal, Johnston and Wright, a Richmond firm, to obscure and enliven the classical 1915 faAade designed by Charles Robinson, a local architect who had a brilliant career conceiving Richmond public schools such as Binford, Thomas Jefferson, Ginter Park and William Fox.  

The larger, Grace Street section of Miller & Rhoads was built in 1922 and is more restrained, classical and sophisticated. It was a product of Starrett & Van Vleck, an important New York retail architecture firm that designed such Manhattan landmarks as Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdales — all still operating today. Later, upper floors were added to Miller & Rhoads in a more modernistic vein. 

Hotel guests may enter from Broad Street near Fifth or from the new parking entrance. Access to the condominiums is from Sixth Street. Let's hope retail tenants at street level will take advantage of the store windows to create some visual energy.

On the interior, the Hilton lobby dAccor is extremely conservative, as its interior designers apparently attempted to recapture the spirit and intimate scale of the former department store. The hotel bar spills out into the lobby, which is divided into cozy conversational areas fronting fireplaces.

The original, warm-hued marble floors have been beautifully restored but the combined wood-stained, white and straw-hued wall treatments are too busy.

One of the most attractive spaces of the rehabbed building is the vestibule near the motor entrance. This is a space unlike any other at a Richmond hotel (but similar to the entry of the Country Club of Virginia). It has a coved ceiling and shallow, recessed dome and upholstered benches where guests can await their cars.

The condominium lobby is accessible from the hotel and links such shared facilities as an indoor swimming pool.

As we salute those involved in this architecturally sensitive rescue mission, the occasion is also the prelude for another grand reopening this fall. Just across Sixth Street, the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts is being expanded into what remains of the former Thalhimers to create CenterStage. Every bit helps.

Now, what about those vacuous empty lots? S

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