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architecture: History Interrupted

A historic street — and the most pedestrian-friendly on the MCV campus — is taken over by reception desks and a food court.


The plan stresses the aesthetic equity the VCU campuses possess and describes the distinct character and opportunities they offer. The plan calls the medical campus, "densely built, possessing pre-existing buildings of high architectural and historic value" and suggests that these things contribute to "its peculiar charm, its peculiar problems and its potential."

Tragically, a major contributing factor to this charm has been obliterated to make way for the new Gateway Building at Marshall and 12th streets. It is a looming, lackluster, seven-story structure connecting Main Hospital with the Nelson Clinic.

The intent was to make MCV Hospitals more welcoming, user-friendly and competitive with other hospitals. This is admirable.

Trouble is, the Gateway necessitated closing the 400 block of 12th Street. The new building, by Richmond architect Baskervill & Son and the Boston firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, is built on the site of the former Skull and Bones restaurant and — here's the rub — actually in the southern half of the 600 block of North 12th Street. It's not that the university demolished a building, it but eliminated a functioning street, which for more than 200 years was critical to pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow. And losing this block of 12th Street destroyed a crossroads with deep historical associations.

Nowhere does VCU's master plan suggest closing streets on this campus, much less slapping buildings on major streets.

And not just any street. The master plan calls 12th: "The most pedestrian — friendly of the MCV campus."

For more than 150 years, the intersection of 12th and Marshall has been a major and defining Court End and MCV crossroads. It is a bustling scene — one of the few spots downtown where Richmond actually feels like a big city. On the streets and narrow sidewalks, people from all walks rub shoulders — nationally known research doctors, earnest hourly wage earners, focused med students on the threshold of promising careers, families of patients with life-threatening situations, camera-toting tourists headed for the Valentine Richmond History Center, sidewalk food venders.

Until recently, when you were walking north on 12th, your eye was drawn immediately to the White House of the Confederacy with its spectacular Doric portico visible through a mesh of crape myrtle and cast-iron fencing. The White House's garden is a popular outdoor spot for the public. The gracefulness of this intimate space forgave the sins of the brutalistic Main Hospital next door (whose prefabricated exterior is the color of tobacco juice).

North of the White House is Clay Street with the Academy of Medicine building and VCU's Tompkins-McCaw library beyond that. What a treat it was to stroll up 12th Street.

As one walked south, the vista included the old West Hospital, a glorious art-deco treat. Across the street is Hunton Hall (old First Baptist Church). South of Broad Street and on axis with 12th is the Governor's Mansion, all the more prominent after its recent expansion and the removal of large trees that encircled it.

But it is the White House of the Confederacy that is the big loser with the closing of 12th Street for the Gateway Building. Along with the Capitol it is Richmond's most significant landmark. It was in these classical structures that the Confederate government operated, and Jefferson and Varina Davis experienced the highs and lows of official and family life.

And Abraham Lincoln visited the White House just days before his murder. On April 3, 1865, after the fall of Richmond, Lincoln walked from his ship through the burnt city and up Shockoe Hill. Accompanied by a cavalry honor guard, he strolled hand-in-hand with his young son Tad up 12th Street to visit the rebel White House.

Now, 137 years later, the 600 block of 12th Street is dead. Much is said about saving old buildings. Who speaks for threatened old streets?

OK. Eyes are rolling on VCU's medical campus: "We're saving lives."

But it's an interesting question: Does medicine supercede architecture, master plans and, in this instance, Thomas Jefferson's original 1780 city grid design?

Sure, doctors strive to keep us alive and well. But then, life has to be worth living. And special urban places like the former corner of 12th and Marshall can be dynamic. They elevate us by placing us in shared spaces with a rich cross section of humanity. We can feel energized at even uneventful moments. The encircling buildings, trees, fences and streets evoke history and tradition.

A single-minded, bombastic approach to urban design does not behoove a large university. While the new building may (or may not) have established a gateway, it is really not much more than a glorified setting for the reception desks. A crossroads of great distinction was surrendered for an undistinguished and innocuous building that has all the charm of a midrange shopping mall. It even has a McDonald's and food court. But even an architectural masterpiece by Frank Gehry, Richard Meier or Norman Foster would have been wrong in the middle of the street at 12th and Marshall.

When can we start celebrating the energy and complexity of urban life and stop sacrificing our evocative public spaces for some shrink-wrapped version of suburbia? S

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