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architecture: Office Politics

This early-20th-century jewel may never be repaired. Maybe its fate would be different if it faced the Capitol.


The message is unsettling but clear. Someone doesn't consider the problem — and by extension, the building — worth fixing. By following the logic of benign neglect, the building will wither to the point that eventually wrecking crews will be called in. This is unfortunate, unnecessary and wrong.

The 1911 high-rise is not just an architectural gem in its own right, it is a fascinating link in an unbroken chain of classical architecture in the vicinity, stretching from the late 1700s to what's currently on the drawing boards.

To summarize some of the classical works nearby: In 1788, the Capitol became the nation's first great classical governmental building. Nearby, St. Peter's Catholic and St. Paul's Episcopal churches are classical landmarks from the 1830s and 1840s respectively. The federal courthouse on Bank Street was built in the 1850s. The Eighth Street Office Building itself, which opened originally as Hotel Murphy, was completed in 1911. By 1963, when St. Paul's built its parish house, the classical idiom was still employed. Looking ahead, the new federal courthouse slated for the block bounded by Eighth, Seventh, Broad and Grace is being designed by Robert A. Stern. He is Yale's architecture dean and currently one of the world's chief interpreters of classicism (Stern designed the new Darden Graduate School of Business building at the University of Virginia).

While the Eighth Street Office Building's classical roots may not be so apparent, on closer examination it proves to be an early-20th-century jewel. Designed by one of Virginia's most distinguished architects, John Keevan Peebles, it provides a textbook case of how classicism was corralled into serving early skyscraper design in the decades before the International Style introduced cantilevered construction and sleek glass curtain walls.

Peebles (1866-1934), who practiced most of his career in Norfolk, was born about the same time as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ralph Adams Cram, two giants in American architecture who were seeking new paradigms for the 20th century. Wright was inspired by the American landscape and "honest" materials. Cram, meanwhile, believed the Gothic style would embody spiritual values necessary for a fast-changing world.

Peebles, as a Virginian who was following the mainstream of the time, employed classicism, a long-standing Virginia tradition. He designed the legislative wings of the State Capitol, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the lower lobby and ballroom wing of the Jefferson Hotel and signature buildings at the University of Virginia.

For the 1911 high-rise Hotel Murphy, he used the parts of the classical order in the proper sequence: A two-story sandstone podium at the base, the shaft of the column delineated as windows, a richly detailed, two-story entablature and a glorious, deeply etched cornice.

While I haven't done the math, what Peebles did here was translate the exacting proportions that the ancients had long applied to temples and monuments (and the proper use of the orders of architecture), and apply them to a building type new to the world, the skyscraper. It made perfect sense aesthetically: With those proportions, the building has a clearly delineated base, a clear middle and an elaborate finale at the roofline. Later, the forces of modernism would eliminate all of this as decadent and unnecessary.

Other important early high-rises in Richmond followed the classical idiom as well — the First National Bank Building at Ninth and Main, and the Media General building at Grace and Third. Alas, the bank has lost its cornice and the Media General building was demolished for a parking deck. The Eight Street Office Building is a survivor. It should stay one.

"But the building is spent," General Services officials will moan. Probably so, considering the lack of attention and resources it has received in recent years.

Perhaps the building doesn't have to continue for office use. Why not convert it into condos or apartments, or back into a hotel? The Jefferson, John Marshall and William Byrd are examples of vintage hotels that continue to provide shelter in the 21st century.

Early- and mid-20th-century commercial buildings are among the least appreciated and most threatened buildings in our city. The restoration of this building would not only help reinforce the liveliness of downtown, but provide visual lessons and rewards in the elegant, prevailing power of classicism. S

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