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Architecture Review: A Post Office Restoration on West Broad Raises the Bar for Historic Renovation in Richmond

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Later this year, if the Pulse rapid bus is up and running and ridership hits planners’ projections, quite a few more people will be ferrying up and down Broad Street via the Greater Richmond Transit Co. Since these riders will be perched on seats set a little higher than what they’re accustomed to in their own vehicles, they’ll discover fleeting sights that previously eluded them.

Architecturally, there’s a lot to savor. Significant buildings, east to west, include Monumental Church, Old City Hall, the Deco at Central National Bank, the November Theatre at Virginia Repertory Theatre, the Depot at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Science Museum of Virginia.

Let’s add another. Long a sleeper, the former Saunders Station post office at 1635 W. Broad St. across from Lowe’s has recently been restored to its mid-20th century glory and given new life by Mobelux. This local company devises communications programs including mobile apps and branding programs for corporate and nonprofit clients.

The company’s founders, Jeff Rock and Garnett Ross, and their savvy designer Robert Steele of Bob Architects, have raised the bar for historic rehabilitation here by rediscovering the historical and aesthetic underpinnings of an 80-year-old government building while injecting fresh, refined and even frisky touches.

Saunders Station began life in 1937 during the Great Depression. Louis Simon was supervising architect. It was one of hundreds of neighborhood and small town post offices that were built through the New Deal, a stimulus package during those hard times. These and other handsome federal buildings were designed to reassure Americans that their government was in control even as the careers and finances of many people were shaky. Two nearby public buildings contemporary to Saunders Station are the Maggie Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies at 1000 N. Lombardy St. and the Virginia ABC store at 1217 W. Broad St.

These three symmetrical buildings could not be more different in the original purposes they served, but each projected maximum authority when built. The exteriors have classical elements, including stylized, engaged fluted columns and a tripartite facade arrangement of a well-defined base, a middle and an articulated cap. But stylization is key — and the style they share is stripped classical modernism.

Following the Mobelux redo, the red brick walls appear familiar and reassuring, the sandstone and granite detailing trim is crisp, and the expansive glass windows predict the International Style yet to come in architectural design. Bob Architects and its erudite client hit these and every other note correctly. Even the Mobelux corporate sign, newly-installed in the attic facing Broad Street, is so understated with its sans serif type — appropriate to a 1930s building — that it appears always to have been there.

Entering the building from the granite front steps, one passes through the original wooden vestibule and into the lobby. It is an open space with ample natural light and white walls. The old terrazzo floors, along with an oriental rug placed here or there, add warmth. There are two conference rooms that open off this lobby. One was once the postmaster’s domain. Like most of the furnishings placed throughout the building, those in these spaces are either contemporary or midcentury modern.

Veering slightly to the left of the lobby, a broad, sky-lit passage leads into the bullpen, an open space where most of the some three dozen employees spend their workdays. The ceilings are high, the spaces generous and the walls are painted white.

On the eastern side of this room is an attractive newly created space — a conference room that deftly incorporates the former post office’s loading dock. Sheer glass walls make it clear this is a contemporary intervention.

The loading dock at the Saunders Station post office has been converted into a glass-enclosed conference room. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The loading dock at the Saunders Station post office has been converted into a glass-enclosed conference room.

One flight down, the once-gloomy catacomblike basement has been converted to spaces and amenities for employees, as well as certain client functions. In one area an opening channels daylight from above. There is an intimate, 24-seat theater outfitted with chairs that were salvaged from the now-demolished Westhampton cinema, also built in the late 1930s. Other downstairs spaces include an employee break room and a handful of cocoonlike nooks and crannies that serve as occasional and quiet work spaces. There is also a locker room for those who jog or cycle to work.

If the main floor is furnished in an understatedly corporate mode, the lower level has touches of vintage funk in addition to well-worn Oriental rugs.

Of all the details handled so well, one of the most delightful is found in the building’s lobby. This is a WPA mural, a feature of Federal Arts Program of the Works Progress Administration. When considered as body of work, this is one of the great legacies of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.

OK, what’s hanging high on a wall isn’t really a fully realized WPA mural but a full-scale mock-up of an unrealized work that was intended for the space: It’s a facsimile of the working sketch by Virginia artist Julien Binford (1909-1997) that depicts Richmond burning during the evacuation fire of 1865 in the waning days of the Civil War. By the time this post office was completed and the planning process for the mural still underway, the nation was at war and funds were redirected to that effort instead. However, happily for Binford, who served for 25 years as chairman of the art department at Mary Washington College — now the University of Mary Washington, he did see another of his federally-commissioned murals completed. It was for a post office in Forest, Mississippi.

This summer, as President Donald Trump touts major investments to renew the nation’s aging public works, the resuscitation of Mobelux building serves as a reminder of how even modest, well-designed and solid governmental buildings can not only serve the generations for which they were built, but may provide spaces for future uses not imagined. S

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