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Be Mine

Architecture Review: The updated Valentine museum establishes a refreshing sense of place.

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Like many folks in the hinterlands, on most Sundays I scan The New York Times to glimpse what's current in the wider culture. The Oct. 19 issue didn't disappoint. The lead travel headline promised 12 treasures, including street art in Berlin and silk in Florence, that "exude a sense of place." An article in another section featured a color photo from a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Death Becomes Her." It featured a stunning black dress with an ample bustle from the late-19th century.

I think of these offerings the next day when visiting the Valentine, the region's history museum, to see its newly renovated public spaces and just-installed permanent exhibition, designed with enough permeability to be tweaked as future opportunities arise — fresh research, new acquisitions, or shifts in taste or historical judgment. More thoughts on the exhibition will come in a future issue of Style. For now, I'm focused on the museum's renovation.

Upon entering the reception lobby I'm welcomed by a new gift shop that now offers items made mostly in Richmond — and yes, exude a sense of place. There are artist-illustrated note cards depicting familiar landmarks, colognes with localized fragrances and wooden boxes dye-cut with Richmond-centric graphics. From the shop ceiling hangs a chandelier by contemporary Richmond artist Wendy Umanoff, and just steps away in the main gallery is the new "This Is Richmond, Virginia" exhibition. My eye is drawn to a mannequin dressed in a mourning gown from Civil War-era 1864. It dawns on me that the Valentine is really hip. I'm not giving up the Times, but the museum has a serious clue.

For as long as I can remember the Valentine has attempted to stay relevant. It's gone through periodic name changes, re-brandings and physical expansions and downsizes in efforts to challenge staff, satisfy trustees and patrons, reassure scholars and "edu-tain" visitors young and old. At times it's seemed the Valentine is the story, not a historical repository chartered to narrate Richmond's long and storied past.

In the 1950s it rescued the elegant, Greek revival Bransford-Cecil House from demolition and moved it to East Clay Street. In the '60s the museum contemplated expanding to fill its entire city block bounded by Clay, Marshall, 10th and 11th streets. In the '70s it added a major gallery wing with offices and storage to the existing 19th-century row houses. The '80s saw a re-examination of the Valentine's historical narrative and a scholarly restoration of its prized Wickham House. The '90s brought a move to a second campus, the Valentine Riverfront near Brown's Island, which tried the patience and finances of all concerned. It foundered, but after a period of retrenchment, the museum returned to its core activities of collecting and maintaining the artifacts of the city by offering a wide range of tours, making the entire city a museum experience.

Now a generational update of that 1970s addition and the adjacent row houses allows many other things to happen. First, the museum has opened up, literally. Similar to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where a glass wing offers a strong sense of welcome, the Valentine has opened long-shut windows. The first obligation of the museum is securing and conserving objects — sunlight can be an enemy — but there also have been generational improvements in filtered glass. Looking onto Clay Street from the community galleries, visitors can enjoy the bustle of the Virginia Commonwealth University medical center campus and a smattering of tourists and stragglers from nearby City Hall and the courts building. Italianate windows bring in light and, just as importantly, offer views of the interior to passersby. This is architecture as marketing.

To the building's rear, windows offer views to the boxwood garden and the Edward Valentine sculpture studio. Formerly disparate areas, both inside and out, have been connected visually. The gallery spaces themselves aren't claustrophobic.

Visitors arrive from either Clay or via the courtyard off 11th Street and enter a reconfigured lobby — essentially the full first floor of the Bransford-Cecil House. It's as welcoming as a stylish boutique hotel with a marble reception desk and handsome wall-to-wall carpet in a traditional pattern of blues and grays. In the gift shop here, custom shelving and counters set off two marble mantelpieces topped by huge, gold-leaf mirrors that act as bookends to the room.

The entry and the reconfigured galleries are open spaces with off-white walls, making the experience feel fresh without being antiseptic.

The familiar curving staircase (with the Miller & Rhoads clock overhead) continues as a connector to the lower level. The multipurpose room downstairs has been stripped of the vintage neon sign collection, and its plain surfaces re-outfitted in molding that's been painted shades of cream to add a needed hint of formality and décor.

Throughout the building closets, storage — even wet bars — have been tucked in here and there to serve as flexible education spaces or entertainment zones. The only off note is the signage identifying each gallery: The typeface is clunky and unnecessarily large.

But the overall, 16,200-square-foot project, by Glavé & Holmes Architects, has been accomplished with total respect to its existing buildings, a keen sense of practicality, comfort of patrons and a sense of timelessness that should prove valuable in the long run. The Valentine spaces now breathe and this makes a difference. Visitors can be shown all the fascinating objects in the world (the Valentine has 1.6 million pieces), but if the environment isn't right, the experience suffers.

The new Valentine is right on the mark. S

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