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Design Flaw?

With four downtown historic buildings facing demolition, preservationists want to change the rules.



It may be too late for the nearby Murphy Hotel, lately known as the 8th Street Office Building. After a decade of studies, proposals and plans to do something with the 95-year-old building, the state legislature in June approved $9.5 million in funding to knock it down and plan for the redesign of its neighbor, the former Hotel Richmond. Gov. Tim Kaine has stalled the demolition for at least a year, until a replacement building is approved.

And soon, it will be too late for the A.D. Williams Clinic and West Hospital, two other buildings on the campus of the VCU Medical Center that are slated for demolition.

The state government and VCU have their reasons for wanting the buildings gone. They're old, in some cases deteriorated, and expensive to retrofit for new purposes.

Jennie Dotts, the outspoken preservationist who heads the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (A.C.O.R.N.), has been trying for years to keep all these old buildings standing. With their period facades and unique details, she says, they serve as historic landmarks that define the historic character of Broad Street and downtown.

The problem goes beyond the plight of any single building, Dotts has concluded. Namely, she says, it's that "the state can do anything it wants to with its buildings" — landmark or not, historic or otherwise. "We own the buildings," Dotts says, meaning Virginia taxpayers, "yet we can't protect them."

The four old buildings may be lost causes, but Dotts says it's not too late to fix "a flawed process." She and her colleagues suggest three things should be done.

First, they say, change how the state approves the demolition of historic buildings. The way it works now, the Department of Historic Resources and its Architectural Advisory Review Board consider a demolition after the General Assembly has already approved and funded it, Dotts says: "The train is out of the station, as it were."

And the Architectural Review Board is riddled with conflicts of interest, Dotts says. Of the six members, all have direct ties to the state or state agencies.

Members include Brian J. Ohlinger, VCU's associate vice president for facilities management; Sally Bowring, an adjunct art professor at VCU; and Calder Loth, a senior architectural historian with the state Department of Historic Resources. Two other members are linked to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the University of Virginia.

Most notably, Dotts says, immediate past board president Richard L. Ford is a principal with Commonwealth Architects — the firm that got the contract, along with a Philadelphia firm, to design the Medical Sciences II building that will stand on the site of the Nursing Education Building.

Ford was on vacation last week and was unavailable for comment.

"Was he sitting on the board? Yeah," says Ohlinger, who calls Ford a "great, great president" of the review board. Generally members recuse themselves from voting when a matter involves them professionally or personally, Ohlinger says — as he says he did when the Nursing Education Building demolition was considered. The contract for the Medical Sciences Building II was awarded to Commonwealth well after the vote took place, he says.

An independent group is needed to review the fate of state-owned buildings, Dotts insists, to prevent the board from simply going along with the state. "Who is going to buck the system?" she asks. "That's what it comes down to."

Secondly, Dotts wants the state to be more candid about its intentions, laying plans for historic structures open to public inspection well in advance.

In the mid-1970s, the infamous "Babylonian gardens" proposal suddenly appeared before the legislature — an ambitious plan to transform Capitol Square with modernist fountains and underground offices.

People were horrified at the thought, lobbyist and preservationist Patrick M. McSweeney says. The public's vehement reaction swiftly killed the idea, McSweeney says, but it illustrated the need for citizens to know about such plans. "What has happened in the past has been characterized by this inordinate desire to keep the public out until it's almost too late," he says.

VCU and state officials have pointed out that their plans have long been in the works. The plan to demolish the Nursing Education Building "was originally addressed in the 1981 Master Site Plan for the MCV Campus and was restated and approved in the university's 1996 Master Site Plan," Ohlinger says in one letter.

Finally, Dotts says, the city's downtown master plan needs to be aligned with the master plans of the state and VCU to create a cohesive, vibrant downtown. She hopes Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's support of joint planning will help sway state government.

As for the remaining state-owned historic buildings, as well as the demolition approval process, their fate is unresolved.

There's one more on the list — a tiny brick house, no larger than a shed, which sits on a small triangle of grass beside the Randolph-Minor Annex, overlooking I-95. Graduate student Lawrence Lanberg believes, from poring over old photos and insurance documents, that it was built sometime before 1835 as a schoolhouse for former slaves associated with the First African Baptist Church.

VCU hired Commonwealth Architects to examine it, Ohlinger says, and "their belief ... is that in all probability it was not a slave school." Lanberg's estimate of age is correct, he says, but the architectural historians think it unlikely that such a school operated there before emancipation.

Dotts disagrees. "It's documented that these schools did exist" in other locations, she says.

VCU will make sure the building is well-maintained, Ohlinger says. "We have no plans to do anything bad to it," he says. S

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