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Growing Pains

The Virginia Historical Society's disruptive new wing.



But as we exited the streetcar and darted across Huntington Avenue toward the museum's dignified, classical entrance, I had an anxious twinge. Suppose the museum's front door wasn't the front door anymore?

In Richmond, we have lost the thrill and dignity of approaching two marquee attractions — the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Historical Society (both on the Boulevard) — through their stately, classical temple fronts. In recent years visitors have slunk around to the rear to gain entry.

As automobiles continue the insidious century-long-and-running process of reconfiguring our city, both VMFA and VHS have caved. Motor entrances are in the rear. Their glorious street facades are relegated to has-been status, like an artifact that no longer catches a curator's eye.

Happily, when its current, ambitious expansion is complete — expected in late 2008 — the art museum will re-establish an architectural and physical relationship with the Boulevard, one of Richmond's most elegant thoroughfares.

Sadly, with the completion of a 54,000-square-foot addition this summer, the Virginia Historical Society further institutionalized its "front door" toward the back of 428 N. Boulevard. Not only is that rear entrance the main entrance, but the facade of the landmark museum and research center has been disrupted by the new modernistic wing that pushes 50 feet past the familiar, classical facade and toward the Boulevard at the southern end of the building. The transition between old and new is abrupt. What had been a harmonious (and even witty) facade that had expanded over time is now awkward and peculiar.

What happened? The need to grow physically was a reaction to the society's excellent and dynamic program, collecting and exhibition schedule. But perhaps an architectural master plan would have helped guide the expansion.

The original sandstone building, the Battle Abbey, was opened in 1913 as a temple to the Confederacy. Set handsomely on a raised terrace, the stately but welcoming facade had four colossal Ionic columns announcing its front door. It was designed by Bissell and Sinkler, a blue-chip Philadelphia firm. Partner John P.B. Sinkler had studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where classical architecture was drilled into young designers so they might translate the idiom into such 20th-century public structures as educational buildings, train stations and museums. The Battle Abbey's original and precise landscape scheme was designed by the Warren Manning firm of Boston: This was one of the projects that brought a young Charles Gillette to Richmond. He would work for the next half century shaping domestic and corporate landscapes here.

In 1959 and in 1992 the historical society added wings to the rear of the building. The latter expansion included a porte-cochere on the south side near a ground floor auditorium.

Then in 1998, much more dramatically, VHS built a highly visible extension on the Boulevard that extended the original facade northward to Kensington Avenue. Glavé & Holmes of Richmond was the architect for the project. This wing provided considerable gallery space and offices on the upper level for Virginia's Department of Historic Resources.

The new wing took its cues from a recent addition to the National Gallery of Art in London. On Trafalgar Square, the Philadelphia firm of Venturi, Scott Brown had added a wing with the scale and intensity of classical décor of the original building and then had decreased the intensity of the detailing as the new building moved away from the original edifice. Eventually, the new building morphed into a bold, modernist statement.

Similarly, at VHS the Glavé firm continued the classical motif — even adding a dramatic curved projection to break the building's long facade — but eventually dissolved the facade into a clearly modern and flatter front as the building approached Kensington Avenue.

When VHS and Glavé & Holmes approached the most recent expansion of the building to the south, it stood to reason that the curved bow front would be mirrored. Classical architecture is nothing if not about symmetry.

What happened? Why was a stark, jarring, modernistic wing added, and why was it pushed 50 feet forward from the facade and toward Boulevard? And why was a wall of glass introduced between the new and the old sections to serve as a transition? When it is lighted from within at night, the enclosed stairwell becomes the main event when viewed from Boulevard.

The culprit is that porte cochere directly behind the new wing. A number of years ago, VHS spent a considerable sum enclosing the space and converting it into the main entrance and a museum store. VHS might have taken a deep breath, sacrificed this expensive one-story carbuncle and on its site placed the new south wing. The important Boulevard building frontage could have been expanded consistently with the overall facade.

Although the view from the Boulevard is weird, the south elevation that faces the United Daughters of the Confederacy building next door provides a handsome play of modernist materials — stone, glass and metal cleverly worked into a narrow site.

Despite this architectural misstep on the Boulevard, there is a silver lining. It is the nature of museums to expand, and the Virginia Historical Society has certainly not been shy in recent years. Chances are there will be other additions. Who knows, maybe the entire Boulevard facade will be enclosed in a huge glass pavilion one day. That would be one way to reestablish architectural consistency. And the original classical facade would be encased in a huge glass box. This would also allow for a proper front door again.

And, yes, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts still has a front door on Huntington Avenue. S

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