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Jefferson's Hotels

The birthplace of religious freedom goes from Continental Army to continental breakfast.



Every community has spiritually charged places, whether or not it recognizes them. Sometimes they're preserved. Sometimes not.
The Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, in making life easier for commuting employees, paved a spot above the graves of African-American slaves. But how could it have known?

And who knows that Richmond's first state Capitol stood in Shockoe Slip at the northwest corner of Cary and 14th streets? Not that there's anything spiritual about government, but it was in this architecturally bland, warehouse-turned-legislative building that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom became law on Jan. 16, 1786.

It marked the first time — in western history — that a law allowed citizens to worship, or not, as they chose. It was a seminal moment of the Enlightenment because of Messieurs Jefferson, Madison and Mason.

In a city suffering from low self-esteem by landing on the wrong side of too many issues, the passage of the statute here is a remarkable achievement. Today its thrust has important, tremendous implications in our own country and abroad, where religious wars rage.

In 1986, on the 200th anniversary of the statute's passage, Virginius Dabney, Mary Tyler Cheek McClenahan and Saul Viener — three Richmonders whose historical knowledge was only surpassed by their love of their town — rallied the cognoscenti to celebrate this law that inspired the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The idea of building a monument — in this city of monuments — grew from their efforts.

Of course, this formidable trio was wise enough to know that the true monument to religious freedom was its everyday exercise in the lives of all Americans. So thus the challenge: How should Virginians, who've had considerable practice at monumentalizing things, materialize so sublime a concept as religious freedom?

Twenty-two years later, apparently the answer is: with room service.

Last month the Council for America's First Freedom released architectural renderings by the Richmond-based Baskervill firm. To be kind, let's hope what we've seen are merely thoughts on paper, because the proposed plans are not just ordinary but also insulting to the historical legacy of Virginia's — Richmond's — greatest achievement.

The plan shows two hotels, one located atop an obliterated block of Virginia Street running from Cary to Exchange Alley. This is one of Richmond's most ancient thoroughfares — probably dating back to the 1600s. The old capitol that had been a warehouse that backed up to it was demolished long ago. But how can a purported educational and historical organization destroy so rare a piece of early Richmond's infrastructure?

Besides, ancient Virginia Street, every rustic cobblestone in place, has sprung to life recently with Toad's Place, Morton's and the Vistas on the James condominiums opening onto it. Developers of the First Market Bank headquarters amiably balanced history and corporate space requirements along the same textured street.

Virginia Street, from Cary to Exchange Alley, should be kept intact. Would Boston, or Florence, Italy, or Charleston, S.C., allow a shred of their antique street patterns to be violated? The medieval street patterns of Shockoe Slip predate the city's grid plan. They are Richmond's architectural shroud of Turin.

The proposed design of the First Freedom hotel complex is equally disturbing — generic, red brick buildings with unnecessary classical filigree, another dose of that hackneyed Richmond shopping mall aesthetic of ersatz traditionalism that looks cheap. If contextualism is sought with neighboring buildings in the Slip, then let's take an obvious cue from the surrounding old, basically simple commercial structures and, well, simplify. And then simplify some more.

Toning down the frumpy classicism is especially important because this project seeks to break the historic district's 60-foot height limit and climb to 100 feet. If the buildings must rise, they should do so stealthily, not with a fireworks display of entablatures and other unnecessary architectural decoration.

And what happened to the parade of internationally prominent architects who examined the site with ideas? Not since Monumental Church was built in 1814 had a local project received input from such talent — Jacquelin Robertson, Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Steven Holl, and Williams and Tsien. There's something to be said for using a local architect, but this proposal is terribly out of sync with its historical site. A complex that could be mistaken for a CVS or a Kroger strip mall isn't the solution.

And then there are the dual hotels proposed for the site. There's obvious cleverness in designing a cultural destination that has a built-in revenue source. Carnegie Hall and the Museum of Modern Art in New York both have condominium towers that support financially those cultural destinations. But at this site the prime mission seems to be accommodating the hotels. The remaining footprint would become the First Freedom commemorative site.

This is a world-class opportunity. Granted, expressing religious freedom tangibly is a bear. But on this historically sacred site that challenge should come first. Real estate development can take place anywhere else.  S



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