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Manchester United

The new South Side courthouse projects authority.


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In 1910 residents of Manchester knew that their city, with a population of only 10,000, would pretty much be swallowed up when merged with its much larger neighbor north of the river, population 125,000.

So they added two critical caveats to the agreement with Richmond to maintain some semblance of autonomy and convenience: A courthouse would remain in Manchester and a new toll-free bridge would be built connecting Hull Street with 14th Street. This month, exactly 100 years after the merger, too much of the original building stock of Manchester has been decimated and there are few around who remember the glory days of Dogtown, as the area's sometimes affectionately (and not so affectionately) called. But those two glorious landmarks remain: the Manchester Courthouse and the Mayo Bridge.

If the concrete bridge, the most handsome in the city, needs a facelift, the old courthouse is looking good thanks to a $26 million renovation and expansion that's recently been completed. The startling architectural transformation has shifted the orientation of the once modest-scaled courthouse to a public building of considerable civic aspirations.

Since the 1870s this courthouse has occupied the center of the block bounded by Hull, Decatur, and East Ninth and East 10th streets. This was known as Courthouse Square and in the first half of the last century offered pleasures other than judicial. Parents strolled their babies and children romped under the shade trees. The square was enclosed by a picket fence and entered through an iron gate (which has since been re-erected in Maury Cemetery). Inexplicably, however, there was no military statuary — unlike Richmond, which was liberal in erecting monuments. But then Manchester had interwoven such commemorations into its infrastructure: Some of its streets are named for such Confederate figures as Raphael Semmes and Matthew F. Maury.

In recent years the simple brick courthouse had become down-at-the-heels and its square and the surrounding residential and commercial buildings relatively dreary. On Hull Street, just beyond the courthouse front door, the character of the neighborhood had suffered with the significant loss of buildings, the widening of Commerce Road and the addition of a McDonald's restaurant in a parking lot on a nearby corner.

In a bold gesture, the project's planners and architect, Moseley Architects of Richmond, gave the expanded courts complex an entirely new public front on a bluff at Ninth Street. The entrance is now announced with a classical portico that offers dramatic views of the sprawling Manchester warehouse district and the downtown skyline in the distance. While previously it wasn't clear how to enter the building, that isn't an issue now. And if architecture has the power to set a civic standard and guide the conversation as to how we experience a building, this expanded courts complex is exhibit A.

The building isn't perfect in all of its details — the use of the classical idiom requires certain purity and some things are handled a little clumsily here — but if one subscribes to the notion that the temple-front architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans projects authority, then this building has certain power. With its red brick walls and cream-columned portico supporting a pediment, the Manchester courthouse is very much in the tradition of how Virginia has constructed this building type for centuries.

The new wing takes its cues from the original structure which has hints of the Italianate style — slightly elongated windows and elegant brackets used in strategic places for support and decoration. The entrance wing extends from the original building at a right angle toward the north to create a T-shaped structure. And an imposing portico has been added with four Tuscan columns. The portico is reached by ascending either of two flanking staircases.

Flanking each side of the portico, two wings add heft to the composition and have classical and Italianate massing and detailing that reflects the original courthouse.

If the building no longer fronts Hull Street, a link with this main thoroughfare takes place in the form of a small, landscaped plaza at the southeast corner of Ninth and Hull streets. When the plantings mature, the benches here should provide a hint of an oasis in a highly urbanized, if not densely built-up, part of town.

While highly traditional architecturally (consider the contrast with the city's International-style, glass-encased John Marshall Courthouse downtown) the new Manchester Courthouse establishes a sure degree of dignity in a neighborhood that needed a lift.



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