Marcellus Wright Jr. died March 13. He was 95.
Following a dormant period during the 1940s and '50s, when construction downtown was at a standstill, no architecture firm made a greater impact on the cityscape's new face than did Wright's.
Under Marc, as his friends and family called him, the Wright firm designed such local landmarks as The Berkshire apartments on historic West Franklin Street and River Towers on Riverside Drive. Government commissions included the U.S. post office on Brook Road, the Federal Building downtown and public housing projects throughout the area. At the behest of Gov. Mills E. Godwin, Wright's firm designed the prototype for the fledging Virginia Community College system, a series of low-slung buildings that could be spun out economically (and in multiples) from Gloucester to Grundy.
But it was in chiding his fellow citizens to think broadly and comprehensively that Wright made his greatest impression. For many years he served diligently on the city planning commission; he served twice as president of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects. He was a prime mover of the Central Richmond Association, a forerunner of today's Richmond Renaissance. During the '60s, Wright's vision appeared regularly through letters-to-the-editor or in op-ed columns he penned for the dailies.
What did he advocate? Certainly, he never caught the historic-preservation train. Instead, he was a powerful advocate for replacing much of Jackson Ward with the civic center, an effort that produced City Hall, the Coliseum and the Safety and Welfare Building (none by his own design). He pushed for construction of the Manchester Bridge and the Downtown Expressway. He helped coin the term "Main to the James" to add some pizzazz to efforts to transform the rail yards and sites of industrial buildings along the river into new corporate uses for the information age.
"Not everything he advocated was popular at the time," says Fred Cox, a Richmond architect and longtime colleague. "But many of the things he worked for laid the groundwork for other things to happen, such as the canal project. We are benefiting from those things today."
Although he had studied architecture in France at the Ecole des Beaux-arts, Wright wasn't a transitional figure in the shift from classicism to modernism in Virginia architecture. He was a full-fledged practitioner of the International Style: glass, metal, brick and space were his palette. Wright was a gentleman who looked to the future. And just as his buildings continue to define our city, the name of this longtime Richmond booster survives on the shingle of his architecture firm, Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith.
Edwin Slipek Jr.