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Opportunity Slip

Architecture Review: The story behind Richmond’s new First Freedom Center and why you can see its best side only from the alley.



The green and burgundy, oversized, metallic signs read Courtyard Marriott and Residence Inn. But there’s more going on with this new, architecturally klutzy, six-story complex at East Cary and 14th streets, built where the Virginia Capitol once stood in historic Shockoe Slip.

This is where the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed, the seminal 1786 law that ensured both separation of church and state and religious freedom. It inspired the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its freedom of the press.

Flash back to an autumn afternoon in 1984. The statute’s 200th anniversary was fast approaching, and leaders were searching for a way to commemorate the commonwealth’s great contribution to western civilization. The barbecue at Great Shiplock Park had the air of a tweedy tailgate party with politicos, intelligentsia and divines.

Such late civic and religious leaders as Mary Tyler Cheek, Virginius Dabney, Catholic Bishop Walter Sullivan, Rabbi Myron Berman and the Rev. Nicholas Dombalis, as well as Congressman Tom Bliley, were rallying movers and moneymakers. An organization that became the Council for America’s First Freedom was formed and eventually acquired the site at 14th and Cary. Its vision was to build a combination monument and educational center on what was a surface parking lot.

A parade of prominent American architects examined the site and weighed in on how they’d pay tribute to the first freedom. Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, and Richmond’s own Jacquelin Taylor made the pilgrimage. The nation’s most renowned exhibition designer, Ralph Appelbaum, was engaged to develop displays.

Trouble was, this parking lot site had become an income generator. Why hurry?

To its credit, the council purchased the adjacent cluster of decaying, 19th-century Italianate buildings at 14th and Main streets and sensitively restored them for offices and apartments. But years turned to decades and the council’s founding lights passed away.

New leadership decided the hallowed site of the old Capitol was too valuable for a mere religious freedom center. A higher and better use would be, well, a 134,000-square-foot complex that housed two chain hotels. A 2,200-square-foot area could be siphoned off one of the lobbies as a museum of religious freedom.

So on Jan. 16 — the 229th anniversary of the statute — the hotels were declared open, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe helped dedicate the center.

Something architecturally special must have arisen on this hallowed ground, the last large, open tract in Shockoe Slip. Right?


Here, where entrepreneurs have strived for three decades to painstakingly establish a commercial and residential destination with unique character, the design approach for this project was akin to using a buzz saw to create architectural shredded wheat.

A site that called for a tightly configured in-fill building was given a ridiculously fractured treatment. And to call the exterior cladding fussy is an understatement. At the jagged roofline, the entablatures — a clumsy and unnecessary attempt at contextual classicism — are horsey and distracting. The various brick colors divert the eye.

The first sign of trouble was the closing, and then building atop, a block-long stretch of Virginia Street, one of the city’s rare early, pre-grid streets. It was plowed up to provide a larger building pad. Then an inverted U-shaped building was constructed with an open plaza area facing Cary. So rather than reading as a solid and assured structure, the building’s various angles, cuts and setbacks come across as slivers.

If the Marriott and First Freedom complex facing East Cary is fractured and fussy, the architect got it right at the well-tailored rear of the building, below. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • If the Marriott and First Freedom complex facing East Cary is fractured and fussy, the architect got it right at the well-tailored rear of the building, below.

The glass fenestration on the courtyard, or western side of the building, is aggressively over-scaled in the context of the historic surroundings. The 14th Street facade is more successful because it is a solid urban wall with punched windows that respects its older neighboring buildings.

You might suppose then that the architect, Baskervill of Richmond, reserved the moment of architectural glory for the acute angle where Cary and 14th meet — where an actual monument has been erected. Here a 30-foot twisted metal spike rises from a granite base and gestures skyward to create an axis mundilike gesture linking earth and the skies. It also includes a stone, reredoslike backdrop containing an excerpt from the statute. But the building is so confused in massing and fussy in detailing that the spire is overwhelmed.

What about the outdoor terrace area that faces Cary Street? Is this a public piazza linking with the city sidewalk? Don’t count on it.

When I recently exited one of the lobbies and went onto the terrace, a hotel manager was purposefully latching the gate. Trapped inside, I asked “Why?”

“To keep people out,” she replied brusquely, as if I should have known.

As one well-regarded Richmond architect who’d been consulted in the past on ideas for the site said, “It’s a sad commentary when the architect believes more in the project than the client.”

I would add that it’s a sad commentary when a building’s best side faces the alley. S

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