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Part 2

Towering Failures, Subtle Successes


The Five Best:

[image-1]photo by Scott Elmquist / Style WeeklyThe City of Richmond hit a home run with Firehouse #10, clad in corrugated metal, brick and other materials appropriate to its industrial location6. City of Richmond Firehouse
900 Hermitage Road
1993, Baskervill & Son,
Richmond, architect

Throughout the decade, the city of Richmond designed a number of firehouses that were pleasantly contextual in design. These included stations on Brookland Park Boulevard and Chamberlayne Avenue on the North Side.

But the best of these is Station No.10 on Hermitage Road, just behind the Diamond. It is a building that draws strength from, and makes no apology for, the faded industrial neighborhood of which it is a part. In fact it's a celebration of architectural elements from the industrial age.

Richard Ford, the design architect, was inspired by nearby Quonset huts in his use of corrugated metal siding. The brick wing, where firefighters spend down time, is built of brick, a nod to nearby industrial warehouses. For a relatively modest $1 million investment, Richmond got a handsome, modernist statement. This building should be studied as a lesson in contextualism.

[image-2]photo by Stephen Salpukas / Style WeeklyThe new UTS/PSCE library is sensitive to its setting and inside, a high-tech space is firmly rooted in Gothicism.7. The William Smith Morton Library
Union Theological Seminary/Presbyterian School of Christian Education
3400 block of Chamberlayne Avenue
1998, The Glave Firm, Richmond, architect

Charles Read, the son of a Presbyterian minister and a University of Virginia-trained architect, used Jeffersonian architectural traditions when he designed the Union Theological Seminary campus in Ginter Park 100 years ago. Like U.Va.'s Lawn in Charlottesville, Read's buildings line an impressive quadrangle with the main administrative building at one end. But here the differences end. Read employed an exuberant and irregularly picturesque, Tudor style rather than symmetrical classicism, and he backed the buildings up to the quad, looking out onto the residential neighborhood.

In 1997, as a key move in a continuing update of its aging facilities, UTS/PSCE abandoned its antiquated library and transfigured Schaffler Hall from a chapel and classroom building into a high-tech library and research center.

Randolph Holmes of The Glave Firm set the new construction adjacent to, and parallel with, the existing structure on the quadrangle side of Schaffler. This new alignment breathes new life into the campus' impressive greensward. Inside, he created a soaring interior space with the dramatic use of red brick, Gothic arches and filtered light from skylights. Visitors generally exclaim, "Wow!" when they enter the building, yet the spaces are nicely human-scaled and conducive to scholarly pursuits.

[image-3]photo by Scott Elmquist / Style WeeklySlated for commercial development, the Canal Walk provides handsome public infrastructure that plays off nearby roadways and train tracks.8. The Canal Walk
1999, Wallace Robertson and Todd,
Philadelphia, architects;
Greeley & Hansen,
Richmond, engineers

The century ended with the completion of what promises to be Richmond's best hope for reviving downtown, the canal walk. It is part of a chain of events, all of which bode well for the future of the city.

The floodwall has made redevelopment of Shockoe Bottom possible.

Private investment in Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom was supplying critical mass, but a centerpiece was needed. The $28 million linear stretch of river water, granite and concrete from 17th Street to Brown's Island at the foot of Fifth Street could be it. The mistake one generation of Richmonders had made in destroying most of the James River & Kanawha canals seemed to be corrected a quarter century later. Projects for hotels, shops, restaurants and office spaces are on the drawing boards, and it should just be a matter of time before this waterway will link Shockoe Bottom and the Slip as a destination for all. Richmond has had precious few gathering spots where folks, regardless of age, race or income felt comfortable coming together. This has the makings of such a place.

[image-4]photo by Stephen Salpukas / Style WeeklyFour rebuilt townhouses restored dignity to 19th Street In Your Ear Studio placed a large addition to the rear to house recording studios.9. In Your Ear Studio
North 19th Street, Shockoe Bottom
1999, BOB Architecture,
Richmond, architect

If you believe in miracles, you'll find one in the form of In Your Ear Studio at the corner of North 19th and East Broad streets.

There are a surprising number of surviving buildings on the block that are throwbacks to when this was a lively but congested residential neighborhood. These include the city's oldest frame residence, the Adam Craig House; the Italianate Pace-King House and even a former synagogue. But when four townhouses in this historic block fell into ruin, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities rode to the rescue by paying a ridiculously high amount for the shells. Then the APVA found an enlightened partner in In Your Ear Studio, a local recording firm looking for studio space.

In the best of all possible scenarios, the four housefronts were meticulously restored and linked to a simple, modernistic wing that was added across the rear. Result? A large chunk of the historic street facade was salvaged to ensure the block's integrity and Shockoe Bottom got an injection of contemporary architectural energy with the addition. Historic districts shouldn't be architectural time capsules, but reflective of continuing activity.

[image-5]photo by Scott Elmquist / Style WeeklyThe decade came to a close architecturally with a brilliantly conceived and executed nature center at Maymont. The architect broke up the building's mass and stepped it down a hillside. Inside, the interplay of materials — glass, metal, stone and brick is masterful.10. The Robins Nature Center at Maymont
1999, Bond Comet Westmoreland + Hiner, Richmond, architect

The local firm of Bond Comet Westmoreland + Hiner delivered some of our stronger buildings during the past decade. The Dominion Resources corporate office building on Tredegar Street that hugs the north bank of the James and the John Tyler Community College that overlooks Interstate 95 near Chester are two examples. But as the century wound down, the firm delivered a jewel of a building to house educational programs and provide an orientation center for Maymont.

It is a tour de force in how to set a building in the landscape and how to integrate a wide range of materials — granite, concrete, wood, metal and glass. Every space flows beautifully to the next, every structural element is perfectly ordered.

The opening of this center and continued physical growth of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Children's Museum, the Science Museum of Virginia, the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens at Bloemendahl all point to remarkable cultural riches in this area. We live in a sophisticated city. We have extremely generous patrons. But even among this fine assembly of 1990s facilities, this building stands tall for several reasons: the intelligent and careful way it addresses a dramatic and hilly setting that straddles the Byrd Park and Maymont property lines, its use of the finest building materials, and the boldness and finesse with which Bond Comet Westmoreland + Hiner approached and executed the commission.

There are buildings and there is architecture. This is really architecture— permanent, useful and beautiful.

So a new decade begins with high hopes. Richmond is positioned for big things that can renew our community. The floodwall is making development of Shockoe Bottom a reality. Housing units are being created daily out of former warehouse spaces. Main Street Station is slated to be returned to its original use, as a train station in the heart of the city.

But as our neighborhoods are redeveloped, the region must address how these projects will be linked with the population centers in Henrico and Chesterfield. Strict conservation and land-use plans and a comprehensive public transit system could save Richmond from the deadening and wasteful effects of sprawl that have ruined many other once-special American places.

What works architecturally for Richmond? Projects that reweave and unify urban spaces — buildings that address the future without going too far out on a limb. Buildings that acknowledge the past, but move on with energy.

Edwin Slipek Jr. has written about Richmond's architecture for the past 10 years as Style's architecture critic. Formerly architecture critic for the Richmond Mercury, he teaches architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University and art history at the Governor's School for Government & International Studies. He recently curated "Changing Landscape: Glen Allen from Mountain Road to Edge City" at the Glen Allen Cultural Arts Center.

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