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Removing the Ghosts

Two of downtown's 20th-century skeletons come down to make way for an uncertain future.


And there's been nary a shrug.

In a town that boasts considerable 18th-century architectural treasures and where evocative 19th-century neighborhoods await discovery (not to mention TLC), it's not surprising that much of our mid-20th-century architecture — such as Woolworth's and Murphy's — is not just underappreciated, but gradually disappearing.

Remember the giddy neon that once illuminated West Broad Street and announced Richmond Ford? Or the concrete- and scallop-domed Lawrence Chrysler-Plymouth showroom that stood at West Broad and Staples Mill? The latter bit the dust to make way for corporate expansion at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Commercial buildings are especially vulnerable to remodeling, if not the wrecking ball, as developers and merchants hustle to keep pace with changing technology and shifting customer tastes.

But institutional and cultural facilities are also affected by the demands and whims of a generation that hasn't distanced itself far enough from a style or aesthetic movement to appreciate it fully. Consider the hard-edged sculpture garden at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: An art object in itself when completed in the 1970s, it may be plowed over when the museum embarks on a highly touted expansion. This terraced space, with its cascading fountain, was designed by the internationally celebrated, West Coast landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.

The former Woolworth's (1954) and Murphy's (1947) stores, however, situated at the intersections of Broad and Fifth and Broad and Fourth, respectively, have never been viewed as high-style situations. They were certainly never considered the retail or architectural equivalent of the more conservative, 1930s, sandstone-fronted Miller & Rhoads department store nearby (in fact, Woolworth's is being demolished so its site can serve as the motor entrance to a new hotel/retail complex in the M&R building).

But an examination of Woolworth's and Murphy's exteriors reveals that these are both substantial pieces of architecture. They are also testimony that that mid-20th-century modernism in the right hands was handsome and reinforcing of the urban fabric.

The lessons these buildings offer abound. First, being located on prominent corners, both buildings defined their sites effectively. Basically, the buildings are mid-height boxes that provide the volume needed at these strategic sites. The stores were each announced by large, vertical signs that crawled up the side of the buildings and could be read from a number of blocks away. At the sidewalk level, both buildings had canopies that extended over the sidewalk and around the corner: These were welcoming and protective to shoppers.

Second, the buildings' stalwart mass complemented nicely with nearby buildings. This was due, in the case of Woolworth's, to the fact that both it and the adjacent Miller & Rhoads building were designed by the prominent Richmond architecture firm of Carneal & Johnston.

Thirdly, choice materials were used. At Woolworth's, beige-colored brick ties in with Miller & Rhoads' sandstone front. Murphy's has sandstone veneer on the Broad Street front and sandy-colored brick on its Fourth Street side. These buildings are polite, but they hold their own.

Fourthly, the use of graphics is extremely savvy. Whereas carriage trade department stores may have had their names chiseled elegantly in stone or molded in tile or brass above their front doors, the sans-serif letters that announced Woolworth's and Murphy's were made of plastic. The balance that the architects achieved between natural and the synthetic is remarkable: Woolworth's and Murphy's are textbook examples of how graphics can be used effectively to create balance, gracefulness and liveliness.

As to being modernistic, both buildings have ribbon windows on the upper floors — where window units are contiguous and continuous. But in many ways these buildings are grounded in classicism. In addition to traditional materials that politely reflect the surrounding neighborhood, Murphy's has a textured, rusticated base on its Fourth Street side, which gives way to a smoother exterior finish on the upper three levels.

No longer a retail Mecca, Richmond, like other American downtowns, resorts to large, colorful banners, shade trees and spot landscaping to inject color and energy into moribund blocks. But with buildings like Woolworth's and Murphy's, cities didn't need Band-Aids. The architecture and related signage said it all — and with savvy.

But who could have foreseen that Willow Lawn and Southside Plaza, Richmond's first suburban shopping centers, would open in 1956 and spark the retail tug-of-war that downtown lost.

Of course, the debate and experiment continues as to what to do with many of the downtown skeletons left behind. Some advocate removing the ghosts — the physical reminders of past glory. And so we lose two major, mid-20th-century landmarks — proven retail warriors — trading them in for an uncertain architectural and economic future. S

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