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Richmond's Most Hideous Buildings

What went wrong — and what to do about it.



To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt loosely, the only thing we're certain of is uncertainty itself.

In the coming months, a variety of factors will affect construction: the world economy, whether Congress delivers an effective stimulus program, the confidence of private and institutional investors, how localities deal with shrinking resources and the availability of consumer loans.
The Richmond area has just emerged from a period of considerable expansion, however, with high-profile projects still under construction. These include the MeadWestvaco headquarters downtown, Rocketts Landing, a range of buildings in Short Pump and major expansion at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And during the past decade, hundreds of projects took advantage of the area's liberal historic tax credit program.

In flush times it's easy to charge ahead, full-steam. But this economic slowdown offers an opportunity to take stock of what's working architecturally and from a planning standpoint both within our historic city center and in the suburbs.

Richmond is handsome and distinctive architecturally with tremendous natural beauty in the surrounding countryside. These are assets that, like any investment, should be guarded jealously and enhanced intelligently. And while we boast buildings, parks and neighborhoods of aesthetic significance, there's also considerable underwhelming architecture. Some buildings are just eyesores.

Here are seven exasperating buildings that offer ideas in how not to build as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.


City of Richmond Public Safety Building
501 N. Ninth St.
Built: 1963
Ballou & Justice, architect, Richmond

When traveling through rural America one occasionally sees a rusting car teetering on cinder blocks. Beyond repair and with no parts worth saving, the question arises, why is it still there? I have that same thought every time I pass the Public Safety Building downtown on North Ninth Street.

This sprawling, two-story building is sheathed partially in gloomy marble veneer and is fast shedding its gray, bathroom-like tiles. When conceived in the 1950s, this building was intended to be a player in a grand, never-completed architectural scheme, the Richmond Civic Center. This international planning concept, which was promoted by architect Le Corbusier and others, captivated planners and designers in post-World War II America. The idea was to demolish decaying urban fabric and on this clean slate build stand-alone buildings. Dramatic examples in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, and governmental Empire Plaza in Albany, N.Y., illustrated this now-discounted approach to urban planning.

That's how parts of residential Jackson Ward, Court End and Navy Hill disappeared to be replaced with a sanitized, futuristic public landscape of behemoths: City Hall, the Coliseum, the Federal Building and the Public Safety Building. To create these broad expanses of landscapes, numerous streets were closed (or run below grade, such as East Leigh Street near the Coliseum). The 900 block of East Clay was closed and the Public Safety Building built atop it. For almost half a century, this has caused Court End and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center to be cut off from the government center, and now the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park.

The Safety Building is not only an embarrassing and crumbling civic eyesore, but also a waste of valuable downtown real estate with its surface parking area to the northeast.

Solution: Tear down this building and reopen Clay Street to link the government buildings on the west with Court End and its cultural and medical institutions. The Valentine Richmond History Center and the Museum of the Confederacy, two of Richmond's most important attractions, would become much more accessible to visitors. This is critical for the long haul if Richmond is going to appeal to tourists. There's not enough critical mass of building stock to give visitors a sense of place west of 10th Street. The 150th anniversary of the Civil War begins in 2011, so along with imaginative programming and smart marketing, we should shape up this section of town for what could be a tourism bonanza


Crowne Plaza Hotel
555 E. Canal St.
Built: 1986
Architect: Rabun Hatch Portman McWhorter Hatch & Rauh Inc., Atlanta

On a positive note, the Crowne Plaza Hotel — at the foot of Sixth Street near an on-ramp to the Downtown Expressway — is architecturally ingenious in how it squeezes a big building onto an impossibly slender site. Unfortunately, the solution was a narrow wall of a structure that stretches across Sixth Street to block the vista toward the James River. This is too bad because the river views, from the top of the hill at Broad Street and channeled through downtown's numbered streets, are one of the most distinctive and beautiful characteristics of downtown Richmond.

One has only to look down Fifth Street — with the view of the 2000 Riverside Drive apartment tower in the far distance — or down Eighth Street, past the rhythmic parade of financial district high-rises, to be enthralled by the vistas. In this instance constructing over Sixth Street was especially damaging because it blocks the view from what should soon be one of downtown's busiest intersections, Sixth between Broad and Grace streets, where CenterStage and the Miller & Rhoads hotel and condominiums are under construction.

Crowne Plaza and its adjacent parking garage is yet another example of building atop the footprint of a former city street, something that occurs too frequently in Richmond. Streets are in the public realm: They allow for light, air and traffic flow.

Solution: Stop building atop streets, or rebuild and reopen streets where possible. The issue of public vistas will a hot-button issue this year while debate continues over the state of Echo Harbour, a residential and retail complex proposed for the riverfront on Dock Street at the foot of Libby Hill Park.


Children's Pavilion, VCU Medical Center
1001 E. Marshall St.
Built: 1979
Odell Associates, architect, Richmond

Images of Jackie O., Halston and Andy Warhol behind big sunglasses are icons of the narcissistic and celebrity-crazed 1970s: Those stars could peer out, but public eyes couldn't meet their gazes. Because there are just a few degrees of separation between fashion and the media, it's not surprising that large, mirrored glass buildings were also in vogue by the end of that decade.

An extreme relic of this modernistic design trend is the Children's Pavilion at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center (formerly the Richmond Eye, Ear and Nose Hospital), across from City Hall. It fronts East Marshall Street like an inflated minimalist sculpture. Broodingly sheathed from ground to roof in unrelenting, dark, reflective glass, the situation is off-putting from the sidewalk. Forget the difficulty in finding the entrance — the faAade is threatening and Darth Vader-like sinister. Are we even supposed to enter?

Granted, from the early- to late-20th century, architects working in the sleek International Style sought ever-simpler forms and minimal detailing, but this exterior is so difficult to decipher it's not even clear how many floors the building has.  

Was the initial idea here to reflect the 19th century and elegantly ornate former townhouses across the street? Probably not. The Children's Pavilion is still as stuck on itself as contestants on “True Beauty,” the new ABC reality show.

While plenty of other examples of unfortunate mirrored glass buildings exist hereabouts at the downtown James Center and in half a dozen suburban office parks, the Pavilion is particularly severe.

Solution: Tear it down. This would free up an entire vacant block (a surface parking lot now occupies the south side of the block) where VCU could build a major new medical building rather than sacrifice the architecturally sumptuous Art Deco West Hospital, which could be retrofitted to new residential or office use.

Riverside on the James
1001 Haxall Point
Built: 2005
Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart & Associates, Inc., architects, Atlanta

There's no argument that rebuilding the canal is a terrific thing. But most Richmonders will also say that there isn't much down there. Mixed-use Riverside on the James, with two high-rise towers, is one major development with condos, an office tower and a restaurant. But the development is a cautionary tale: Be careful what you ask for.

While the north, or land side of the office building, has a classically detailed, brick-faced front, the river side of the parking deck is exposed, with no screening for multiple levels containing 800 vehicles. How did we allow this? As you approach downtown from the Manchester Bridge, the parking garage appears to rise directly from the rocks and islets of the James River. As dusk falls, the unrelenting glare of the parking garage looks tawdry. Is this good for the flora and fauna of the river to be bathed relentlessly in the glow of sodium-vapor lights?

In our enthusiasm to build along the river and canal, we should remember that buildings are 360-degree situations. In a city, every side is important.

Solution: This building is going nowhere, but some sort of screen should be devised to shield levels of cars and the glaring night lights. Miami has done an excellent job of obscuring even the largest parking decks with trees, vines and other foliage. Despite lacking a tropical climate, perhaps there are green solutions to improving this distressful and rude eyesore.


VCU Mary and Frances Youth Center
West Cary Street near Linden Street
Monroe Park Campus, VCU
Built: 2006
BCWH Architects, Richmond

I know. Christmas is past and even Scrooge was redeemed. So who wouldn't love Lobs and Lessons, a Virginia Commonwealth University-sponsored tennis program for underprivileged children, and the elegant facility that houses it smack dab in the middle of the university's Cary Street recreation complex?

The two-story, 5,400-square-foot Mary and Frances Youth Center, built of red brick (it took its cues from the nearby historic Cary Street Gymnasium, a former city market) is a lesson in architectural refinement. BCWH Architects even won a design award last year from the Richmond Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for the project. But every time I go by it, my skin crawls because this is the wrong building in the wrong place: It was built atop one end of a former playing field.

Consider: VCU has 32,000 students. Modest as it was, this area was the only designated on-campus recreation field to serve that population. Why would one-third of this field be sacrificed for two tennis courts, which the university Web site itself calls “private,” to serve only a few hundred youngsters a year? There are other ways — and places — to introduce at-risk children to tennis — and campus life.

Solution: First off, don't put your heart — or political correctness — where your head ought to be. This is an architectural folly in every sense of the word. Eventually, tear it down, remove the two private tennis courts to a location that could use an architectural boost and return this precious space so degree-seeking students can kick a soccer ball, throw a Frisbee, go to bat, or just enjoy a rare open space.


VCU Cary and Belvidere Residential College
301 W. Cary St.
Built: 2008
Hanbury & Evans Architects, architect, Norfolk,
(residential college)
Baskervill & Sons, architect, Richmond
(parking deck)

Things were looking up architecturally on the Monroe Park campus with its expansion eastward along Main and Cary streets. The mammoth new engineering and business facilities may have gotten giddy with contextual decorations — taking their architectural cues from the nearby Commonwealth Club — but at least there was some discernable idea at play. And the projects injected new life and activity into a no-man's land. The university had (and still has) an opportunity to re-establish urbanity to this area by building its structures as close as possible to the city sidewalks: Walking along well-defined streets, whether in cities or small towns, is a pleasure. Unfortunately this hasn't happened here. While the new university buildings are generally well-aligned along the east-west streets such as Main and Cary, the cross streets are not well defined.  

The opening of the Cary and Main Residential College last year, the second major building complex east of Belvidere, was promising because it repopulated the area on a 24-hour basis and could provide a solid backdrop for the more flamboyant academic buildings. Instead, it's an architectural hulking mess. It offers no visual anchor at the corner of Belvidere and Cary because of a setback behind a brick plaza. It has loading docks on Belvidere, its most visible faAade. Most importantly, the building is too massive and sprawls across the footprint of South Madison Street. It should have respected the historic city grid.

Solution: Not much here, but in future construction if VCU builds consistently to the property line and doesn't destroy additional streets, it can establish some sense of collegiate cohesion in this area. Anyone who's strolled the Morningside Heights area of New York City that includes Columbia, Barnard, Union Theological Seminary, Hebrew Seminary and Riverside Church on New York's Upper West Side has felt the power of institutional buildings placed effectively in a limited urban space.


Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World
11550 Lakeridge Parkway (I-95 and Lewistown Road)
Built: 2008
Architect: Pro Bass Shops

We've come to expect decimated forests, paved-over farmland and the sprouting of big-box retailers as we drive along Interstate 95 in western Henrico County near Short Pump. Development continues here at scorched earth speed. True, American metropolitan areas have been expanding consistently since colonial times. But I was jolted when I saw the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. The 150,000-square-foot building in Hanover County opened in October off I-95 near Lewistown Road. You can't miss the visual pollution. This is more than an overachieving storefront. When viewed from the highway — especially at night — its faux rustic, stone barn faAade is as jarring as the biggest electrified billboard.

Perhaps I'm naA_ve, but I was holding out that verdant, mostly rural Hanover might escape this kind of jarring development. And for all the contemporary talk of green architecture and environmental responsibility, whatever happened to highway beautification? If billboards along interstates are considered eyesores, then Outdoor World is disingenuous, making the entire store an obnoxious marketing pitch.

Solution: I thought, what would Lady Bird Johnson do? The late former first lady famously and effectively championed highway landscaping programs and other trailblazing environmental projects during her husband's administration. One spring day in 1965 she was driven down a stretch of I-95 in northern Virginia that had been landscaped and natural vistas created because of her efforts. “This highway is a beautiful drive,” she wrote later that day. Her party then drove over to U.S. Route 1 for contrast. “What we saw was a tunnel of filling stations, billboards, neon signs…,” she wrote, “and yet these enterprises are conveniences for people, and this is private enterprise. What is the answer?”
It's 44 years later and we're still asking.

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