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Second Chances

The new Robins-Starr Humane Center sleekly and skillfully juggles its many jobs.



The pristine new animal shelter, designed by Richmond architecture firm Baskerville & Son, sits amid a ragged and rusting, but thriving industrial and warehouse district punctuated by the roar of freight trains rumbling through regularly.

The center is a muscular, two-story building with mellowed, warmly hued red bricks and a green metal standing-seam roof. One approaches the front steps and ramps by crossing a small parking lot shaded by mature sycamore trees. The building's current incarnation is broadcast at the entrance by four large banners with photographic images of individuals cuddling pets. These were designed by Michael Zancanato who executed the crisply executed signage and graphics found throughout the complex.

The front "adoption" lobby is large and airy— as colorfully cheerful as a Disney animated film. Wall and trim surfaces (with post-modernist classical flourishes) have been painted shades of yellow, blue and periwinkle as if to proclaim that every day is a happy day at the center. But the lobby also quickly establishes the basic organization of the center: Dogs' world is on the left side of the building and the cats' domain is to the right. The humane center can house some 300 dogs and cats at any one time and up to 5,000 annually.

If you shudder at the thought of entering an animal shelter with the clanging of metal cages and unrelenting barking or meowing, take heart: Every effort has been made to minimize the depressing and unpleasant cacophony. In the dog wing, a row of half a dozen small rooms opens onto the lobby: These are private "living rooms" for larger dogs. The spaces are furnished in attractive, metal furniture so that prospective adopters can settle in and familiarize themselves with the pups in a more real-world setting. Beyond these rooms are the kennels for visiting other dogs.

An ingenious system for cleaning the individual holding spaces, with the optimum mix of water, chemicals, soaps and temperature, borrows from car-wash technology that the center's staff and planners observed at the Omaha SPCA.

In the cat wing of the building, which also receives natural light from a skylight, there is a large room, or "cotillion," where eight or 10 cats romp throughout the day, hopping into open drawers, batting their paws at their mirrored reflections and finding special places to hide. This room should spur the adoption process as patrons witness cats in action, not in the confines of a cage.

Beyond the cat wing, and also accessible from the front entrance, is an expanded and state-of-the-art spay and neuter clinic. The first floor has specified areas for ailing dogs and cats.

The second floor is laid out following a basic racetrack format. At the eastern end, above the dog wing, is a track and training area where dogs are exercised and obedience classes take place. This is one of the glorious spaces in the building with a dramatic new metal-truss ceiling that has been painted a vivid shade of blue. On the far wall of the room is a huge mural of cats and dogs. Images that could have been Hallmark cute have, fortunately, been rendered noble by artist Karen Gamman.

In the center of the second floor is a multi-purpose room/auditorium that is equipped for audio-visual equipment. Also on the second floor are a library and a space where exhibitions will eventually be held. Staff offices for some of the center's 50-person staff and 150 volunteers are situated nearby.

Despite the building's overall modernity, throughout the building the original heavy wooden, vertical posts have been retained as reminders that this is an old building.

It is hard to imagine that the Robins-Starr Humane Center (named for patron E. Claiborne Robins Jr. and Robin Starr, the center's current executive director) could be a more cheerful and upbeat place. And it is hard to imagine that there is a finer facility nationally that has to do as many things at once — care for sick animals and be a dormitory for healthy ones; conduct a range of educational programs; and all the while welcome a constant flow of would-be adopters.

The center's staff and its architect — indeed the entire community should be thrilled and proud of how adaptive reuse and intelligent architectural design have been melded to create a unique modern facility. S

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