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The addition to the downtown YMCA gives a nod to the past while embracing the future.

Fit for the 21st Century


Franklin Street, as it stretches from Capitol Square westward to Stuart Circle, is a swell lesson in urban civility. It illustrates how buildings of differing scale and architectural style can not just coexist but sometimes soar, when certain basics are adhered to: setting buildings consistently back from the street, placing buildings cheek-to-cheek to avoid jarring gaps in the streetscape, eternal vigilance about details. When the Trolley Square apartment tower at 311 W. Franklin added a porte-cochere with a traditional pitched roof to its decidedly International style facade, preservation watchdogs were quick to snap and bark. An unfortunate choice of shingle had been used as roofing that wasn't up to the high standards of its neighbors. At considerable expense, the shingles were replaced by a standing seam, copper roof. Despite such encroachments, Franklin Street maintains visually unified and handsome due to considerable dedication and expense by institutions that have maintained and restored their old structures. Kudos to the Historic Richmond Foundation, the Garden Club of Virginia, The Woman's Club, the Junior League, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Beth Ahabah and St. James's congregations for Herculean efforts. Also remarkable is how this defining downtown thoroughfare, despite bombastic assaults during mid-20th century, maintains a dignified continuity from block to block. A number of high-rise buildings, such as the Berkshire apartments and Radisson Hotel, are far-from-graceful modernist structures that replaced glorious old structures. Curiously, however, they served to re-energize the street. But apart from the former Richmond Newspapers printing plant (which was located between Third and Fourth streets), the street remained discreet. Most activity took place behind masonry walls, closed doors and drawn curtains. Who would know that Linden Row is now a unified hotel structure, and not a series of townhouses? Few have witnessed the curious sight of Commonwealth Club members padding around the club's "men only" lower level in flimsy paper slippers while their shoes get shined. And Richmond matrons still repair to the rear auditorium of The Woman's Club's Bolling-Haxall House for Monday afternoon gatherings. The sprawling new addition to the YMCA between Adams and Foushee streets, slated for dedication Jan. 27, adds something new to the staid mix — openness to the street. It's out there, in your face. Passersby are almost startled at the sight — through large windows — of members wheeling away at a phalanx of stationary bicycles and Stairmasters. Having discarded their pinstripes, and in the glare of sunlight (or the evening glow of fluorescence), you might spot your lawyer, accountant, secretary or doctor pedaling or panting away. The main YMCA building, at the northeast corner of Foushee and Franklin, opened in 1942 and continued the tradition of a downtown Y in Richmond that began in 1854. This Baskervill & Son-designed building remains an exceedingly stately classical statement. It is all symmetry — with pediments, an Ionic colonnade and handsome Flemish bond brickwork. It is the Williamsburg Inn without the whitewash. The new 20,000-square-foot addition to the immediate west, designed by Richmond's D.G. Group architecture firm, takes most of its cues from the Baskervill structure — especially the continued use of two-toned brick laid in Flemish bond. But the building mostly takes off in the fast lane. Classical symmetry gives way to mannerism as separate building elements are used to announce specific functions. The return (the space linking the addition to the original building) is marked by a large, two-story, multi-paned glass window. The entrance pavilion is announced by two sturdy, one-story columns that ultimately support an intentionally out-of-scale entablature. Because the two-story addition is lower than most facades on Franklin, it was wisely set back about 15 feet from the city sidewalk. The setback not only defers to the original building, but allows space for a long, low-rising ramp. This slope is much better integrated into the overall building design than such ramps at many other new buildings. The building's relatively low Franklin Street facade is punctuated by five bays of windows with metal mullions. Here again, there is little attempt to mimic the original building. If those working out in the first floor Mary Morton Parsons Wellness Center are visible from the street, activities on the second floor are equally open to scrutiny. This level houses the Capital One Outreach and Education Center and the Sweeney Computer Center, two spaces designed to house various educational and social service programs. With so many activities now being able to be read from the street, the YMCA is not just making an architectural statement, but a programmatic one as well — it seems to be saying, "We're very much a part of the life of the city." While the new building adds a needed dose of vitality to the street by day, the lighting of the building's exterior at night is far too bright. The five globes attached to the building and indirect lighting combine to emit the intensity one might expect in a lighted shopping center parking lot, but far too glaring for historic Franklin Street. Yes, I know: It's all about security these days. But this nuclear blastlike lighting should be toned down. Bottom line, however, the YMCA and its architects get high marks for reweaving a strategic spot with a nod to the past, but an optimistic and bold openness to the future. Subtle it isn't, but every once in awhile, even a staid old street needs a kick in the

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