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The new parish hall at St. Paul's Catholic Church adds a harmonious note to its neighborhood.

Sensitive Expansion


Ginter Park is a dowager among Richmond neighborhoods. Although it possesses many wonderful features — magnificent shade trees and an eclectic grab bag of domestic and institutional architecture — interesting topography is not in the mix. Even the smallest hill is rare in these North Side flatlands where marshes were drained in the late 19th century to allow development.

One of the neighborhood's few slopes is in the 3000 block of Chamberlayne Avenue at Rennie. This gentle knoll is a platform for St. Paul's Catholic Church, Ginter Park's most architecturally distinctive house of worship. Since its construction in 1949 (at the end of a wartime decade that saw very little Richmond-area construction), this modest, magnificent church has reigned in isolated splendor on a half block that is largely devoid of landscaping.

The church's smooth ashlar (square-cut stone) walls rise one story to support a spectacular, steep roof that swoops skyward. It is covered in handsome, red-hued, terra-cotta tiles. The eye is pulled upward farther to a thin spire above the crossing of the nave and shallow transepts.

Vaguely chateauesque, St. Paul's exudes tradition, simplicity and modernism simultaneously. This combination generates a timeless quality and sets the building off among hundreds of fussier or less-well-articulated Richmond churches, synagogues and temples. It was designed by Samuel J. Collins, a Staunton architect who also designed the Virginia War Memorial complex on South Belvidere Street.

Attached to the rear of the sanctuary is the rectory. For much of the past half century, spaces in this wing have performed double and triple duty for various other church functions.

Relief from the crowding arrived this autumn, however, with the completion of a new parish hall. The 6,000-square-foot addition was built to the south of the sanctuary and provides much-needed space for offices, a library, kitchen and nursery. Winks-Snowa of Richmond was the architect.

Rather than play a secondary role to the original church, the south wing shares the same setback from Chamberlayne Avenue and possesses a dramatically high-pitched roof to become a major presence on the street. It is attached to the side of the original structure by a connecting gallery. The roof of the gallery is covered by the same handsome red Ludowicci tiles as the original building.

While the gallery's interior space serves as a breezeway, it is deceptively wide enough to become a multipurpose room for such activities as coffee hours, church suppers and classes. On the room's eastern and western walls, French doors and windows open the room up to the outside. The views toward the west embrace the hillside and a surviving row of old houses across Chamberlayne Avenue. On the gallery's opposite side, four French doors open outside onto a paved courtyard: Surrounded by building walls on three sides, the patio becomes an attractive outdoor "room."

The exquisitely detailed exterior of the new parish hall is faced in a custom-produced stone and laid in courses that complement the masonry and bonds of the original building. In fact, the new wing harmonizes so well with the old, were it not for the abrupt change of roofing material, one might think the two buildings had always been married.

Budget was probably the reason red tiles were not used for the new parish hall roof. Instead, a grayish metal standing-seam roof creates an obvious contrast between old and new. The architectural details such as rich-toned stain on the solid wooden doors, and handsome hardware and lighting fixtures point to real thought on the part of client and designer.

Additional phases in St. Paul's' long-range master plan should add a columbarium near the new courtyard, much-needed landscaping and atmospheric lighting around the grounds.

But the big statement has been made. All too often, congregations and church architects encroach on and damage aesthetically the original building fabric when they expand. This was clearly not the case here where the original building is set off in a villagelike complex, especially when viewed from the rear.

And the expansion enhances Chamberlayne Avenue, a street Richmond planners have long grappled with. While this once-grand boulevard saw many of its grand old houses fall in the late 20th century to be replaced with unsightly, cracker-box, low-rise apartments, on the knoll at Chamberlayne and Rennie, a mid-20th century architectural jewel has been enhanced by a sensitive expansion. St. Paul's and its architect should be commended for restraint in approach and deftness in execution. And all in time for

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