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Yesterday's Future

maintaining historic buildings, contemplating them as worthy period pieces


With that giddy vision of the future having passed, many of Richmond's structures from the 1950s and '60s now look, well, damn quaint. The intentionally dented, aluminum-sided Markel Building near Willow Lawn never fails to bring a smile. And City Hall's overachieving rooftop antenna, ah, space needle, always brings a laugh.

The trouble with other midcentury buildings, however, is that just when we're contemplating them as worthy period pieces, crunch, they are leveled. This is especially true of retail spaces that get continual updates to satisfy changing customer tastes. The Krispy Kreme, Lawrence Chrysler and the exuberant neon signage on Richmond Ford, all within blocks of each other on West Broad, our local Sunset Strip, are now memories.

Fortunately, the former Reynolds Metals headquarters, an elegant 1950s landmark, has been acquired by University of Richmond, which understands the value of maintaining historic buildings.

But another singular midcentury landmark, the WRVA building on the western brow of Church Hill, awaits a buyer. It's empty and has been on the block for more than a year now. While there's no obvious single best use for the building — it's a flexible space — among the possibilities are condos, a museum, offices or even a single-family home. This spring, talk is intensifying about what will become of this gem.

Completed in 1968, it was designed by Philip Johnson, America's nonagenarian bad boy of architecture. What makes this midcentury building so spectacular is that it defies categorization and is therefore ageless. While perfectly scaled to its residential setting, its glistening concrete exterior provides confident counterpoint to the surrounding red brick buildings and rescues the historic district from being a 19th-century theme park.

Although the one-story building rises atop Church Hill like an ancient acropolis, the effect isn't really classical. It is more picturesque with its playful campanile that provides counterpoint to the horizontality of the main building. The overall effect is brilliant in its simplicity.

How lucky the buyer who wins this prize. How lucky our city if we can find a steward who appreciates this midcentury gem.

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