Sunday, May 15, 2011

Community Spaces in the Fan

One of Richmond’s urban treasures is the Fan district, located just west of Virginia Commonwealth University.  Except for a few rental properties, the Fan is remarkably intact and holds its ground against the rapid expansion of the university.  Many of the properties within a block of the campus are beautifully restored 130 year-old private homes. 

What most distinguishes the Fan from other Richmond neighborhoods is the density and character of the row-houses, the happy sprinkling of retail and restaurants, and the public sidewalks.  It is a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood where people know most of their neighbors. 
There are all types of people who live in the district but most seem to share a passion for community.  An example is the Strawberry Street Festival which was held last weekend to benefit Fox Elementary – the public grade school in the middle of the Fan.  It is an annual neighborhood gathering on the school yard which draws about a thousand people during the day. 

Most Richmonders know that the Fan district gets its name from the way the streets “fan” out along Park Avenue.  This shift actually starts at the Cathedral that sits in a triangular plot bounded by Park & Floyd Avenues at Monroe Park.  From this point, new streets seem to spin off at a slight angle as Park Avenue heads northwest.

Small triangular parks are formed each time a new street begins.  Grove Avenue
begins at VCU and the park is now absorbed within the VCU Academic campus.  Other triangular parks start Hanover and Stuart Avenues.  These small parks are public areas and mark important cross-streets within the district. 

The shift then makes an interesting change.  Instead of spinning off another triangular park, a large block was created and the new street (Kensington) starts mid-block.  The size of each building lot remains similar to the rest of the Fan - leaving a large center area of the block for public space.  Unlike the triangle parks that are bounded on all sides by busy roads, “Scuffletown Park” as it is called - is buried in the center of the block.

Evolving over the years, this little place is now a great escape for anyone who knows how to find it.  Short walls and paved surfaces define it from the alley on one end.  It is nicely landscaped and a few of its neighbors have placed gardens facing it.  The best way to find it is to walk into the alley at the end of Kensington Avenue or across the street from the Strawberry Street CafĂ©. 

There are a few other blocks within the Fan that pay attention to the alley and make it a special place.  This one is certainly my favorite. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Egyptian Building at the VCU Medical Center

The VCU Medical Center is the new name for what most people call MCV or the Medical College of Virginia.  As it continues to grow, the campus weaves it way around a collection of very historic structures.  Five are particularly notable: Monumental Church, old First Baptist Church, old First African Baptist Church, the Egyptian Building, and the White House of the Confederacy.  The first four of this group have been absorbed into the campus and hold their own against the scale of their large neighbors.

The White House sits very uncomfortably on a block with two high-rise bed towers and the emergency entrance wraps around it.  Its companion and architecturally modern Museum of the Confederacy is almost consumed by the main hospital.  The scale difference is more than uncomfortable and the zero lot line is taken literally - there is one inch between these two structures.

A welcome contrast to that clash of neighbors is the courtyard between the Medical Sciences building and the Egyptian building - the early home of the medical college.  This small three-sided courtyard was created at the time of the Medical Science building's construction and includes a doorway remnant from the old Saint Philip Hospital.  The hospital's original columns and entablature can be found just inside that building.

One of the most clever and respectful designs I've seen in Richmond is the facade of Medical Science Building.  I am told that Eddie Smith of Richmond was the design Architect.  The building is very modern, but several of its elements hint to its Egyptian Revival neighbor: the columns at the base, the slight inward cant at the corners, and the multi-story relief of a pyramid and sun. 

Few architects have the skill to create a modern structure in a historic context.  Most designers would clumsily mimic details of such an iconic neighbor (or) cower from the challenge and ignore the building altogether. 

In Europe, Architects seem to have less trouble understanding how to respect an old neighbor while building something new and relevant for today.  Their cities are ancient in comparison to those in the US.  You will find countless examples of new and old structures comfortably side-by-side.

The Egyptian Building is the focus of the square and was designed by Philidelphia architect Thomas W. Stewart in 1844.  The exterior has changed little since its original construction.  A year later Stewart is credited with the design of St. Paul's Episcopal Church - across from Capitol Square. 

In 1939, Baskervill extensively redesigned the interior of the Egyptian building, carrying the exterior theme inside.  The sloped auditorium space was once a surgical theater where students could watch procedures. Today it is used for classroom space.  A few offices and locker rooms are upstairs.  The inside details include hieroglyphics, colorful coffered ceilings, and a stone scarab beetle in the floor. 

If you check out this place, be ready to walk a few blocks.  The MCV campus is one of the most active places in Richmond.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Old City Hall

My choice for the award for "most ornate building in Richmond" goes to the Old City Hall at 10th and Broad Street.  The excess of the Victorian Gothic exterior is surpassed only by the colorful painted arches and columns on the building's interior.

Built in the late 1800's, the structure occupies a very special place in downtown - facing the back side of Jefferson's Capitol grounds.  It was retired from its original use when the new modern city hall was built in the 70's and is now used for general office space.

My earlier comments poke a bit of fun at the exuberance of the design but it accurately reflects the architectural attitude of the country at that time.  I have to admit it is one of my favorite buildings in Richmond. What is truly amazing to me is that it was initiated little more than ten years after the end of the Civil War. 

The exterior is made of locally-quarried gray granite from near the James River.  The Pump House in Byrd Park uses the same stone and has a matching style.  Being void of color makes each elevation a study of light and shadow.  The only color on the exterior is the greenish copper trim along the roof.

It is hard to describe the interior so I'll leave that to photographs.  What is particularly interesting to me is the skylit atrium in the center.  The floor of the atrium is made of suspended glass block which extends the light to the basement level.  The interior was originally lit by gas lamps and the original radiators are still in operation.

The National Park Service has a very good write up on the history of the building found here:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Virginia War Memorial

For the past 8 years, I’ve led an Explorer post for high school youth interested in Architecture and Interior Design.  Baskervill supports this educational program as part of our community outreach.  There are a series of  eight meetings during the winter and spring which allow the students to peek into the design world and see if they want to pursue design as their education and career.  Our sessions do this in a variety of ways: visual presentations on topics, hands-on projects, feedback, and tours of special places.

The tours included visits to finished buildings, those under construction, or a walking tour of a special Richmond district – to see how urban design can make a difference.  In the past, we’ve walked down Monument Avenue, from Shockoe Bottom to MCV, and around one of my New Urban neighborhoods.  This year I chose to loop around the western section of the downtown riverfront and end at the Virginia War Memorial.

The tour began at the War Memorial to give a panoramic view of downtown and to juxtapose the old and new.  I gave them renderings from the early 1800's that shows this particular view.  There are only a few things remaining that provide a point of reference.  We walked along the remnents of the old grown-over canal and the new one too.  They were able to see the glassy new MWV building next to the heavy brick Tredegar Iron Works.  Finally, we walked out over the bridge on Brown's Island to see the old and new bridge piers mark the river and the wildlife that lives all around.  Our walk ended back up the hill at the memorial where Melissa Vaughan of Glave Holmes explained the meaning and design behind the memorial. 
The original memorial was designed by architect S. J. Collins of Stanton, VA.  It was completed in 1955 and dedicated the following year.  The latest addition, an education center opened last year.  It is dedicated to Paul and Phyllis Galanti.  Paul was a Vietnam prisoner of war for over 6 years and has been a very visible veteran in the Richmond area. 

The memorial is very simple and formal in appearance.  There is a single linear space with a massive limestone statue and eternal flame at the south end.  The roof is very thin and lightens the apparent mass of the entire structure.  The east end is a uniform row of rectangular columns and was later enclosed with etched glass panels of the Vietnam dead.  The west side is a wall with the interior face holding the names of the WWII and Korean dead.  This new wing does not touch the old and sits lower than the original memorial – respecting the importance of the original structure.  The stones are different but their colors are similar.

When inside the memorial space, you hear the muffled traffic on Belvidere Street outside but feel apart from it.  The view is directed away from the street to the vista of downtown and the river.  The new amphitheatre sits out of site from the memorial level and is oriented for this same view.  Inside the education center are exhibit areas, a theater, and multi-purpose spaces.  Appropriately, there is little drama with the architecture; the focus is on the exhibits.  The lower level connects underground to the back of the amphitheater. 

It is my hope that the young people in the Explorer group better understand that a project with a strong idea and thoughtful design can quietly inspire.  Architecture should yield the focus to the structure's people and purpose.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monumental Church

One of the truly extraordinary structures in Richmond is Robert Mill’s Monumental Church.  It is amazingly simple in concept - an octagon topped with a dome.  This simplicity is appropriate for the solemn purpose of its existence, to memorialize the victims of a horrific theater fire on the day after Christmas 1811.

There are many news accounts about the fire which started back stage and within ten minutes consumed the entire building, killing 72 people including many prominent Richmond citizens including the sitting Virginia Governor.  The victims were so consumed that their ashes were entombed at the site in a brick crypt. 

An interesting side-story mentions slave and blacksmith Gilbert Hunt running to the fire and catching people as they were dropped from the first floor windows.  It is reported that he later fought in the war of 1812 and eventually bought his freedom for $800.

Needing to memorialize the victims of the fire, Chief Justice and Richmond citizen John Marshall led a group to raise money to build a church over the site of the destroyed theater.  Pews purchased by citizens raised the necessary funds for construction.  The designated pew of Chief Justice Marshall is the second box on the left side of the center aisle.

One of the first American-born Architects, Robert Mills won the design competition for the project which was completed near the end of 1814.   Mills studied with Thomas Jefferson and James Hoban before working for Benjamin Latrobe as the Capitol was being erected.  He is most famous for the design of the Washington Monument.

The original design had a few features that were never built.  The largest omission was the ornate tower over the back section.  A heavy brick structure was built to carry the tower’s weight.  This part of the design now seems an odd contrast to the rest of the design.  There was also to be a series of figures over the portico.   This portico is open on three sides and focuses on the podium and urn which carries the names of all fire victims. 

Access is controlled by Historic Richmond Foundation which maintains the building and gives tours by appointment.  Old buildings and particularly the tucked-away spaces can reveal much about the design thought and inventiveness of the time.  Architects who enjoy old buildings are archeologists at heart and try to get into the mind of the designer.  They try to figure out what is original and what may have been changed.

The building is entered through the front portico into the tall main space that has a shallow balcony wrapping ¾ of the volume – but quickly went through the small door panel into the back and down into the foundation space.  This arched space encloses the brick crypt of the fire victims. 

Going up several flights of stairs, the back side of the half-domed alter is visible.  One more flight takes you up to the access panel to the copper dome roof and lantern.  This lantern is centered over the crossing aisles below and brings natural light into the whole space.  There is a series of steps up to the lantern built into the back side of the dome. 

Twenty-eight years ago, I rendered an ink-on-Mylar drawing of the framing of this dome for a historian.  As I recall, the framing is a series of trusses from the outer walls to the compression ring under the oculus and lantern windows.  The curve of the dome takes the stresses from the center to the heavy masonry walls.  It would be interesting to see the early 18th-century construction technology used to build this form.

The main space appears larger than expected from the outside.  The exterior porticos, tall doors, and windows do a good job disguising the true size of the underlying octagonal volume.  The main sanctuary space is quite simple in organization with a raised alter on the north and dual cantilevered stairs to the balconies in rooms on the east and west sides.  The pair of doors at the top is unlike any I’ve seen.  Each pair swings into the main space off of a standard hinge.  However there is a second hinge (an inch into the door) that allows each inner panel to be pushed back into the stair – an early design of panic hardware that allows doors to also swing into the direction of travel.

What is also quite clever about these doors is a simple metal rod on the backside of this second hinge.  When opened, the rod is stressed putting a slight resistance on the door.  After letting go, this rod pushes the door closed – an early design of a door closer.  These doors and hardware items were an obvious response to the concern for fire safety.  During his career, Mills became well-known for his design of fire-safe structures.

Since 1965, Monumental Church no longer holds an active congregation but is a treasure of great historic and architectural importance.  Being 200 years old, it is in amazing shape considering that virtually all of the building and carpentry is original.  I strongly recommend you read the accounts of the fire before going to add a sense of reverence to the visit.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Shockoe Hill Cemetery

Richard A. Etlin was one of my architectural history professors at Kentucky.  Being in the midst of writing a book, much of his research ended up in our curriculum.  The book would later be titled “The Architecture of Death”.  For those two semesters his students were confronted with images of Claude LeDoux and Etienne-Louis Boullee.  These two late-18th century French Architects were exploring funerary design.  Along with mausoleums and other architectural forms, they were re-thinking how cemeteries could be used as thoughtful public park land.
I don’t know if this movement ever made its way to Richmond, but there are (to my eye) some connections in three notable cemeteries of that time period: St. John’s, Hollywood, and Shockoe Hill.  Hollywood is the most scenic and famous as a resting place for presidents.  St. John’s is the oldest and historic due to the “Liberty-or-Death” speech given by Patrick Henry.  The least known of these is Shockoe Hill which began in 1822 when the church yard at St. John’s was at capacity. 

The most famous “resident” of Shockoe Hill is John Marshall who shaped the early Supreme Court into the equal third branch of our federal government.  Other notables are buried there; names that locals would instantly recognize: Mayo and Foushee. 

A separate Hebrew cemetery was created across Hospital Street from the main grounds.  This one is dense and more scenic with a rolling topography.  It may seem a strange comparison, but both parts of Shockoe Hill are almost urban.  The language I would use to describe urban design fits well in describing a cemetery. 

There is a formal plan that defines pathways and districts.  These paths are paved grids and pastoral trails.  Walls surround the grounds, separating the landscape from the street and some of the traffic.  There are fences and raised plots that define boundaries and trees that also create canopy and enclosure.  Monuments take many expressive forms, showing personality and era – much like indigenous architecture does.  Some monuments are literal portals or gateways – a subtle reference to the hereafter.  Others have showy personalities while others are humble stone markers in the ground.

In a cemetery this old, it is easier to think about it in a historical context – unlike newer ones in the suburbs.  The character and form of the old brick walls always attracted my eye.  It is also curious that the wall is at a fairly constant level as seen from the inside.  When viewed from the surrounding streets, the brick wall ranges from as low as 4 feet to over 20 feet in height.  Gated portals face each street including one on 4th that appears to once have been a staired entry.  The "ghost" of that missing stair is imprinted on the brick and a bricked-up arch is below.  A little research at the Valentine museum would probably reveal what was once there.

This cemetery partially surrounds one elegant building constructed 150 years ago – the Shockoe Hill Almshouse.  This structure was originally a place to house and care for the poor of Richmond.   During the Civil War, it was converted into a Confederate hospital.  Draw your own conclusions about the choice of locations for these uses.  Most famously, it can be seen in a Matthew Brady image of that era.  The cemetery is visible in the photo's foreground.

I have some personal work-history with this building.  In 1983, I was part of the design team that converted the unused building into affordable senior housing.  It is still being used for that purpose. 

Today, a cemetery is seldom considered to be a desirable neighbor.  Shockoe Hill was cut off from the public consciousness when Interstate 95 was carved around it on two sides - separating it from the business district.  A public housing project was placed on another side along with the renovated senior housing project mentioned earlier.  The grounds are well cared for but it’s sad to see this little place of history get so little respect. 

Take some time to walk around one sunny day.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Main Street Station

Jefferson's capitol in downtown is perhaps the most historic and studied piece of architecture in Richmond.  It was built upon a hill overlooking the James River to its south but is now surrounded by taller buildings on all sides.  That classic view from and to the Capitol is now gone.

The building most recognized by those who don't live in Richmond is "that train station with a clock tower".  Being less than 20 feet from Interstate 95 makes Main Street Station hard to miss.

When I moved to Richmond shortly after college in 1981, the station was closed and a hangout for the homeless.  In fact, most of Shockoe Bottom could be described that way.   The architectural office I went to work for (SWA) was located diagonally from the Farmer's Market and less than a block from the station.  My memory is that the only legal businesses in that area were Domino's Dog House, Loving's Produce, Main Street Grill, and SWA.

The area held so much promise and the Station seemed the key to any redevelopment of the area.  The development arm of SWA planned to turn the structure into a retail center like Harbor Place in Baltimore and Faniel Hall in Boston.  With the influx of new traffic drawn to this center, the entire area would become a hotspot for other businesses.  At least, that was the plan.

One of the highlights of that time was exploring the empty Station one day with a co-worker.  The journey began by going up the dozen steps from Main Street to the downstairs lobby.  From that point, you can get directly to the platform by going up the long, straight stairs on the west side.  Most travelers preferred the more elegant path, up the wide switch-back stairs on the east side. 

The main hall at the top was filled with tall classical columns and light poured through the Romanesque arches. The front balcony is off the main hall and quite spectacular.  The view is no longer grand as when the Station was built, now looking onto the tangle of elevated roads and ramps that cut diagonally in front. 

Passing through the main hall, we entered the waiting area by the massive metal shed and elevated platform.  This incredible open space of the shed had deteriorated badly. Unfortunately, the space can no longer be appreciated as it was designed.  Later renovation enclosed the perimeter with metal panels.

The next part of our exploration took us up two more sets of stairs to the upper floor and then into the attic with all the small dormers on the sloped roof.  At the corner of the attic was a door leading to the shaft of the clock tower.  To go further required us to climb around 20+ feet up a metal ladder to the next level.  Arriving at the top, we were surrounded by the clock tower doors. 

Opening the door was one of the surreal experiences of my life.  We had just climbed up so many steps to the top of the building - to find cars passing by right outside.  I knew the interstate was there, but lost in the journey through the Station had become detached from the outside world.  The noise of the traffic and the crudeness of how close the interstate was to the building was disturbing.

Two years went by and money tightened.  The scale of the retail concept diminished into an outlet mall.  Then came the fire.  I remember seeing the news flash of fire leaping from the roof on television and thinking that my job was disappearing with that fire.  Our company's fortunes were very closely tied to the Station redevelopment. 

The fire burned the roof off but forced the hand of the developers.  It jump-started our design work; redevelopment would happen now or never.  I worked on the railing design but was not happy with the developer's concept and dreaded the prospect of one more year of restoration work.  As a young intern interested in conceptual design, I wanted a different challenge and left a month later.

Redevelopment into the retail mall did take place but failed after a couple years.  Fortunately, the burned headhouse roof was rebuilt during that phase and remains substantially as designed 100 years ago.  The State of Virginia took over the mall space under the train shed and converted it into offices.  Subsequent renovation took the head house back to a working train stop, though not the primary one for Richmond.  The main lobby areas are open to the public and beautifully restored.  It is always a joy to visit but needs more people to make it alive again.

Time will tell if the current plans to convert the Station into the City's transportation hub will take place.  I'd very much like to see that happen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Railroad Bridge

One of the most iconic structures of Richmond is the concrete railroad bridge that crosses the James River about 5 miles west of downtown.  It is best seen in its entirety from Powhite Parkway or Boulevard Bridge, but the enormity of it is best viewed at the river level. 

The pair of tracks at its top are very active, a main path for freight and passenger travel connecting north and south.  It is a common sight to see dozens of Tropicana box-cars lined up.  Amtrack also runs along these tracks and stops just a few miles north at the Staples Mill Road station. 

Riverside Drive snakes through the final small arch on the south side.  Two separate east-west train tracks pass underneath this bridge's gigantic arches on both river banks.  The south tracks are lightly used and connect West Point and Amelia crossing the river downtown near the Mayo Bridge.  The tracks along the north are highly traveled by coal cars going between West Virginia and Hampton Roads.

It's not easy to get down to the river near the bridge without walking through woods and thorny thickets.  The river bank level is about 80 feet lower than the road above.  A couple paths will take you there from Riverside Drive - made primarily by young people who fish and party along the rocks.  At the bottom, you are very much in a different place.  Graffiti and some trash is splattered about, evidence of the many people who use and abuse this natural place.  The sense of isolation and challenge in finding this spot surely has something to do with this.

Once near the base of the bridge, you realize just how massive and imposing it is.  The old piers of an earlier stone bridge are also visible. The distinguishing feature of the design is the series of large semi-circular arches that support slender arches under the track bed.  Up close, the color is a beige-yellow from years of dirt and mold.  From a greater distance, the color is more of a light gray except at sunset when the light comes in low, directly down-river washing the bridge in orange then red.

When venturing down the hill to this spot, take the time to sit on a rock and just listen to the sounds.  After filtering out the droan of the Parkway, you'll begin to hear and see the geese and ducks.  The small stepped falls of the river are very calming.  And if you're lucky, one of the bald eagles who are nesting on the nearby island will fly overhead.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Pipeline Catwalk

I've worked within two blocks of this cool place for 13 years and only recently discovered it.  Unless you know exactly where to look, you'll never stumble across it.  The best way to find the starting point is to go to the river side of the floodwall at 14th Street and head west about 200 feet.  Not far after crossing the grade-level tracks, you'll see a wooden stair that ends at the top of the bank.

This river bank drops about 15 feet straight down to the water. To start the journey, one must climb down a metal ladder to the 24" wide catwalk.  Once on the pipe, you'll see that the bank along this section of the river is held in place by very old stacked stones which I presume were once part of the industrial buildings along the river.

The pipeline is suspended over the water and under the CSX elevated track.  A metal grate walkway is bolted ontop. It's a very architectural experience to walk the quarter mile until the grate ends.  You can continue to Browns Island if you wish to negotiate the flattened top of the pipe without a rail.

Along the way, you will see some new guests to our city and an indication that the James River is getting healthier: the Heron Rookery.  The sign along the walkway tells the story best.  In 2006 there were no heron nesting in the trees along the River.  In 2007, there were 4.  One year later, there were 34.  I don't know exactly how many are there now, but it is nesting time and I can count more than three dozen nests in the treetops of Mayo Island from the pipeline view.  These large birds constantly swoop down to feed on the fish at the first line of rapids near the bridge, then return to the nests.

Walking further along the pipeline, there are rapids under your feet and a pretty good view of the downtown skyline.  Overhead are a pair of train tracks.  The walking experience could only be more interesting if one of the long coal trains were to pass over your head.

The only disappointment with this view is seeing the ugly underside of the Cordish development.   It appears that the design team turned its back to the river and didn't put any thought into that side of the building's base.  The parking deck, best seen from the Manchester Bridge is crude and thoughtless.  Sorry for the editorial comments, but as someone in the design and urban planning business, this complex misses the mark in so many ways.  It occupies a huge footprint on the river's edge, but set aside no public access.  Only upper floor tenants get a view of the river.  After 5+ years, the canal-oriented plaza remains dead and only one restaurant occupies the retail spaces.  I wonder why. 

Thoughtful planning is so important to a city.  Developments like this are around for 50+ years and mistakes are hard to undo.  At least the wildlife don't seem to mind this complex as much as I do.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Byrd Park Pump House

Though neglected, one of the more interesting historic structures in Richmond is the pump house at the bottom of Byrd Park.  It claims the oddest combination of program functions I’ve ever known. 

The primary purpose of the late 19th Century building is to house water pumps powered by waterwheel.  Water was pushed uphill to the reservoir about a half mile away.  Though this pump house is no longer in use, the later pump house next door still supplies drinking water to Richmond.

The other use of the building was as a venue for dances and concerts – on the open balcony at the top floor.   From this vantage point, you could look down on the canal and locks, hear the water as it poured out of the spillway, and see across the natural beauty of the James River.  A sign at the site alludes to people arriving by canal boat to enjoy the performances.  I’m curious if that romantic scene ever occurred.  Perhaps there’s a photo of it within the archives of the Valentine Museum.

The gothic revival building was designed by the City Engineer in a gothic revival style.  It has many characteristics of a church and is highly ornate.  The windows are tall and slender with gothic arches at the top.  These features do a great job of disguising its utility. 

The canal locks are themselves an interesting object within the site.  There are two channels for water running parallel to the river.  Both are fed from a point up-river.  The upper one supplied water to turn the waterwheel in a sudden drop.  The lower one contains the series of locks which used to raise and lower small boat traffic around the rapids on this section of the river. 

The stonework for the locks and building is said to have come from a small stone quarry 10 yards from the front of the building.  Granite such as this was quarried at several points along the stepped falls of Richmond.  It provided an important resource for 18th and 19th Century development.   Two other quarries can be found along the western stretch of Riverside Drive near the Pony Pasture and in the center of Belle Isle.

Finding this spot is rather tricky at the moment.  There is road work being done in front along Pump House Road.  Access is blocked from the Boulevard Bridge side near the toll booth.  You now must wind your way to the west side of the Carillon and do the tricky left turn near the entrance to Kanawha Trace.  The grounds are overgrown as you can see in the photos, but are fairly easy to walk.