Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Kanawha Canal Locks and Bridge

One of the challenges of being an architect in an old city is finding a balance between our history and the need for economic growth. I love old buildings and came to Richmond 30 years ago to work in a firm that revitalized old buildings. That work included a large dose of archeology and history of which I’ve always had an interest. To redraw an old building is to get into the mind of the one who originally designed it.

It is also my belief that a city should grow and evolve. Its Architecture and urban character should not be stagnant but reflect the technology and culture of the day. Everything old is not historic and worth saving.

History is not written only through literature. It is revealed in a city’s urban design and Architecture. The street layout reflects the transportation and social structure of the day. The Architecture of a city illustrates our values, economics, and lifestyles. Because a new project will be around for at least 50 years, Architects have a responsibility to understand history and how a new project will impact its neighbors and fit into the overall urban character. They should help a client (and the public) discern what has lasting value and what may no longer be relevant. Removing an old building or street pattern is forever after great consideration.

While most of the old residential districts are intact, much of the old Richmond commercial area has been destroyed over the years. The most defining urban feature of 19th Century Richmond – the Kanawha Canal was lost by the construction of the Downtown Expressway and the James Center. There are only a few remnants remaining of that industrial setting.

The most intact part of the original canal can be found near the intersection of 12th and Bryd Street. Two lock sections remain though the gates have been removed. However, the stone blocks that used to hold the gates are still in place. The water level drops a couple times down to the arched bridge that used to connect directly to the tobacco storage warehouses at Shockoe Slip and to Gallago Mill where the Omni complex now stands.

This stone bridge has some interesting details - including a keystone at the top of the arches. One of these is inscribed with an 1860 date. Several large stones have drill and wedge slots where they were split at the quarry.

With the sale of the Reynolds property, this area will soon experience some change. The bulky metal industrial buildings that cover the lower section will be gone and the canal should once again be open to the sky. Hopefully the new residential development will respect and save this small section of the Canal.
For more images of the canal, see my Flickr page at:

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