Spaces and Sights That Can't Be Experienced From a Car
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.