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.