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.

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