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.