Architecture Review: Central National Bank's Apartment Makeover Should Cause Ripples 

click to enlarge The art deco landmark Central National Bank building at East Broad and Third streets now houses 200 apartments.

Scott Elmquist

The art deco landmark Central National Bank building at East Broad and Third streets now houses 200 apartments.

As local architectural icons go, the State Capitol, the Federal Reserve Bank and Main Street Station are in the pantheon. But right up there — literally, at 23 stories — is the Central National Bank Building at 219 E. Broad St.

This ornament from the jazz age, now smartly renovated and rebranded the Deco at CNB, is especially distinctive on the skyline because it sits atop of a downtown ridge, unlike other skyscrapers that hug the low-lying riverfront. The Deco rises in vertical splendor from a nest of turn-of-the-last-century, commercial blocks populated with low-rise buildings, many of which also have been rejuvenated.

Trouble was, for more than a decade the tower was empty and boarded up. But here’s the thing: Even abandoned, this gem was never an eyesore because it’s inherently so grand and well-articulated. Even in its decrepit state, it was a showstopper.

So the recent makeover — by Douglas Development Corp. of Washington and Commonwealth Architects of Richmond — as an apartment complex hasn’t received the play it deserves. Perhaps that’s because successful and multifaceted local preservation efforts in recent years have jaded our thinking that Richmond’s considerable stock of old buildings is going to be safe and eventually restored. That’s never a safe assumption.

But make no mistake, the reborn building is a grand achievement and will add immensely. It will not only help to repopulate downtown, but also send ripples that will spark other rehabs on adjacent parcels. And as this glorious anchor building springs back to life, other spunky cultural institutions are within a block or so — art galleries, the Storefront for Community Design, TheatreLab, the Ezibu Muntu dance troupe, the Coalition Theater and the Bijou Film Center.

The Central National Bank high-rise was the brainchild in the 1920s of William Harry Schwarzschild, an enterprising, first-generation Richmonder, who along with his brothers, Sol and Henry, entered business peddling pocket watches in Shockoe Bottom in the 1880s.

The brothers, joined by another sibling, Gus, moved their jewelry operations to East Broad Street to take advantage of the retail corridor that was fast developing along a popular electric street car line. Schwarzschild Bros. became, and continues to be, a highly respected jeweler. But by the early 1900s it and neighboring retailers found it too great a shlep to financial district banks on lower East Main Street to make deposits and transact business. Its success led William Schwarzschild in the 1920s to found a bank and build a prominent headquarters tower.

He engaged a Viennese-trained, New York architect, John Eberson (1875-1952), who simultaneously was designing the Loews movie palace here — a glorious confection at Grace and Sixth streets that has morphed into the Carpenter Theater of the Dominion Arts Center.

For the bank, completed in 1929, Eberson delivered a solid art deco masterwork that, after almost 90 years, can be deemed ageless. As an architectural approach, art deco is a transitional style that bridges classicism and modernism.

At the bank’s Broad Street face, classicism is evident in the way the building, like classical columns, has a well-defined base, middle and cap. And like most classical structures, the tower is symmetrical. The exterior walls at street level are faced in sandstone and marble with a great triumphal Roman arch punctuating the center. The patterning of the arch surround isn’t Greek or Roman, but consists of zigzags that recall the ancient Middle East. Additional adornments are fashioned in bronze and frosted glass.

As the building rises from its base, the shaft of the building suggests fluting via the alignment of windows. Verticality is reinforced by black bricks inserted between each window. All of this leads to a building’s upper floors that are decorated ornately at a scale intended to be read from the street level, or a greater distance.

As the rear of the building rises from the East Grace Street side, the gradual stepping of floors suggests a temple ziggurat. It was highly publicized archeological discoveries in the 1920s of King Tut’s tomb and Mayan ruins that gave American architects fresh fodder for design ideas. And it being the machine age, geometric patterns could be cut at crisp, sharp angles for distinct angularity.

But there’s much more to the building than the tower. There are an adjacent Broad-Grace Arcade, a midblock pass-through, and the four-story pavilion building on Grace — both also designed by Eberson. These been woven successfully into the Deco residential project.

The 236,938-square-foot project now offers 200 apartments. These range from tightly configured efficiencies to a glamorous, two-story, three-bedroom penthouse. And there’s the expected compendium of amenities for fitness and socializing.

Besides the spectacular views from the upper levels, the interior glory of this landmark is the spectacular bank room itself, one of a handful of Richmond’s world-class interiors. The soaring, barrel-vaulted ceiling is punctuated with deep, ornately decorated coffers, painted various shades of yellows, cream and blue. The terrazzo floors and decorative pier columns also are richly detailed. The future use of this space is yet to be determined, but it is glorious.

Deco at CNB is a recent reminder of how our city is coming back in ways unimaginable a decade ago, and those involved deserve a huge shout out of thanks. S

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