Architecture Review: Union Presbyterian Seminary Needs to Go Back to the Drawing Board 

click to enlarge The view from the open Westwood Tract in the 3200 block of Brook Road where Union Seminary wants to build some 300 apartment units, looking northeast toward Watts Hall on the historic main campus.

Scott Elmquist

The view from the open Westwood Tract in the 3200 block of Brook Road where Union Seminary wants to build some 300 apartment units, looking northeast toward Watts Hall on the historic main campus.

A town-gown storm’s been brewing during the past year between three North Side neighborhoods and Union Presbyterian Seminary. At issue is a proposed 310-unit apartment complex the school wants to build in the 3200 block of Brook Road.

Since 1897, this ministerial training ground has anchored architecturally the 3400 block of Brook Road with its glorious collection of Tudor revival buildings. The land initially was given by local tycoon Maj. Lewis Ginter, an Episcopalian, who envisioned the school serving as an institutional anchor for his fledging suburban development of Ginter Park.

Soon after, the seminary secured an additional 34 acres for future development, a tract defined by Brook and Loxley roads and Westwood and Rennie avenues. It’s on 14 acres of this mostly open property where the school wants to develop.

Nearby on the tract are two dormitories, a handful of faculty residences, four tennis courts and a significant landmark — the former summer cottage of Dr. Hunter H. McGuire, for whom the veteran’s hospital is named.

The seminary has engaged the Bristol Development Group to build the densely-configured apartment complex to front Brook Road. This project, it contends, will create the income flow to subsidize just 25 units needed for new and enhanced student housing.

Many property owners and residents in adjacent Ginter Park, Laburnum Park and Sherwood Park are up in arms over a theological school taking on the role of real estate developer and injecting a building type at odds with the character of the historic surroundings.

The root of the problem is that these are neighborhoods of mid- to upscale single family homes, with the exception of Ginter Place condominiums, a handsome adaptive reuse of the former Richmond Memorial Hospital. In the 1800s Ginter invited Union Seminary to the neighborhood for one major reason: to anchor his suburb,. Pastor training was a given. Dormitories, not private apartment complexes, was what he had in mind.

For the seminary to inject this development on a neighborhood, regardless of the zoning, is overstepping. The apartments are wrong for Brook Road. You have only to look at conditions on nearby Chamberlayne Avenue, where zoning decisions allowed tractor-trailer trucks and apartment complexes to create a disfiguring wound of buildings of mostly poor quality and absolutely no architectural merit — and crime.

Union seminary’s neighbors contend they aren’t interested to move in that direction to accommodate some 25 students who will rotate in and out of a stable, century-old neighborhood.

It’s strange that the seminary has no comprehensive master plan for its 34-acre Westwood tract.

The campus is a landmark of the highest order. Its most recent buildings, the Smith Library and Early buildings, designed by Glave & Holmes Architects, exemplify the best in contemporary collegiate architecture. But none of that quality is evident in the proposed apartment complex. The seminary maintains that “it complements” the historic campus. That’s ridiculous. It’s badly proportioned ersatz classical in style. And it’s basically the same generic building that the architect, Humphries & Partners of Dallas has designed for other states.

There are obvious options. Has the seminary approached the Veritas School, a private primary and secondary institution across from the seminary on Brook Road, about working together on a 25-year master plan so that the two institutions might grow in a concerted direction?

It’s time for Union Presbyterian Seminary to go back to the drawing board, starting afresh with all the constituent parties. The institution’s rich traditions of community and social involvement and strong architecture demand an excellent solution. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not saving souls. It’s practical and imaginative planning. S

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