Architecture Review: VCU’s New Dorms Aren’t Stars But They Are Effective 

click to enlarge The expansive student housing complex in the 1200 block of West Broad near Ryland Street by Clark-Nexen Architects could be enhanced by outdoor seating.

Scott Elmquist

The expansive student housing complex in the 1200 block of West Broad near Ryland Street by Clark-Nexen Architects could be enhanced by outdoor seating.

Construction fences were being dismantled near West Broad and North Ryland streets while students arrived for fall classes. At the same location weeks later, safety barriers went up, with Virginia Commonwealth University mostly emptying out for the UCI Road World Championships.

But with the advent of October and return to normalcy, it’s apparent that two new dormitories have opened this semester. The five-story, red brick residence halls that bracket the corners of Broad and Ryland streets and Grace and Harrison streets represent a combined 173,146 square feet of new construction with 411 beds. They also push the university boundary west across Harrison Street — the once-established line of demarcation from the Fan District that the university and Fan property owners agreed was sacrosanct.

But few people will complain. For half a century until now most of the 1000 block of Grace and Broad was an asphalt surface parking lot that served respectively — and we’ll list them because Richmonders love remembrances of things past — a Safeway, a Ukrop’s and a Community Pride grocery store. That big-box retail structure was converted a decade ago for use as university classrooms and library storage.

For the residence hall at Grace and Harrison streets, the slightly larger of the two and across the street from a 7-Eleven and the iconic Village Cafe, Clark-Nexen Architects has created a sober and polite building that makes no accommodation for retail activity at sidewalk level or even large windows to allow passersby to connect with what’s happening inside.

This probably was intentional to establish a domestic-scale link to the residential stretch of the 1100 block of West Grace. That area has been known — not always so affectionately — as “Hell Block” because of the number of students (often partying) densely packed into aging apartment buildings with street-facing balconies. And as if to create historical linkage, if you squint, the brick dormitory, with its crisp punched windows, conjures up the last building that stood on the site, the former St. Luke’s Hospital, which was demolished in the 1960s. It, too, was five stories tall and built of red brick.

The sister residence hall at Broad and Ryland streets is an obvious companion piece in mass, height and exterior brick and metal siding. But it’s quite different. Along more highly trafficked West Broad Street, the scale of the windows is larger and plate glass windows at street level allow visual connectivity to the meeting rooms and potential retail spaces.

But the glory of this Broad and Ryland residence hall is the building’s corners at the eastern and western ends. Floor-to-ceiling windows are massed to create the effect of two towerlike structures. After dark when viewed from Broad Street, because they are lighted from within, these spaces read as huge electrified lanterns. It’s unclear whether the effect was intentional, but it adds a welcome bit of theatricality to what otherwise would be another somber institutional building along this heavily traveled stretch.

At the street level, because this building is set back by a wide sidewalk, there’s an opportunity for the university to consider installing either permanent or movable outdoor seating. As additional dormitory rooms are added for on-campus living, it’s clear that casual outdoor spaces are sorely lacking on the VCU campus.

These two buildings may be low-keyed architecturally and lack adequate out-of-door options, but they’re welcome additions to the neighborhood. They not only help reknit the frayed streetscape, but serve as backdrops to a remarkable and varied collection of nearby early-20th-century buildings.

Significant is Bethlehem Lutheran Church at 1100 W. Grace St., L.T. Bengtson, architect. This red brick and stone gothic revival sanctuary, with its large, stained-glass windows and companion educational building, is an understated architectural masterwork. The stucco and brick Capital Garage Apartments at 1101 W. Broad St. is one of our city’s best-preserved arts and crafts structures. Dominion Place, a seniors’ apartment building at 1011 W. Grace St., is a marvel of prefabricated modernism. And there’s little to compare decoratively in Richmond with the grand, granite, classically ornate pier columns that flank Grace Street at both Ryland and Lombardy: These were commissioned to memorialize that this was the location of Richmond College before it moved in 1914 to Westhampton to become the University of Richmond.

To the south along Ryland Street is the Gresham Court apartment building, a handsome renaissance revival structure designed by Carneal and Johnston Architects and a parking deck across the street that’s cleverly disguised to fit into the context of historic West Franklin Street. Wright Cox and Smith were the architects. All of these structures, special in their own right, are supporting cast to the architectural star of the show, Beth Ahabah, the synagogue that commands the southern axis of Ryland Street with its Roman Doric portico and low dome, à la the Pantheon.

The two new VCU dorms are proof that buildings in densely built-up urban settings don’t have to be star players to be successful architecturally. Instead, they can win kudos for supporting roles. As West Grace Street settles into being the “campus street” that the university has envisioned — a mix of housing, retail, entertainment and dining — these two structures help to smooth the transition architecturally between university and a well-established residential neighborhood. S

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