Designed by the same architect as the World Trade Center, Richmond's Federal Reserve was once secured because of a much smaller threat than terrorists. 

Securing the Fed

Skateboarding is what came to mind as I watched the World Trade towers collapse on Sept. 11.

Let me explain.

With the obliteration of this complex, interest has turned to other architectural designs by the late Minoru Yamasaki. The architect gained attention with designs for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle, his hometown. Yamasaki's U.S science pavilion there included wafer-thin, Gothic arches. These arches would reappear at the World Trade Center in 1973 (which he designed with Emery Roth and Associates, architect of New York's PamAm building).

Richmond is the site of another prominent Yamasaki landmark, the Federal Reserve Bank Building on Byrd Street between 7th Street and the Manchester Bridge. It was completed in 1978 at a period when the Fed was on a building boom nationwide. It engaged name-brand architects to make boldly modernist statements.

The Richmond Federal Reserve and the World Trade twin towers were similar in how Yamasaki achieved a heightened sense of verticality with slender window openings and a silver aluminum sheathing that seemed translucent: The metal's color changed constantly depending on weather conditions and the light.

But unlike the World Trade center, which sat amid the dense Manhattan financial district, Richmond's Federal Reserve building sits in semi-isolated glory on a landscaped bank of the James River. And unlike the neo-Gothic colonnade that wrapped the base of the World Trade towers, the Fed appears to float above its site. The 24-story building sits on four corner legs. Were it not so sleek, it would look like a huge, old-fashioned radiator.

Until recently, the bank was accessible visually to Byrd Street and had a suburbanlike aura. Parking and considerable operation functions are concealed underground.

There was a curved front driveway lined with convenient, visitor parking spaces. It was easy to approach the building in its parklike setting on the edge of downtown. Apart from all the hubbub, it reigned in icy splendor.

Near the driveway oval sits a pool and an abstract sculpture by Harry Bertoria. The artwork consists of delicate, vertical, slender rods that become wind chimes with the slightest breeze. It has always added to the overall Zenlike serenity of the place.

A number of years ago, however, when the pool was drained for repairs, skateboarders discovered the basin as a convenient spot to perfect their moves. "No skateboarding" was posted and an elegant but obnoxious protective railing was installed to encircle the pool. The horizontal railing became a more powerful visual element then the delicate Bertoria piece it was meant to protect.

Oh, those skateboarders: They had forced harsh security measures.

On Sept. 11, I thought of those skateboarders. How innocent were their transgressions at Richmond's Yamasaki building compared to what had befallen the architect's great statement in New York.

But sadly, additional security changes were already underway at the Richmond Fed by Sept. 11. This summer, the bank installed a massive iron fence around the parklike setting and a don't-even-think-of-a-vehicular-assault retaining wall was built of huge boulders on the north and east sides of the property. Two guardhouses now sit like chunky exclamation points at the foot of the driveway.

Where the bank had once sat in elegant, isolated slender, from the street it now has the appearance of an armed camp. The negative psychology of these moves on the downtown landscape cannot be measured.

Capitol Square is fenced in, but history suggests this was to keep stray livestock off the sloping greensward. The Richmond Times-Dispatch building has a high metal fence around its garden at 3rd and Grace, but if newspaper employees want to enjoy a cigarette or lunch al fresco in relative peace, that's OK: At least passersby can enjoy the attractive landscaping.

Of course, what makes the new improvements to the security at the Federal Reserve after the horror of Sept. 11 all the more unsettling is not the aesthetics at sidewalk level, but knowing that our buildings can be violated from the air. How do we protect against that? Now, each time I approach downtown from South Side — across the Lee, Manchester or Mayo Bridge — I glance, as I always have, toward the sublime Federal Reserve building. The changing quality of light remains a treat, but I can't help thinking of the fate of those lost Yamasaki towers.

Each of us, as we grow older, can mark times and places where we lost another bit of our innocence — the loss of a friend, the grave illness of a family member or a personal hurt received or delivered. If most Americans lost another bit of their innocence on Sept. 11, so did our cities. Will we ever return to a time when skateboards, for heavens sake, are considered a threat?


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