Editor's note: In the Aug. 10 issue, Slipek argued against the proposal to build a city park on the site of the Miller & Rhoads building. This week, he offers an alternative.
It's easy to extol Paris or Venice, but I really love it when someone goes on about Richmond.
A long-time friend tells of her first encounter with the city. After graduating from college in the '50s, she returned to her native hamlet in North Carolina and promptly began to crawl the walls. Her mother suggested she move to Norfolk. A cousin had married a sailor there and they'd lived happily ever after.
Enough said! My friend began the long trek eastward on Greyhound. En route, when faced with a two-hour stop in Richmond, she stepped out of the bus terminal on Broad near Fifth and boom! She was all but overwhelmed by Broad Street's hustle and bustle. It looked like the widest street in the world. The sidewalks were crowded and the buildings lining them were substantial. Cars and buses whizzed by. My friend crossed the street to Miller & Rhoads. There, she lunched in the Tea Room while marveling at the fashion models twisting down the runway to the live music of organist Eddie Weaver.
You guessed it, this ingénue didn't continue on to Norfolk. Instead, she found an apartment, got a job and has lived here ever since. And while she never found a sailor (to my knowledge) she maintains her love affair with downtown Richmond.
With the convention center being expanded toward Broad Street, planners are hoping that the lure of downtown will have a similar effect on thousands of future conventioneers when they exit the sprawling complex. Consequently, there is a proposal to demolish both the Miller & Rhoads and Woolworth's buildings on the block bounded by Broad, Fifth, Grace and the 6th Street Marketplace. A City Center Park would go on the site.
"We want to channel people from the center in that direction," a city official explained recently.
But rather than diminish the powerful facade of Broad Street and potential energy and revenues by removing two of its most imposing and beloved landmarks, why not re-examine and enhance Broad Street itself to create the kind of avenue where "come-heres" and "from-heres" alike would exclaim, "Wow!"
It can be done. Downtown Broad Street is lined with architecturally distinctive buildings. On the VCU/MCV campus, there are the 19th century First African Baptist Church and Monumental Church by Robert Mills (architect of the Washington Monument). The Art Deco West Hospital by Baskervill & Son, and the classical old First Baptist by Thomas U. Walter (architect of the U.S. Capitol) guard respective corners of Broad and 12th. On the south side of the street is the state complex with the old State Library, the intelligent Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith-designed General Assembly Building and the handsome King Carter Hotel-turned Eighth Street Office Building. Old City Hall was designed by Elijah Meyers, architect of numerous state capitols. The new Library of Virginia (by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) brings neo-modern panache to the street.
Then come the old department stores Miller & Rhoads designed by Richmond's Carneal & Johnston and Starrett & Van Vleck, the New York firm which designed Gotham's venerable Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's department stores.
From First Street to Belvidere, what's happening is a near miracle. Building by building, apartments in late-19th and early 20th-century structures are being occupied on the upper floors. A new generation of business people is filling the ground floors. The Romanesque-styled Cornerstone and the Theater IV complex on Broad near Adams are major anchors midway along this increasingly mixed-use neighborhood. Farther west, VCU's new fine arts building opens this semester. It is the university's most recent building designed to reinforce the visual continuity of the street.
Broad Street should be studied as a whole how traffic flows, how pedestrians cross the streets, ways in which pavement could be beautified and landscape improved. Instead of corralling people into a park, why not push them up and down Broad Street? Let's show off the architecture, encourage window-shopping and leisurely strolls.
Instead of a city square let's develop Broad Street as the great connector of two university campuses, as an outdoor museum of architecture, as a shopping and entertainment destination and as a place to live. Why not make it a destination in itself, as great a delight to stroll as New York's Fifth Avenue or Chicago's Michigan Avenue? Broad Street could pack equal power.
And from this main artery, it is just a block or so to other attractions: the Maggie Walker House, the Bojangles statue, the White House of the Confederacy, the Valentine Museum, the Capitol, the John Marshall House, and the public library.
But demolish a landmark for a downtown park? As a writer for The New Yorker recently wrote while examining Berlin's current building boom, "Let's build a park" is a euphemism for "We haven't a clue what else to do."
The solution for the environs near the convention center is simple: Celebrate Broad Street where shoppers, both black and white, have traded for generations, where soldiers marched during the great wars, where streetcars ran and where people now live. Broad Street can be Richmond's Champs élysées. Now that's