Downtown's new Times-Dispatch building renews an entire city block, but its design doesn't deliver. 

Mixed Media

East Grace Street downtown, a retail Mecca for most of the old century, as a business destination is clinging by its fingernails. Recently, Lane Bryant called it quits in the 500 block across from the empty Miller & Rhoads department store building. Meanwhile, sitting in limbo are dozens of neighboring structures that, despite their abandoned state, possess considerable sophisticated architectural panache. An 800-pound gorilla in the form of the enlarged Richmond convention center and its spinoffs could pound the last nail into the coffin of this potentially handsome urban district.

Let's hope not.

While anticipating whatever additional damage convention centeritis may inflict on the city's fabric (some six square blocks of historic Jackson Ward have already bitten the dust), there is a piece of considerably more heartening news for the neighborhood — the retention of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the expansion of its offices.

For many years the morning daily published at 333 E. Grace St. The old building — a modernist addition to a 1924 structure with classical overtones — was set considerably back from the Grace Street sidewalk. Its four floors were all but obscured by two overachieving magnolias. Truth to tell, the trees were more memorable than the building.

Well, the magnolias are still in place, but just about everything else has been spun around and transfigured. The paper's printing plant that once fronted Franklin is gone: The T-D is now printed in suburban Hanover County. The former Media General Building, a handsome, 11-story, 1922 skyscraper at the corner of Third and Grace, was unceremoniously imploded. These demolitions provided space for the maximum building footprint on the full city block bounded by Third, Fourth, Grace and Franklin.

The new complex now contains 156,000 square feet for news, editorial, advertising and business offices on the eastern side of the block, and a seven-level parking garage on the western edge.

And in a significant gesture, the building's entrance was flipped to 300 E. Franklin St. to face the recently completed complementary Media General Inc. building across the street. The effect on Franklin, complete with coordinated sidewalk paving and trees, is a kind of two-building urban office park.

For the Times-Dispatch's new frontage on Franklin Street, unquestionably downtown's sweetest thoroughfare, CMSS Architects of Richmond chose a classical mode. But whereas such nearby landmarks as the Jefferson Hotel, YMCA and the Episcopal diocese's Mayo Memorial House are by-the-book academic classical, this newcomer to Franklin is decidedly neo-, if not nouveau-classical.

Yes, it's all there. Seven free-standing columns rising three floors atop a stone plinth and a bowed bay proclaim the front door, and a dramatic entablature crowns the building. But this nod to ancient Western architecture tradition is attached to a mostly glass box. As a result, the package doesn't read as traditional or new — just confusing and pretentious.

As classicism, well, I don't think so. The first rule there is symmetry and proportion. Both are absent on the Franklin Street fa‡ade.

Problem is, the front wall really encases two buildings — the T-D office structure on the eastern end of the block and the parking garage to the west. The "fake-front" hides parked cars and pushes the entrance portico well off-center. Not only would this make Andrea Palladio roll over in his grave, but the Renaissance architect who wrote the book on classicism would do a 360-degree flip if he saw the poorly proportioned columns and awkwardly overblown cornice along the roofline. And what's with the heavy entablature just above the first floor level?

Classicism can be used and interpreted in tremendously inventive ways. Great architects who've worked here — from Robert Mills (Monumental Church) to William Lawrence Bottomley (a dozen of our best houses) — have proven that. But you have to know the rules before you can elaborate on them, or break them. Alas, this is a building one might expect to find in an office park beside an interstate highway, but it doesn't cut it on venerable Franklin.

Given that the building hints at modernist leanings, it is also too bad that the designers couldn't weave something into the overall design to celebrate the communications activity inside. An electronic, running news and financial ticker, a la Times Square, for instance, might have been too brash for Franklin Street, but could have worked nicely on Grace .

The materials that face the building — a dark gray precast stone at street level and sleek aluminum on the upper three levels — are attractive. In fact, the elegant, metallic aluminum sheen and the surprise of seeing columns rendered in this material flatters the otherwise awkward composition.

If a pedestrian or motorist does a lap around the block to look at the building from all sides, the results are more interesting. Midway along the Fourth Street front, the original 1924 fa‡ade designed by Baskervill & Son has wisely been retained and sensitively cleaned to reveal the blue-and cream-colored classical panels. Just to the north, the former modernist limestone front of the old building has been re-clad in glass and metal to continue the Franklin Street facing. Thus, the 1924 building looks like a tasty slab of filet mignon sandwiched between thick slices of white bread.

At Third and Grace, the former entrance court, flanked by the landmark magnolias, has been enclosed with a high-metal open fence to create an outdoor patio. It is furnished with handsome and sturdy wooden furniture for the pleasure of employees.

Beyond this rises the parking deck, which runs the length of the block from Grace back to Franklin without classical camouflage on Grace and most of the Third Street sides. And guess what? The parking deck, by being treated in a strictly utilitarian way with precast siding and walls pushed to the sidewalk line to maximize space, is so refreshingly crisp and honest, it's the best part of the project.

Classical fake fronts and unnecessary embellishments are the stuff of party décor and Hollywood sets. They're not architecture, but visual


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