The encounters with rarefied flora and gurgling streams or lunches in the Japanese tearoom were always refreshing. Still, arriving at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden felt like entering through the back door. The approach through weathered concrete pilasters flanking the driveway to Bloemendaal, home of the garden's benefactress Grace Arents until the 1920s, had long been closed to visitors. Instead, patrons of the garden (named in honor of Arents' uncle), entered via an asphalt parking lot. Then, they might have stood in a drizzle to pay admission. From there, they were on their own. Amenities such as refreshments or rest rooms existed, but who knew?
Well, all uncertainty is gone: Behold the new E. Claiborne Robins Visitors Center. The 23,000-square-foot Palladian-style pavilion offers a grand "hello" to the rapidly expanding horticultural complex. The confident-looking, one-story structure was designed by Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York (with The Glave Firm of Richmond as associate architect). It demands attention the moment it appears on the horizon on a gentle bluff at 1800 Lakeside Ave.
On closer inspection, it strikes the perfect balance between rural simplicity and urbane sophistication. Interestingly, it seems both strikingly familiar and yet, very today. Why familiar? In many ways the building recalls the old City Market in downtown Petersburg, an eight-sided, one-story brick building topped with an eight-sided lantern (a vertical tower designed to admit light). The center is also akin to the 12-sided horse barn at the Strawberry Hill fairgrounds (designed by architect William L. Bottomley) or perhaps stables in Virginia horse country. It is also related architecturally to the early American urban markets in such places as Fayetteville, N.C., or Boston's North End. Each of these buildings links agrarian enterprise with display and commerce. Each is vernacular as well as utilitarian.
The visitors center is a multipart building with a main block, hyphens and wings. The central block is octagonal with a gentle roof that slopes upward to an eight-sided lantern. The wings have traditional hipped roofs that rise to support smaller lanterns.
Up close, the building reveals exquisite proportions, fine building materials and a keen attention to craftsmanship: Rubbed brick is used for detailing around window openings, lending subtle contrast to rougher-hewn brick walls. In proportion and overall quality, the building sets so high a standard for building excellence, this may well be the best traditionally-styled building built during the past decade here.
Of course, strict adherence to traditionalism may not be to everyone's liking. With so many phony, faux, funky (you pick the adjective) variations on architectural classicism hereabouts visited Colonial Downs lately? it's wonderful to see how freshly minted Palladian classicism can be when created by talented hands. Jacquelin Robertson, a native Richmonder, and his architectural team have hit a bull's-eye here. The pleasures start with the ten perfectly formed Tuscan columns at the front portico and continue inside.
Visitors enter the building through a central reception hall. This soaring, light-filled space is exhilarating. Eight walls, painted the color of pale green pistachio ice cream, support a wooden truss ceiling that is painted a warm shade of off-white. Hanging from the ceiling are four, huge Chinese red, metal chandeliers that resemble pagodas. They are slightly overscaled and that is all for the dramatic good.
The information desk is tucked to the left as one enters. On the right, a passage leads to a multipurpose room which will be used for flower shows and social events. Moving beyond the lobby, and following a light-filled passage, the visitor can turn left toward a large gift shop or turn right for the large dining area.
Rather than opt for a bare and basic decorating look, which would have been perfectly acceptable for a botanical garden, Lewis Ginter has opted for something approximating an upscale resort hotel. Perhaps the curtains in the dining room or multipurpose rooms could have been dispensed with to allow the surrounding gardens and sky to pull the eye outward, but most interior spaces are handled handsomely and in conservative good taste.
All the public rooms open through French doors to outside terraces; the dining room onto a dining space, the gift shop onto a retail terrace and the multipurpose room onto a platform that can be used for expanded entertaining. (Landscaping around the new center is now evolving and should be completed by midsummer.)
On every level, it is clear that much thought went into this facility. It is not only a pleasant building to visit, but gives off good vibrations that should put smiles on the faces of all who visit. And shouldn't that be the reaction to everything at a botanical garden?
Richmond's cultural and historical institutions are on an unprecedented roll and attractions along the Boulevard and its extensions are leading the way. With tulips in bloom and Historic Garden Week upon us, there is no better time to visit this emerging gem. The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden both comes of age with the Robins visitors center and proves that classical architecture is a solid and legitimate architectural choice for public buildings at the turn of yet another
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