When you've lived somewhere for any length of time, you understand, if only subconsciously, that the way to experience places is through the past as much as the present. Although the high school you attended was replaced years ago by a newer campus, you still envision victories and defeats on old playing fields, the atmosphere of the junior prom or the way a swaying tree cast shadows through a classroom window. It may be a gravel parking lot now, but when passing another site, you still see the old drugstore, with its familiar neon signage, distinctive marble floors and ice cream being hand-scooped at the lunch counter.
The history of lost architecture can distinguish and elevate a location in one's experience as much as whatever is happening there now. But there's another lens through which to experience a place. This is the realm of the almost -- that which was proposed but remains unbuilt.
"Never Built Virginia," an elegant boutique of an exhibition in the gallery of the Library of Virginia, takes a fascinating look at some significant architectural almosts and what-ifs. It includes plans, models and renderings for proposals that were once serious projects but for some reason never came to fruition.
These range from a grandiose, colonial revival hotel near the battlefield at Yorktown (by the top-drawer New York firm of McKim, Mead & White in 1900) to a modest but attractively decorative Richardsonian Romanesque railroad station in Bristol by relatively unknown architect George T. Pearson. There's a Colonial-era classical country house in Caroline County and a classical revival state library building for Richmond's Broad Street by Carneal, Johnston & Wright.
But many of the renderings and models transcend being mere expressions of what never was; they are beautiful objects in themselves. A richly hued watercolor-on-paper rendering of a proposed "Virginia War Memorial Complex for Richmond," attributed to Paul Philippe Cret with Marcellus E. Wright (1925), is as evocatively romantic a painting as one is likely to see in a Richmond exhibition this season. In contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright's rendering of a school for Hampton (1928) is crisp and thoroughly modern in concept and execution.
Among the most ambitious "never builts" in the exhibition are designs for businesses, a presidential memorial and high-rise residences by Richmond architect Haigh Jamgochian.
Although he's still active, in the 1960s this brilliant native Richmonder made headlines regularly with one scheme or another that eschewed the architectural norms of his hometown. His 1962 "Tree House" apartment building, proposed for a single narrow townhouse lot on historic West Franklin Street, consisted of a 14-story central elevator core from which residential units hung like narrow, cantilevered trays. His plan for the Markel Corporation office complex was much more ambitious than what was eventually built near Willow Lawn. And his twisting, soaring Communications Executive Center, proposed for a prominent downtown site near the Manchester Bridge in 1985, eerily predicted Spanish "starchitect" Santiago Calatrava's sculptural 54-story skyscraper taking shape in Malmö, Sweden.
Sadly, many architects have destroyed plans for their unbuilt projects. (Fortunately, Jamgochian is not among them. His unbuilt projects have found their way and therefore life in the growing architectural archives of the Library of Virginia.)
"Never Built Virginia" affords the library a chance to show off some of its treasures while drawing on the collections of other institutions, including the Valentine Richmond History Center, the Library of Congress and the Historic Staunton Foundation.
"Never Built Virginia" contends that if some ideas (like those of Jamgochian) are ahead of their time, just wait. One of the most startling renderings in the exhibition is a 1970 project by Williamsburg architect Carlton S. Abbott. In his "Proposed Design for James River Park" all traces of rustic nature have been replaced by an exquisite, linear, modernistic fantasia of platforms, piers, bridges and high-rises. Abbott's vision is all the more frightening because the park today is much beloved as a natural environment. But are Abbott's marinas and high-rises so far-fetched now, with Rocketts Landing a reality and the Echo Harbour development and public marinas such hot-button issues? S"Never Built Virginia" runs through July 26 at The Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. Call 692-3900 or visit
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