Maymont's new nature and visitor center is one of Virginia's most beautiful and casually elegant buildings of the late 20th century. 

A Natural Jewel

The '90s decade was a golden age for Richmond museums. If a gallery or museum didn't expand dramatically during that decade, it was either asleep at the wheel or didn't ask for the money.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts transformed a former Confederate ladies home into an educational center. The Virginia Historical Society added galleries on the Kensington Avenue side. The Science Museum of Virginia introduced permanent outdoor exhibits, while renovating its landmark building: Next door, the new Richmond Children's Museum took modernistic form. Artists-operated 1708 gallery moved from Shockoe Bottom to East Broad Street. The new Library of Virginia opened a handsome gallery space. Inside Fulton Hill Studios and the Shockoe Bottom Arts Center, dozens of ateliers offered up a smorgasbord of artwork. In the suburbs, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden completed a visitor center while Randolph-Macon College, University of Richmond's Marsh Art Gallery and the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen added impressive exhibition spaces. And at decade's end, Maymont weighed in with a sprawling and terraced 26,000-square-foot nature and visitor center.

Unlike most of these expansions, Maymont's new building is neither an adaptive reuse nor an expanded existing facility. In fact, the building sits on a far, wooded hillside, hidden from the children's farm and opposite and mostly beyond view of the estate's eclectic row of barns and the Dooley mansion, a turreted stone pile worthy of the Addams Family.

Therefore, there were no givens, architecturally at least, as to what the proposed gateway building might look like. For over half a century, visitors to the city-owned and foundation-run park had entered via the estate's back door, from Hampton Street. With Maymont's decision however to make a permanent exhibition interpreting the ecosystem at the James River fall line the center's piece de resistance, the building's scope became more complex. Sophisticated infrastructure to support wildlife and limnology exhibits, plus a café and gift shop would require substantial service and support areas.

And the site, straddling the Maymont property line and the southeastern edge of Byrd Park near Swan and Shields lakes, was a sensitive one: The building and parking lots couldn't encroach drastically, either physically or visually, on sacred public parkland.

In addition to these things, the building's success would be measured by how well the building expressed ethereal and immeasurable things — that spirit of memory and experience that Maymont has long provided its visitors. The estate's creators, Sallie May and James Dooley had no descendants and left Maymont to the city in the 1920s. Every Richmonder, then, is automatically an heir. Kind of nice isn't it? Who hasn't taken out-of-town visitor to Richmond's showplace? And since no admission is required, Maymont doesn't know caste and class. It's our version of Central Park.

Also importantly, the Maymont Foundation is highly respectful of, but not slavish to the Dooleys' spirit. It continually seeks to interpret the park afresh. It was this same spirit that architect Bond Comet Westmoreland + Hiner, a firm that's designed some of our most distinctive buildings near the James River, brought to designing the nature and visitor center.

The result? By exceeding environmental and programmatic challenges, the firm has produced one of Virginia's most beautiful and casually elegant buildings of the late 20th century.

It is honest. The structural elements read like a book. BCW+H chose highly traditional building forms — a stepped procession of three simple (or simple-appearing) boxes framed vertically with wooden siding and topped by standing seam, metal, pitched roofs. These are wedged into the sloping hillside atop battered granite and poured concrete retaining walls. Frank Lloyd Wright's voice can be heard — never build atop a hillside, but alongside it.

If the siting of Maymont's nature and visitor center is exquisite, so are its fine points of craftsmanship. Granite block — both rough-hewn and polished — various woods, glass, concrete and metal come together in sometimes surprising, but always masterful and pleasurable ways.

Byrd Park's curving roadways have been rerouted so that motorists now pass Swan and Shields lakes and arrive at a landscaped, gravel parking area through new granite gates. A prominent porte-cochere — composed of square granite uprights, crossed by wooden lintels and topped by a metal roof — is the building's arrival point. This feature was apparently influenced in scale and materials by a nearby granite-block park picnic shelter. It creates an immediate, subtle tie-in with Byrd Park.

From here, granite steps and a covered, granite walkway lead downward through a large vestibule and into the welcome area. The granite pavers flow seamlessly into the lobby to bring the outdoors inside. An information desk and orientation exhibits for the Maymont mansion and gardens (a delightful gazebo becomes a miniorientation center) are located in this area. The assured hand of Massachusetts-based Cambridge Seven Associates, the project's design consultant and exhibit designers, is apparent here.

Beyond the entry's glass doors, visitors can step onto a high terrace for a panoramic view of Maymont's rolling grounds and descend a staircase to catch a tram or follow footpaths to the park's attractions.

To the immediate right as one enters the lobby, visitors pass through a short corridor where sound resonates from water cascading down a dramatic, simulated rock formation. From this vantage point, one catches the first glimpse of the soaring, cathedrallike space that contains the nature exhibits. As the floor steps down to follow the park's terrain, so does the ceiling, punctuated by uninterrupted clerestory windows emitting generous daylight.

The complex and intriguing exhibits aside, the building itself provides a dividend: It is celebration of the building arts. With a generation of postmodernist architects intent on disguising structural elements, here every joint, every juncture is clearly delineated — steel on granite, granite on concrete, glass meeting wood. Nice. But the exhibits and the building fit like a hand and glove. The exhibits don't smother the architecture, which doesn't dwarf the exhibits.

What visitors might not see are the impressive behind-the-scenes equipment areas that keep 40,000 gallons of water flowing through 13 distinct exhibit tanks. They might not see educational areas or the exquisitely detailed conference room that overlooks the habitat of bison and whitetail deer.

It is a picturesque building designed for enjoying picturesque vistas; not unlike an Italian hill town. Maymont and its architects and designers have shown great restraint so as not to overpower a fragile, early 20th-century country estate. Outside the building are terraces that link the building and its users to the surrounding countryside. On the other hand, the center speaks in the language of the fast-paced 21st century where convenience, comfort and communication are key.

Maymont was already a jewel in Richmond's crown, but with the nature and visitor center, a good thing got considerably more

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