Retail Reformation 

A Presbyterian church has the Best sanctuary.

Advancing even closer, and actually moving through openings to what appears to be the building’s front wall, there’s a slender slice of forest.

Finally, passing through a raw, stucco wall via double glass doors, one enters a pleasant, well-lit lobby. A few minutes later in the sanctuary, some 100 casually dressed worshippers in their 20s and 30s are clutching Styrofoam cups of coffee and facing front where seven vocalists and instrumentalists are leading them in “What Child is This?”

Funny thing. In Christmases past, the area on which the musicians stand was the appliance department of a big-box store — displaying Cuisinarts and Sunbeam toasters.

West End Presbyterian Church was built in 1980 as a Best Products catalog showroom. It was designed by SITE (Sculpture in the Environment), a New York architecture and design firm. In the 1970s and ’80s, Richmond-based Best was expanding rapidly throughout the United States. It was also a darling of the international media for employing the considerable talents of SITE. The firm used the standard, dull Best prototypical building as the point of departure for sculptural buildings that challenged the accepted architectural purity and midcentury dominance of the modernist International Style.

James Wines, a founding principal of the firm, had been a sculptor whose work was collected by Richmonders and Best Products founders Frances and Sydney Lewis. Along with their son Andrew they were intrigued with Wines’ ideas for taking the dumb prototype and doing something radical — even apocalyptic — with it. In Houston, SITE’s “indeterminate fa‡ade,” Best looked as if the front of the two-story building were being demolished — with white bricks tumbling onto the front canopy. In Sacramento, Calif., a corner of the building — literally a few tons of the corner of the brick building — rolled out each morning to reveal the entrance. SITE’s witty Best showrooms challenged modernity and the way we think about buildings.

Unfortunately, most of these unsettling mirages disappeared when Best Products went out of business in the 1990s. One of the first SITE designs to go was the “peeling fa‡ade” on Midlothian Turnpike. Since these buildings live on mainly in architectural history books, it is heartening indeed that not only is West End Presbyterian using this former store, but that it has maintained the integrity of SITE’s sculptural intent.

The thick, almost overgrown-looking vegetation is key to the visual pun. The whole idea is that the building and its asphalt parking lot is nothing but a cookie cutter impression that has been pressed onto the forested site. This landscaping scheme is far different from the highly manicured borders that encircle most suburban shopping-center office parks. Here we have nature’s revenge — the site has been invaded and consumed by nature. The experience of leaving one’s car and walking towards the church is like being in the parking lot of a wooded Virginia state park.

As to the building itself, unfortunately, part of the visual pun has disappeared with the removal of the swinging, metal-and-glass-front doors — one pushed through these doors only to find oneself, well, still outside.

The bones of the building remain, however, and to fully appreciate the drama of the place, one should walk around the front corners of the building. Here, the jagged fragmentation appears to have been caused by trees pushing up.

Inside the church, the building has no trace of the Best Products era. The Richmond firm of Huff-Morris Architects has established a broad lobby that stretches across the front of the building. This continues to flow around the outer edge of the building’s interior to create a 360-degree circulation pathway. Off this hallway there are classrooms and church offices.

The center of the building is now the sanctuary — a flat-floored, gray-carpeted, multipurpose space with exceedingly comfortable moveable chairs. This six-sided room has 12 doors opening onto the outer runway. During the service, aside from the guitar playing and drum beating, this space is most lively just before services as worshippers enter randomly by walking through the doors. There is a theatrical quality to the movement.

Although there are no windows punched into the walls, an elongated skylight has been added that runs the center length of the room.

Adaptive reuse is not a term we use often when a suburban strip mall or suburban retailer changes tenants. But then, there are not that many late 20th-century suburban buildings that have big design ideas behind them — not to mention having been included in museum exhibitions, high-brow art magazines or architectural history books. But the elders and deacons at West End Presbyterian appear to know what a treasure they have and have only enhanced the property under their stewardship.

Let’s face it: With the exception of mischievous gargoyles on some Gothic churches, humor and irony hardly describe ecclesiastical architecture. And add nature as a theme, regardless of one’s faith, how better is spiritualism expressed than thorough the wind whistling S

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