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The intersection of culture, architecture and history.

 

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The CenterStage performing arts complex, as seen from East Broad and Sixth streets, joins two Richmond landmarks: a renovated Carpenter Center and the former department store, Thalhimers. The large wall on the left is the back wall of the stage. Photo by Scott Elmquist

Talk about a strange architectural marriage. When CenterStage, the former Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, reopens in a little more than two weeks — renovated and expanded into the former Thalhimers building — it will mark the melding of two beloved downtown landmarks.

The joining of the Carpenter Center, an ebullient 1920s “atmospheric” movie palace, with the adjacent Thalhimers, a sleek remnant of a 1950s midcentury modern department store, will make the 600 block of East Grace Street a fascinating destination architecturally. Although these two disparate buildings were constructed just a few decades apart, each reflected the latest commercial design for its time.

Each also signified seismic cultural changes near Sixth and Grace streets, a prominent intersection since the 18th century.

The Boston firm of Wilson Butler Architects made dramatic changes in its $87 million renovation and adaptive reuse of the buildings — particularly in patron and performer amenities and performance spaces. But it respected the exteriors of the old buildings. Although this was a requirement to receive historic tax credits, the restraint strengthens a visual and historical link to a golden age of downtown retail and entertainment when this sector was Mecca for shoppers and moviegoers.

Tragically, many nearby retail structures at Sixth and Grace streets were swept away, including the bulk of Thalhimers. But Richmonders are getting used to the idea of Miller & Rhoads as a hotel, and new restaurants are slated for the nearby buildings.

With the opening of CenterStage and its numerous venues, new experiences and memories will form quickly, but the corner of Grace and Sixth streets already has witnessed history.

With the State Capitol's opening on Shockoe Hill in 1788, blocks to the west along the crest of the hill became primo spots and the vicinity of Grace and Sixth became a stylish residential address. By the end of the 19th century houses at the northeast corner, where Loew's would be built, had been occupied by Haxalls (flour milling), Dr. James McClurg, (a physician who helped build Monumental Church after the theater fire of 1811 that consumed 72 lives) and Dr. James McCaw (who operated the mammoth Chimborazo hospital during the Civil War and for whom the Virginia Commonwealth University medical library is named).

Across the street on the Miller & Rhoads site lived William Wirt, U.S attorney general, and later Thomas Branch, who founded Merchants National Bank, now folded into Bank of America. On another corner was a house part owned by Gen. Winfield Scott and later home of Judge Robert Ould, whose stepdaughter was May Handy, a glamorous Virginia belle. Dr. Hunter McGuire, the prominent Confederate physician for whom a federal veterans hospital is named, also later lived at this address. When his widow, Mary Stuart McGuire, moved from the corner in the 1920s and into the high-rise Monroe Terrace (now Virginia Commonwealth University's Johnson Hall dorm), it marked the end of a residential and social era. Her house was torn down for Berry Burk.

Dramatic shifts were brought on by the impact of Broad Street's electric street cars. Hundreds of riders were delivered hourly and department stores expanded on the south side of the street with smaller stylish stores on Grace. Saloons and movie theaters prospered on the north side of Broad.

 

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Loew's Theatre opened in 1928. Photo courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

In the 1920s, the lot at the corner of Sixth and Grace where the McCaw house once stood was offered to retailer Isaac Thalhimer who owned adjacent property. “He couldn't afford the $75,000 they were asking,” says his grandson, Charles Thalhimer.

Instead, national theater tycoon Marcus Loew bought the land, which was optimally situated between Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers. By March 1928 he had opened a lavish, $1,250,000 movie palace to showcase MGM films.

It was Richmond's second “atmospheric” theater, intended to transport the audience to another place with more than the movie alone. The Capitol had opened the previous year near Broad and Robinson streets. And the even more glamorous and expensive Byrd would open at Christmas 1928.

Loew had cut construction costs significantly at his new theater by eliminating elaborate classical detailing and domed ceilings and replacing them with an inexpensive canvas “sky.” But with the addition of twinkling “stars” and fleeting “clouds” only made the interior was magical. It's difficult to decipher exactly what style architect John Eberson was aiming for — “a glorious moonlit sky… an Italian garden, a Persian Court, a Spanish patio or an Egyptian temple yard …” is how he described his interior.

“This was an architect who was certainly crazy and probably a genius,” theater historian Murray Horwitz once told the Washington Post. Architectural historian Robert P. Winthrop agreed: “The Hispanic, the Hollywood, and, one fears, a touch of insanity are combined here into a superb synthesis,” he was quoted as describing the theater in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1981.

Loew's opened with “West Point,” a silent film accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra. It starred William Haines — “Richmond's Own and Only Movie Star,” as ads proclaimed — and Joan Crawford. Haines didn't attend opening night but his parents did.

While Loew's attracted bedazzled audiences, Thalhimers continued to grow. In the 1940s it acquired the former YMCA property on Grace Street near Seventh when the YMCA moved to West Franklin. But there were problems in how to excavate the site to expand the department store.

“When we acquired the YMCA property no local contractor would take the [excavation] job because for fear of the lack of stability of Loew's,” says Charles Thalhimer, former vice chairman of the department store. “My father had to go out of town to find a company to put in the underpinnings. We did it in bites, placing supports every six or eight feet. This took a little time.”

 

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Thalhimers during the holiday season in 1983. Photo courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center

Initially, Thalhimers built a basement and sub-basement for machinery and heating systems. The street level was a parking lot until after World War II.

“Then we engaged the firm of Kahn and Jacobs,” Thalhimer says. “At the time they were considered pretty outstanding.” In New York City the firm had designed a New York Stock Exchange expansion and the Seagrams Building with Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Thalhimers' architects, Ely Jacques Kahn and Robert Allan Jacobs, who had apprenticed with the brilliant modernist LeCorbusier in Paris, were adherents to modernism.

If the Loews was showy Baroque in style, by 1955 the neighboring Thalhimers Grace Street front was understated and chic — its stone veneer was laid in an elegantly simple grid.

“If you squint you can see the faAade of the Museum of Modern Art in the Thalhimers building,” says Fred Cox, a Richmond architect with Marcellus Wright Cox, referring to MoMA's 1939 faAade by Edward Durrell Stone and Philip Goodwin. When built, MoMA was considered New York City's most advanced architectural example of European modernism.

Also in the mid-1950s, Thalhimers updated its aging Broad Street faAade with modernistic gray aluminum panels.

But times were changing. As architectural updates were made downtown, suburbs were growing rapidly. Retailers and cinema developers followed their customers.

Loew's theater closed in 1979, and later that year Walter Fisher, a Thalhimers executive and Richmond Symphony board member, spearheaded the orchestra's drive to purchase and convert the old movie palace into a performance hall.

 In 1984 the city built 6th Street Marketplace, a downtown mall, to stem downtown hemorrhaging and bolster its department stores. Although consultants said funding wasn't realistic, the visionaries couldn't be counted out. With determined guidance from civic leaders Helmut Wakeham and Nina Abady (who had fundraised at Virginia Union University and Virginia State University), the Virginia Center for the Performing Arts, later the Carpenter Center, opened in May 1983 after the meticulous theater restoration. Soprano Leontyne Price performed with the Richmond Symphony.

In 1992 Thalhimers closed permanently and the property was deeded to the Carpenter Center. By this time an expansion of the downtown convention center was under way and there was general agreement that a nearby enhanced performance center was essential to attract bookings. The Carpenter Center, now the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, began making plans and raising money to expand onto the former Thalhimers property toward Broad and Seventh streets. After serious machinations, taxpayer expense and private fundraising challenges, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder stepped in, and by mid-2006 the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation and a Wilder-appointed performing arts committee agreed that the Grace Street side of the Thalhimer complex could be melded with the theater.

Hence, next month Richmond will welcome the reborn Carpenter Theatre and the birth of the Gottwald Playhouse, the Showcase Gallery and Rhythm Hall.

After the theater fire of 1811, stage performances were banned for a decade in Richmond. Dr. McClurg, who helped build Monumental Church as a memorial, may have believed such shows would never return. He'll be rolling over in his grave with three theaters operating on the spot near Grace and Sixth where his house once stood. S

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