Save the West Hospital 

Why VCU should renovate one of Richmond's best buildings.

This symphony in brick is a masterwork. Not only is the Depression-era behemoth one of Richmond's defining buildings — right up there with the Capitol, Monumental Church, the Egyptian Building and the Landmark Theater — it would stand out in any sophisticated American city. Even New York, Chicago or Boston.

Last week, front-page headlines in the Times-Dispatch announced that VCU wants to demolish the hospital and two adjoining buildings. The university's board discusses the wrecking ball August 12. Nothing specific is proposed for the site.

Inexplicably, the Virginia Department for Historic Resources (charged with safeguarding our built heritage) has failed to designate the Baskervill & Son-designed building a landmark.

The historic resources folks need to wake up. Then VCU's board must vote an emphatic no to the building's removal. If it will cost a few extra million dollars to restore this building, so be it. Institutions can always find money for what they want to do— and VCU should want to save this building.

The university would not be so bold or stupid as to tell its surgeons how to operate. Can we assume it has consulted its own distinguished professors of urban studies, design or history on this matter? That talent bank would surely anoint the building, not just a keeper but one of the few major buildings (at the relatively young and tradition-starved university) that is both brilliant architecturally and rich in institutional memories.

What makes West Hospital so compelling and distinguished? It is the crowning moment of a complex of buildings (including the A. D. Williams building on Marshall Street and the School of Nursing on Broad Street) that create an urban village. They act as a retaining wall as Broad Street plunges dramatically downward to Shockoe Slip.

West Hospital itself delivers big time on every possible measure of what an urban place should be. Perfectly detailed, it is polite and visually rewarding from the sidewalk level and packs tremendous wallop when seen from afar.

The building is cross-shaped with wings of equal lengths radiating from a central core. This shape creates open spaces at the corners that would not be desirable on a city grid except that this building possesses such heft, this feature lightens the load. These four wings serve as welcoming arms. The building isn't off-putting, it is embracing.

The building's floorplan is complemented by its massing. Building setbacks at the 12th, 14th and 15th floors suggest a Mayan ziggurat (historically appropriate, since Central American archeological excavations in the 1920s and '30s inspired much Art Deco architecture).

The rough, red brick exterior creates a rich overall surface, and bold but carefully placed decorative touches delight the eye. At the street level the major doorways are marked by sandstone surrounds. Signage, lettering and spectacular grills are part of the original design. Like the Model Tobacco building (a contemporary structure on Jefferson Davis Highway), West Hospital blends graphics and architecture seamlessly.

There is tremendous equity in architecture, and this proud building, like a mountain cliff, possesses deep reserves. With VCU contemplating an expanded campus in Monroe Ward (that it touts as healing that frayed neighborhood) why would it remove the signature building on its medical campus?

Every university's mission is to preserve culture and knowledge, and build upon the best of what has gone before, in whatever the field. West Hospital is among the best Richmond has created in its 216-year history of major construction projects.

While VCU gets kudos for saving some of its inherited, historic fabric, we need not list the limp buildings that VCU has built recently or its questionable chutzpah in closing streets in historic neighborhoods. Let us hope the university will show some enlightened moxie and chart an innovative standard for finding a new use for this building.

As one frustrated observer said last week, "Is VCU/MCV to become the architectural equivalent of the here-today, gone-tomorrow Web site?" S



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