The monument's a mess and the courtyard is too closed off.
That, in a nutshell, is what the city's Commission of Architectural Review told the First Freedom Center and its partner, real estate developer Apple REIT Cos., about the revised plans for the Marriott hotel they want to build at 14th and Cary streets.
The nonprofit First Freedom Center has pitched several plans over the decades for commemorating the site where, in 1786, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that was written by Thomas Jefferson. These plans have included a religious freedom center with a laser-shooting pyramid and a towering monument to be designed by Michael Graves and placed on a James River island.
Now the center's pushing a decidedly more pedestrian project: a U-shaped, six-story double Marriott that also would contain meeting and exhibit space for the First Freedom Center.
The review commission approved the proposal Jan. 25, as long as the developer changed some decorative details. But when the developers brought back their revised designs for a special hearing Friday, commission members still weren't happy.
They had many questions about the proposed semipublic central courtyard, which would be built over top of the northern end of Virginia Street. What kind of paving material would be used? When would its gates be closed? “I think the more open, the better,” the commission's chairwoman, Mimi Sadler, said.
The lone speaker from the public was James McCarthy, representing the Shockoe Partnership. McCarthy voiced concerns about the hotel's relationship to its surroundings, specifically the “unremarkable” fencing around the courtyard and the width of the sidewalks.
No one on the commission seemed to like the design of the religious freedom monument, sketched as a tall spire, reflecting pool and etched glass wall on the corner of Cary and 14th.
It's meant to be an axis mundi, explained Justin Knight of Apple REIT, a universal symbol representing the connection between heaven and earth.
Sadler called it “a series of not very connected objects.” Commission member Bryan Clark Green said the various elements looked “like a lot of tinsel.”
“I'm afraid that what we've got is art designed by committee, and we're just making it worse,” commission member John W. Pearsall III said. Other members concurred, voting to approve some of the design changes but not the courtyard plans, the windows or the monument materials.
“We look forward to seeing the next iteration,” Sadler told Knight after two hours of discussion.
City Council must grant the hotel project a special-use permit before it can be built.