With each news report of snarled, rush-hour traffic and the mere mention of "sprawl," something deep inside us cringes. Yes, it's a mess out there all right, but what can we do about it? That anything in our giddily mobile culture is moving away from the automobile isn't just unlikely, it borders on incredible. The unlikely, however, has occurred near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus at 1301 W. Broad St. (at Ryland Street). Here, the former Capital Garage, for many years a 24-hour-a-day towing service and repair shop, has been converted into 36 apartments. The rents, which range from $880 to $1,050 per month, spell luxury even if the new, down-to-earth name of the complex doesn't: With a nod to historical continuity and reverse chic, the Capital Garage Apartments are now available for lease. How wacky is this? Living downtown in a former cigarette factory, furniture store or church publishing house is one thing, but in a garage? Come on. Where has this ever been attempted? But the project works well on a number of levels. First, the building is rock-solid structurally. How cool are poured concrete floors in a paper-thin age of veneer? Not much chance of hearing the neighbors stomping about overhead. Secondly, the developer, Artcraft Management, Inc., architects Edward H. Winks and James Snowa (all of Richmond), and the Norfolk-based engineering firm of Abiouness, Cross & Bradshaw didn't get cute. They recognized the honest Arts and Crafts aspects of the landmark's exterior and simply pointed-up and power-washed the existing stucco and brick fa‡ade. The changes they did make enclosing the former, street-level garage entrances with glass, and on the upper floors introducing new fenestration were accomplished so sensitively, one might think nothing's been changed. While the apartments' interior finishes are decidedly basic, the combined living room and kitchen spaces recall the residential set of television's popular "Friends." In all cases, the large window openings allow generous daylight and, in some cases, dramatic views of the surrounding cityscape. Some units have two, others, three bedrooms. In some units the bedrooms have no exterior windows, so clerestory windows funnel light to the bedrooms from the amply lit living room/kitchens. Bathroom countertops and fixtures are functional, the concrete ceilings left exposed in all rooms and the brick walls, raw. No attempt has been made to hide the commercial and industrial legacy of this grand old building. A generation reared to be high-tech should delight in living in spaces so high-touch. En route to this point in its long history, the Capital Garage building has undergone numerous incarnations. It was designed for the Forbes Motor Car Company in 1921 by the Richmond architecture firm of Hallett and Pratt, best known for its apartment buildings. The building was built on a parcel of the former University of Richmond campus: In 1914, the school had moved its campus to the West End. In the '20s, as automobiles were evolving from weekend plaything to commuting necessity, Broad Street became a Mecca for dealerships. Forbes distributed such now-obscure makes as Westcott, McFarlen Twin Valve Six and Clydesdale Trucks. When Forbes moved to another building on Broad Street a year later and began distributing Pierce Arrows, Kirkmyer Motor Compnay, which sold Fords, moved into the building. If the lower floors provided space for showrooms and service functions, the roof was used for test-driving automobiles. After being occupied for many years by an automotive supply company, the building was used by Capital Service Garage from 1964 until recently. The corner structure is blocky, but not unlovely. The Broad Street fa‡ade is essentially a five-story, enclosed arcade where four bays rise to form four, large, rounded arches near the building's roofline. On the structure's Ryland Street side, there are five bays, two of which conclude in round arches. Also along Ryland, the building works in concert visually with the eastern fa‡ade of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, one of the city's most elegant, but unheralded, renderings of neo-Gothic architecture. Together, the buildings form a handsome urban wall. But it is within the Capital Garage portion of this urban wall that one of our city's bravura Arts and Crafts performances is carried out. Arts and Crafts was a design movement that began in England in the late 19th century and continued in this country until the Depression. A reaction to the machine age, devotees of the movement sought to reform architecture and design by using traditional building crafts and "honest," local materials. And reacting to the excesses of classicism, the movement sought informality, modesty, structural integrity and a unity in design. At the Capital Garage, Arts and Crafts elements are evident at the building's roofline corners. Here hood moulds, overhangs supported by heavy brackets, define the structure. A central, rounded pediment is set between these on the Broad Street side. The polishing and reworking of this building is all the more important since it is prominent among a number of nearby buildings from which VCU drew inspiration for its emerging new Broad Street campus. It's as if design elements from the Capital Garage, the old Arena building a few doors west (which is also being converted to apartments) and a few others were poured into a Cuisinart, thoroughly blended and voil…, VCU's Seigel Center, new sports-medicine building and new dormitory complex emerged. All this would have been an empty gesture stylistically, if this strategic building hadn't been revived. As downtown repopulates itself with each building's renovation, it's an occasion to look at old and almost forgotten buildings anew. And what we discover is endless delight. If this kind of thing keeps up like converting garages into living spaces, for crying out loud there's little we can't do here to begin looking not just urban, but urbane
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