The dramatic interiors of Siné and La Différence lead the way toward a sophisticated renewal on Richmond's canal front. 

Surprise Inside

Perhaps you've heard the ads. A male voice with a fetching British accent invites you to visit La Différence— "on the canal." Hearing "on the canal" as the locale of the contemporary furnishings and furniture emporium, I thought hey, not bad — a new address and destination. It certainly sounded cosmopolitan — and timely.

The new downtown canal system opened this past spring to positive reviews from locals and out-of-towners alike. But the inevitable reaction of most canal-goers is that there needs to be more commercial activity along this well-conceived and handsomely executed attraction.

Two of the first anchors to weigh in with substantial investments are La Différence, at 125 S. 14th Street across from the turning basin, and the Siné Irish Pub and Restaurant at 1325 E. Cary, one block north. If what these companies bring to the waterside is any indication, future retail and entertainment activity in the vicinity will have to meet high design standards indeed. Ambitious in scale and exhibiting no small amount of excellence in concept and detail, these places have a "big time" feel about them that bodes well for downtown's future as we approach a new decade.

From an interiors and environmental standpoint, both operations are playing on something that Europeans (especially Italians) have known for centuries, but we Americans are still discovering: Aging but solid, architecturally unremarkable, background urban buildings — in this case warehouses — can be transformed gracefully from their original uses to new lives in the hands of sensitive and clever designers. The exteriors may be all but disguised along neighboring brick buildings with similar building heights and consistent sidewalk setbacks, but step inside and SHAZAM! One enters another world.

Siné occupies a 2,200-square-foot, first-floor space, in a late-19th-century, three-part classical building complete with a pedimented center bay and cast-iron storefront. If the exterior is post-bellum Richmond, what's inside is decidedly Irish. The owners of the establishment obviously have a love affair with the land of the shamrock. They have made this space not just an eatery, but a display of contemporary Irish craftsmanship. Siné was designed and constructed by O'Neill Bros. Ltd., of L'Berry, Ireland.

There are oversized mantels stained in rich mahogany. Willowy tracery in a high Gothic style serves as a backdrop to the central bar. Hand-blown glass lighting fixtures and nicely crafted metalwork at first glance have little in common. But the textures and finishes are unified by expanses of wooden floors and upholstery in lively, but restrained, knotty-textured and substantially constructed banquettes, chairs and stools.

Overall, there's a Through the Looking Glass quality to Siné — seemingly no right angles. And the numerous, well-defined dining areas create an illusion that you've never quite seen the whole place. The space is large, but intimate at the same time.

The restaurant can seat 350 indoors plus 75 on the wooden deck and terrace that has recently been constructed to overlook Canal Street and the turning basin beyond.

The space is quirkily '90s, but the massive furniture and good design should last. The place is so assured, the only things that are jarring are knickknacks — books, bottles and other props that fill nooks and crannies as well as the display windows facing Cary. The space is so inviting, handsome and assured as a bold design statement, it doesn't need window dressing.

If Siné is strictly earth tones, La Différence is all that and then some. The three-story building is light and decidedly lively. The management team worked closely with its architect, Neil Rankin of Richmond, in tackling the 45,000-square-foot, former Watkins—Cottrell Co. Building (a hardware warehouse) at 14th and Dock. The building was designed by the local blue-chip architecture firm of Carneal and Johnston in 1911. On the ground level, bricks are laid in a rusticated manner. On the second and third floors a heroic colonnade of engaged columns faces 14th Street.

Inside, where there are 15,000 square running feet for retail on each of three floors, the walls and much of the exposed wooden ceilings are painted off-white ("Snow Ballet" to be exact). The woodwork is now a slightly warmer shade of cream ("Tequila" for the record). With windows on the southern and western exposures, the place is gloriously naturally lit. After dark, seemingly acres of track lighting illuminate the space.

The flooring is different on each floor. On the street level, where seating and housewares are sold, the wooden flooring was replaced with smooth concrete. On the second floor (bedroom, dining and hardware) gray, wall-to-wall carpet offers comfort and unity. On the third floor (the office systems department), old maple floors have been restored and refinished. These sparkle, especially in contrast to the rough-grained ceiling that reflects the building's industrial past.

The only tampering with the industrial look has been the introduction of a slightly nautical theme in strategic spots. On the first floor a number of display spaces have been punched into a slightly curving wall. And an open staircase which zigzags from the first to top floor, with metal railings and wooden risers, recalls 1930s cruise ships.

The new vestibule and main sales desk are detailed in maple.

As I left La Différence, I was struck that a sophisticated new urban street life and shopping patterns are emerging downtown near the canal. These spaces combine the urban grittiness of London's Camden Locks, the industrial architectural sophistication of New York's SoHo, and thanks to Siné and La Différence, the interior chic of say, Milan.

Hopefully, additional pleasures will be forthcoming as Richmond's stalwart buildings from the industrial era find new life in the information

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