With the seemingly never-ending angst about redevelopment, you'd think the fate of our city, if not the entire Western World, depended on the outcomes: Where should we build a minor-league ballpark? How can we create a narrative worthy of Richmond's ugly history of slave trading?
So it's easy to overlook what's rising all around. After half a decade of modest building starts in the center of town, construction cranes are performing ballets across the skyline again.
Four of these projects are rising from spots that long served as asphalt surface parking lots. Another was an open field for at least a generation. So no landmarks or beloved public vistas are being lost in the name of progress.
But that' doesn't mean there's not remarkable history on these sites. Each of them holds a chapter critical to understanding the fascinating and ever-changing story of Richmond, one of the nation's oldest cities.
Marriott Residence Inn and Marriott Courtyard
Where: Cary and 14th streets in Shockoe Slip
Its past: The location of the Virginia State Capitol, 1780-1788.
Richmonders supposedly crave fixes of history. But I've always been slightly suspect. How do you explain the urgency among some to destroy the original city grid in Shockoe Bottom? Or plow up the cobblestones of the 17th Street Farmers' Market? What about compromising the historic view from Libby Hill or moving baseball off the Boulevard after almost 75 years of popcorn and Crackerjacks?
In 1986, on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a considerable effort began to recognize the near sacredness of the site where this seminal document of individual expression was made into law. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were among the Founding Fathers who met in the first Richmond Capitol that was on this land from 1780 to 1788. And while Washington never slept here, he did visit the statehouse to promote building a canal system through Richmond that would open up the western territories.
In 1788 government operations moved up Shockoe Hill to Capitol Square and in the 1850s the temporary statehouse was demolished.
With this significant history in mind, local leaders forged ahead to create a monument to religious freedom here beginning in 1986. Late power brokers such as the Rev. Nicholas Dombalis, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist Virginius Dabney, civic powerhouse Mary Tyler Freeman McClenahan and others worked tirelessly to assemble the historic site and contiguous properties — including a large surface parking lot.
Then they played host to a parade of internationally esteemed talents who made various proposals for developing the property to spotlight its history. These included Richmond native and New York architect Jacquelyn Robertson, former chairman of the University of Virginia School of Architecture; Williams and Tsien, architect of the new Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and last month awarded the National Medal of the Arts; and Robert Venturi and Michael Graves, both recipients of the Pritzker Prize, the architecture's highest international honor.
Since the old Capitol had been architecturally modest, to say the least, it didn't inspire reconstruction as an interpretive approach (the former tobacco warehouse was so plain, in fact, that during the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold swept past it despite orders to burn government buildings here). But ambitious various plans for an envisioned First Freedom Center — a combination monument, education center and museum — ranged from Jeffersonian colonnades to laser beams projected into the night sky. Airport officials had issues with the latter.
With the deaths of Dombalis, Dabney and McClenahan, however, and after a 20-year effort, the First Freedom Center they'd envisioned shifted direction. History gave way to commerce.
By the early 2000s the organization's leadership saw the highest and best use of the pivotal corner at Cary and 14th in the heart of a rejuvenated Shockoe Slip as a revenue generator. And if the lucrative revenues from the parking lot (that had long supported the work of the First Freedom Center) would be lost with construction there, why not develop the site commercially? Say, a hotel?
So on a weekend when nobody was looking, the one remaining 19th-century commercial building on the former Capitol site and a contributing structure to the Shockoe historic district, was bulldozed. Some time later, a block of a medievallike cobblestone roadway, Virginia Street, was closed to make way for two hotels. Developers promise that gestures will be made to mark the site's rich history — both inside and out.
The Richmond firm of Baskervill is architect of the $30 million, six-story, 210-room hotel complex — and First Freedom Center.
Where: Canal Street between Eighth and Ninth streets
Its past: Once the location of the turning basin of the James River and Kanawha Canal in the early to mid-19th century.
It may well be that the 16-story, crystalline high-rise that will house the McGuireWoods law firm is the first major structure to occupy this site at the foot of the Manchester Bridge and in the midst of the financial district — ever.
The block bounded by Canal, Cary, Eighth and Ninth streets once was the westernmost part of the turning basin, a kind of inner harbor that connected to the James River and Kanawha Canal. For much of the 19th century it was encircled by warehouses and mills.
After the Civil War, this water feature and much of the canal downtown was filled in. Train yards occupied the site until well into the 20th century. With the advent of the automobile, asphalt surface parking lots replaced the rails. Then, in the 1980s, the James Center office and hotel complex transformed part of the unlovely site with numbingly mundane "on the way to the airport architecture," as architect Jacquelyn Robertson once described the buildings.
The developer in the 1980s of the plaza high rise complex directly atop the former turning basin, however, did tip its hat to history with a public sculpture it had installed on a plaza near East Cary and Ninth streets. The bronze piece, one of the city's most dramatically heroic artworks, depicts a bevy of boatmen raising sails on a canal boat. For the record: There were no sails on local canal boats. They were pulled by mules that slogged along a towpath. But history be damned: The well-muscled, naked men tugging the sails are eye-catching in reflected light of the mirrored buildings nearby.
On the plus side, when this site was excavated for James Center underground parking, there were discoveries aplenty archeologically speaking — even sunken canal boats. Alas, the current developers of Gateway Plaza opted to eschew any excavations. That would have required exploratory archeological digs. So cars will be parked in above-ground decks.
However, a quaint but important physical remnant of the historic canal basin infrastructure remains adjacent to the Gateway site, the cobblestone alley running immediately north, on the rear, of the site and parallel to Cary Street. Vehicles will enter and exit the parking decks here. This historic roadbed should remain exposed both for historical reasons and to traffic-calm when cars depart the building. At 5 o'clock, the merge onto bumper-to bumper traffic along Eighth and Ninth streets should be, well, interesting.
VCU Medical Center Parking Deck and Children's Pavilion
Where: 1000 block of East Broad Street between 10th and 11th streets
Its past: Former location of Broad Street Methodist Church, built in 1858, and the Virginia Mechanics Institute, built in 1902.
The monolithic parking deck taking form in the 1000 block of East Broad Street belies the fact that two broad-shouldered, architecturally exquisite landmarks once occupied this prominent site. The Broad Street Methodist Church and the Virginia Mechanics Institute are distant memories.
Broad Street Methodist Church was constructed in 1858, just three years before the Civil War, and was one of two handsome structures built by Richmond Methodists at that time, who'd previously worshipped much more modestly near the 17th Street Farmers' Market. The force behind the striking new churches was a new pastor, the charismatic James A. Duncan. Watching his flock decline, with Shockoe Bottom becoming increasingly crowded and commercial, Duncan proposed two "larger and more attractive" churches on Broad Street which he called "the main boulevard of the city."
The Methodists built two spectacular Italianate style edifices, Trinity Church (now New Light Baptist Church at East Broad near 20th Street) and Broad Street Methodist which anchored the northeast corner of East Broad and Tenth streets. It's indicative of how densely populated pre-electric streetcar Richmond was, that two large Methodist churches could flourish just 10 blocks apart.
Richmond-born architect Albert L. West designed both sanctuaries. His crowning touches were 180-foot church steeples that ranked among the highest in the city.
It speaks to Duncan's reach, that while Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee were both Episcopalians, they were his close friends. In April 1865, with Union troops pressing upon Richmond, the pastor of Broad Street Methodist was invited to board the train that whisked Davis, his family and the Confederate cabinet out of town to Danville.
The devastating 1865 evacuation fire didn't reach Broad Street, sparing the landmark church. Duncan was later instrumental in establishing the YMCA here and architect West went on to design the facade of Centenary Methodist Church, a Gothic Revival confection architecturally in the 400 block of East Grace Street.
Broad Street Methodist's congregation continued worshiping at Broad and Tenth streets until the 1960s when the congregation closed its doors. A spirited attempt to save the landmark and re-purpose it as a downtown tourist center failed. With midcentury modernism reigning architecturally, the city apparently was in little mood for historic preservation — Old City Hall came close to demolition about the same time. The church was demolished, and for 46 years the site served as a parking lot.
Fronting Broad at the 11th Street end of the block was the Virginia Mechanics Institute. Like Broad Street Methodist, the institute was established in the 1850s. At the night schoo, young men could take classes in mechanical arts and design. During the 1880s, it gained modest support from the City of Richmond for "the promotion and encouragement of Manufactures, Mechanic and Useful Arts and the mental and social improvement of the industrial classes."
Moving from location to location downtown, the institute in 1902 constructed handsome new quarters at 11th and Broad streets. The facility was funded by a $10,000 gift from the estate of tobacco, real estate and hotel magnate Lewis Ginter. And in the spirit of philanthropy begetting philanthropy, a year after moving into its new home, institute received a $1,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie to establish a substantial library.
The beaux-arts style structure was designed by Noland and Baskervill. This local architecture firm was on a roll at the turn of the last century with projects for Congregation Beth Ahabah, St. James's Episcopal Church, the Frederic Scott House on West Franklin Street, the Jefferson Davis monument and the Richmond and Chesapeake Bay Railway terminal at Laurel and Broad streets. The latter was recently intelligently restored by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and re-christened the Depot.
With enrollment growing, in 1924 the mechanics institute moved to a new building nearby at 11th and Marshall: By 1935, amid the Great Depression, enrollment was 966. After World War II it was absorbed by the Richmond Public Schools and woven into the Richmond Technical Center. The former building housed the city's Department of Public Utilities before being demolished in the late 1960s.
The new 640,000 square foot, $168 million VCU Children's Pavilion will be an outpatient facility. Its parking deck will have 600 spaces. Retail spaces, an amenity currently sorely lacking in this part of downtown, will occupy the street level. HKS is architect.
Virginia Commonwealth University Dormitories
Where: 1000 W. Grace St.
Its past: Former site of the St. Luke's Hospital.
To trace the archeological trajectory of former Richmond retail grocers in one location, you could do worse than examine Virginia Commonwealth University's 500 Building in the 1000 block of West Grace Street. This mostly classroom facility once housed a Ukrop's and later a Community Pride. It was built as a Safeway store. But as new dormitories are taking shape on the block, adjacent parking lots have given way to concrete block elevator shafts and steel girders. When completed, the $36.4 million university housing project will offer 426 beds. Clark Nexen Architects is the designer.
But before there were grocery stores — and long before VCU and its predecessor, Richmond Professional Institute, were on the horizon — the 1000 block of Grace was a major local medical center.
In 1899, St. Luke's Hospital opened at Grace and Harrison streets. Designed by the architecture firm of Noland and Baskervill, the three-story, 95-bed hospital was an expansion and move for St. Luke's House for the Sick which had been located on Governor's Street near Capitol Square.
St. Luke's was founded in 1883 by Dr. Hunter McGuire, a Winchester native. The surgeon, one of the most esteemed figures of the Confederacy, served Stonewall Jackson's corps in the Army of Northern Virginia. In 1863, it was McGuire who amputated Jackson's arm after a bullet wound that would prove fatal and he was present in April 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
A year after he opened St. Luke's Hospital on West Grace Street, McGuire died, and his son, Dr. Stuart McGuire, took over. Despite closing its doors temporarily during World War I when the younger McGuire went to work in war-torn France, St. Luke's later expanded. A fourth floor was added in 1906, and in the 1920s four contiguous townhouses, just west of the hospital, were added to the complex.
Although there are few physical reminders, for much of the 20th century West Grace Street from Madison to Ryland was a major medical destination comprised of other hospitals, doctors offices and nurses' residences.
St. Luke's at this location closed in 1975 soon after a procession of 25 rescue squads shuttled some 70 patients to the new St. Luke's Hospital on a 32 acre campus at 7700 Parham Road. An impressive stained-glass window, which had been displayed in the old facility, depicting St. Luke (who was a doctor before finding Jesus) also made the move to the new suburban hospital. Today, in Capitol Square, a handsome statue of Hunter McGuire is near a bronze statue of his patient, Stonewall Jackson.
800 Semmes Condominiums
Where: West Ninth Street and Semmes Avenue, on the immediate south end of Manchester Bridge
Its past: Former site of modest-sized residences and a warehouse.
More than half a dozen major apartment projects are being planned, under construction or nearing completion in Manchester and Springhill, the neighborhoods immediately south of the Lee, Manchester and Mayo bridges.
But the first high-rise among them will be 800 Semmes, with 10 residential floors rising above two parking levels. The project, which eventually will be converted to condominiums, is being developed by the same team, of Mark Purcell, Robin Miller and Dan Gecker, that put together the 1200 Semmes project just four blocks up the street.
These projects, and other new out-of-the-ground construction, are proof that historic preservation tax credit programs work. With so much property in Manchester deemed historic having been renovated, major new construction projects are underway.
But while 1,500 new housing units have been built in Manchester and environs recently — with no sign of things slowing down — some things are evident. There's precious little parkland. Shopping options are extremely limited. And what about housing for those working people who aren't better-heeled students, young professionals or empty nesters who are repopulating Manchester—and other parts of downtown?
Before the current high-rise project got underway in the 800 block of Semmes, little was going on at this site. During the early 20th century a wholesale hardware company was located here, but with the construction of the Manchester Bridge and the widening of Commerce Road as a bridge approach, the block became an open field.
But the fact that there is so much open acreage to develop in Manchester is because of one man, J. Harwood Cochrane. The founder of Overnite Transportation set the stage for ground-up construction in 1975 when he built his corporate headquarters in the neighborhood. The L-shaped complex (now occupied by UPS) encompasses the entire 1000 block of Semmes. Not stopping there, with calculated private land purchases unequaled in Richmond's history, Cochrane snapped up scores of homes and demolished them, leaving broad, open fields. Residential Manchester disappeared, Carthage-like.
An official Overnite history publication says it well: "For awhile it seemed that Cochrane's desire to acquire land was almost insatiable. … One of [his] boldest ventures was the acquisition of massive acreage surrounding the Overnite building. … Piece by piece, he picked up old houses until finally he was the master of all the land he could survey from his office on the ninth floor of the Overnite headquarters building."
It is that land that is being developed after a quarter century of being vacant.
Still active at age 101, Cochrane, and his wife, continue to be major contributors to Richmond cultural institutions. And while he is no longer involved in Manchester development "Downtown Richmond, he predicted, someday would span the James River," according to the Overnite history. "Everything that Harwood touches seems to turn to gold," commented a former Overnite executive.
Apex Design Group is architect of the $27 million, 148-unit complex.
The six penthouse units should have impressive views of downtown's ever-changing skyline. S