February 27, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


Bold Transformation 

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It's that juncture between afternoon and evening classes at Virginia Commonwealth University. Kevin Yarborough, an accounting major, hunkers down in the soaring atrium of Snead Hall, the impressive new home of the School of Business. Cocooned in a chocolate-hued leather club chair -- calculator in hand, textbook in lap and feet propped up — the senior crams for a financial reporting test.

The cushy chairs on the terrazzo-paved expanse are filled with students similarly absorbed. Visible three stories above — beyond an Escher-like phalanx of staircases and under a broad glass skylight — senior economics major Brian Guthrie scurries past fellow students en route to his ecometrics class.

Granted, the campus vignette is unremarkable, replicated any day on hundreds of campuses. What is remarkable is that the scene's occurring on a site just east of Belvidere Street near Monroe Park. For virtually all of Richmond's storied past, the blocks bounded by Belvidere, Main, Cary and Jefferson streets have comprised a scrappy and forgettable stretch of no man's land.

No more. Last month, VCU hatched three major new buildings here: Snead Hall and its Siamese twin, East Hall; the Brandcenter (housing the university's marquee graduate advertising program); and the 689-space Jefferson Street parking deck. Together they signal the ambitious, $157 million beginnings of an 11-acre, easternmost addition to VCU's Monroe Park campus. A new residential college to house 408 students has taken form adjacent to the parking deck and should open this summer.

Eugene P. Trani, the university's indefatigable president, has proclaimed this project "transformational" for VCU. It's unlikely those who have seen the development would argue. For many it's been nothing short of jaw-dropping to witness the evolution of a lowly district once known disparagingly as Penitentiary Bottom into a place of high academic aspirations and considerable architectural interest.

There were reasons enough for this Monroe Ward neighborhood's hardscrabble reputation and retarded development. For some 200 years, from 1797 until its demolition in the 1990s, the Virginia penitentiary (whose walls encircled the blocks bound by Belvidere, Byrd, Spring and Second streets) literally cast a depressing shadow over the area. Geographically this is low terrain: In 1950, Richmond architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott called Penitentiary Bottom "a veritable poor relation" and a "shabby hollow" compared with the adjacent neighborhoods on high ground that enjoyed river breezes — Oregon Hill and the once-residential and more prosperous Gamble's Hill.

After the Civil War, train tracks laid through the area further deflated life and property in Penitentiary Bottom. In the 1870s, while grand homes were built ever westward on Franklin Street, their rear yards backed up and sloped down to Main Street.

The swanky Jefferson Hotel was completed in 1895. Its axial and multi-leveled lobby may have linked Franklin and Main streets, but ladies always entered from the genteel Franklin side; Main Street was for men only. Horses and carriages that had conveyed hotel guests were kept just a block or so south of the hotel's Main Street entrance in Penitentiary Bottom at an impressive brick barn on lower Jefferson Street. A nearby railroad station served hotel guests en route between Florida and points north.

Later, some industry hit the area. Around 1910 a large bakery was built in the 200 block of West Cary Street. For a period it produced Wonder Bread.

As if Penitentiary Bottom weren't plain enough, the advent of the automobile relegated the neighborhood to being a throughway between downtown and the city's burgeoning residential West End. One-way traffic still clogs Cary and Main streets during weekday rush hours. In the 1920s Second Street became a heavily traveled major approach road to the Lee Bridge, and Belvidere was designated U.S. Highway 1 to serve tourist and truck traffic from Maine to Miami.

In the 1970s the RMA Downtown Expressway further decimated Penitentiary Bottom. It necessitated the demolition of whatever buildings were in its path and skirted the north wall of the penitentiary. But the coup de grce for the neighborhood came in 1980, with the closing and threatened demolition of the Jefferson, whose élan had faded steadily through the years. Fortunately, it was restored and reopened in 1986.

Who could have imagined VCU extending its Monroe Park campus eastward, bringing academic and architectural heft to this forlorn area?

The university's options were increasingly limited. Decades ago, Fan District residents signaled: Don't even think of crossing west of Harrison Street. The campus pushed as hard as it could against the Carver and Oregon Hill neighborhoods to the north and south respectively. But the idea of crossing Belvidere — U.S. 1 — was a stretch. If it was once conventional wisdom that VCU students would never cross West Broad Street, then crossing heavily trafficked Belvidere seemed out of the question. Attendance at the Siegel Center, enrollment at the School of the Arts and sales of grande lattes at Starbucks have dispelled that notion.

It was the opening of the new School of Engineering building at the corner of Belvidere and Main streets in 1998, facing Monroe Park, that brought academics to a side of the campus that had been mostly residential. Richmond businessman Bill Goodwin, an owner of the Jefferson, was a major benefactor of the engineering school and had obvious interest in upgrading the area. VCU already had office buildings east of Belvidere on Main Street. And best of all, few people lived in the blocks south of Main running against the Downtown Expressway.

Remarkably, in just 17 months, the university assembled 49 separate parcels of property from 28 landowners, including property given by Goodwin and two other donors. There was no need to exercise eminent domain. In November 2005, VCU broke ground for the Monroe Park Campus addition.

Among the buildings demolished were the former Wonder Bread bakery and the Daily Planet homeless center at Canal and Belvidere streets. The only major structures left standing were Richmond Fire Station No. 6 and the Central Belting Building (the former Jefferson Hotel stable), which are across the street from each other in the 100 block of South Jefferson. VCU restored the Belting Building and, in a first such move for the university, enlarged the modest-sized historic building with a highly dramatic and boldly modernistic addition to house the Brandcenter. Architectural credit goes to Baskervill of Richmond and Clive Wilkinson Architects of Los Angeles, a firm that's designed eye-catching headquarters for such jazzy clients as Google in California and Mother London, a leading ad agency in Great Britain.

The Brandcenter's interior, with its acid green floors, metallic surfaces and high-style furniture, proclaims, to steal an old advertising copy line, this is not your father's Penitentiary Bottom — or VCU, for that matter.

But what seems to be the hot topic of conversation recently is the arrival of Snead and East halls and the under-construction residential college. Their completion marks the first time VCU has so aggressively used urban design and architecture to lend immediate cachet to an academic program. Transformational, yes, but something even aspirational is happening here.

VCU's architectural success in this first phase of the Monroe Park Campus expansion might be measured first in how well the buildings follow the excellent concepts of the 2004 master plan, and second in how well the buildings are detailed. This latter point is critical, because the buildings are quite large, highly visible and stand alone amid open space in an urban landscape that has been scraped clean for the construction and buildings to follow.

The overall exterior look of the expansion was developed by the planning firms of Smith + McClane Architects and Michael Dennis & Associates (the project was an architectural marriage between Mosely Architects, the architect of record; Hillier Architecture of Princeton, which designed the School of Business interior; and Payette Associates of Boston, which planned the School of Engineering interior).

"Buildings should follow the general geometry of the streets closest to them to reinforce the existing urban fabric," proposed Smith + McClane and Michael Dennis & Associates in their 2004 master plan. This approach has a rich academic architectural tradition dating back to medieval college planning in Italy and at Oxford and Cambridge. In the United States, a cloistered campus plan has its most glorious manifestation in New Haven at Yale University. There, successive generations of donors and administrators have built residential colleges whose dimensions respect the tight city grid but whose architecture varies wildly — from classical to collegiate Gothic to colonial revival to the brutal modernism of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.

At VCU, architect Smith + McClane has established an architectural approach different from any other in recent memory with the 240,000-square-foot, conjoined business and engineering buildings. Designers were inspired by the Richardsonian Romanesque, a style established by Henry Hobson Richardson in the late 1800s. Richardson, a New Orleans-born, Harvard- and Paris-trained architect who practiced in Boston, eschewed the popular classical styles of the day and promoted a muscular, fortresslike architecture using heavy stone and brick in a colorfully contrasting palette.

The main facade on West Main Street is essentially a long, heavy urban wall. It's heavily rusticated at the bottom in a warm-hued stone. This rough-cut stone gives way to a smoother stone and finally to brick on the upper floors.

A procession of round Roman arches relieves the heaviness of the ground level and creates a pleasantly rhythmic pattern as one moves along Main. The entrance to Snead Hall from Main is marked by a grand heroic rounded arch, giving the School of Business a new architectural icon.

The stone and arches were inspired by a number of late-19th-century brick and brownstone buildings on West Franklin Street that were unabashedly masculine when built during a time of America's — and Richmond's — emerging industrial might. The most obvious architectural reference point, with its reddish stone trim and powerful arches, is the Commonwealth Club, a private men's club within sight of the VCU expansion at 401 W. Franklin St. (built in 1891 by Carrère and Hastings). But other buildings conjure the era, including the Renaissance Ballroom, built as a Masonic temple at 101 W. Broad St. (1888, Jackson Gott architect); the former Henrico County Courthouse at East Main and 22nd streets in Shockoe Bottom; and the home of Richmond's wealthiest man in the late-19th century, Lewis Ginter, now the Administration Building on VCU's Monroe Park campus.

One well-traveled Richmonder recently dubbed the building "Academic Romanesque." Smith + McClane might flinch at the concept, because there is much more than Romanesque happening here. The windows' mullions are metal, and if you look closely, there are many modernistic oranaments. Such details as the ram's-head sculptures on the mechanical cooling tower are medieval, and there are also baroque flourishes, but late-Renaissance Mannerism is very much at play: At the foot of Monroe Street, a great 180-degree cavity has been cut out of the building. This crescent not only breaks the building's mass but also creates a practical vehicular pull-in

Overall, the building has as much warmth as it does masculine mass.

If the front door to the business school is a heroic arch, the engineering wing gets its front door via an octagonal loggia at the base of a tower at the corner of Belvidere and Main streets. It balances, if not exactly reflects, the slightly more elevated pyramid of the original engineering building across Belvidere.

Smith + McClane has incorporated enough architectural themes to provide the architects of future buildings a rich vocabulary from which to choose.

In addition to the stolid architecture reflecting Richmond's belle epoque, the setback from Main Street attempts to establish that same rhythm of street, sidewalk, plantings and building seen on West Franklin Street. Because the building does not meet the sidewalk directly, however, and is set behind a strip of landscaping, this stretch along Main will require further attention. A low masonry retaining wall, bollards and chains, or a hedge should be added to more crisply define the sidewalk line. Benches and bicycle racks are also needed.

Does the new structure perfectly meet the city grid? Not exactly. At the eastern end at Main and Madison, the building could have been extended all the way to the sidewalk. This would have shielded the service entrance, which projects from the building. The service entrance on Belvidere, while not ideally sited, is not offensive.

While the Main Street facade has tremendous presence, the view from Cary Street presents a far different, less resolved impression of the mammoth complex. Here, on the sunny side of the building, the structure is overexposed and not particularly well-sited at the foot of a gradual, declining greensward.

But this structure is just the first one on the site. Long-term plans call for a long building, approximately 60 feet deep, running tight along Cary Street, which will create the intended cloister. This building will also be critical to the success of the new dormitory, the Residential College now under construction directly across Cary Street.

The new campus is very much a work in progress, and as ambitious as the completed buildings are, future buildings must take form before the project makes full architectural sense or achieves success.

If "academic Romanesque" is taking form in the blocks along Main and Cary, something much more eclectic is going on in the 100 block of South Jefferson, where four quite different buildings coexist.

Here, adjacent to the 1970s fire station, its belfry complete with an old fire bell, is the new brick 689-space Jefferson Street parking deck. The six-story massive structure is designed by Baskervill. All but dwarfed by the deck is the Brandcenter, which comprises two buildings joined at the hip: the 20,000-square-foot Central Belting Building and the 7,000-square-foot addition by Clive Wilkinson Architects and Baskervill. But the tension works because the deck creates an urban, if unlovely, anchor to the area and establishes some sense of streetscape in an otherwise barren area.

The low-slung Central Belting Building was originally built as the horse stables for the Jefferson Hotel. In a brilliant move, rather than mimic this handsome but modest building, the architect used a modernistic addition of metal panels and broad sheets of glass. An exterior stairwell, also encased in metal, at the southeastern side creates a strong sculptural design element. It leads to an upper-level terrace, furnished with metal tables and chairs, which in the few weeks since the Brandcenter opened has been getting a workout in the unseasonably warm winter.

The main floor has highly flexible meeting and lecture spaces, and the lower level has computer rooms and student lounges. The upper floor houses faculty offices; classrooms, offices and meeting spaces are in the addition.

Although the building is almost hidden behind the parking deck and is smaller than its grandiose neighbors on Main, it's an exhilarating addition to the campus and streetscape. When viewed at twilight from Canal Street, the hubbub of activity within the building reads like a lively stage set.

The exciting thing about VCU's eastward expansion is that it makes a statement that architecture is important and that many architectural approaches are welcome. Contextual design is important, as in Snead and East, but something totally different is also valid. What the university must adhere to religiously, however, is the maintenance of street grid. Structures should not intrude on city sidewalks or streets and should be built close to the property line.

There have been four phases in VCU's architectural history. In the early days, from the 1920s to the 1960s, it was to make do and build infill. Phase two (1968 to the late 1980s) was to remove historic fabric and build on a suburban, open model. The third phase (1990s until the current expansion) was to mimic the status quo commercial buildings on West Broad Street.

Now the approach heralds the decision to "be bold" and "try new things." The university has a chance to get things very right on its Monroe Park Campus expansion. The Rams are charging in the right direction. S

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