February 26, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Dreaming in Ruins 

You may not know him, but Walter Parks’ architectural touch is everywhere in Richmond.

click to enlarge Architect Walter Parks is pictured at 111 Hull St., the site of a former paper mill, where South Falls, a 14-story, 255-unit apartment tower, will be built by developers WVS Co. and Fountainhead Properties.

Scott Elmquist

Architect Walter Parks is pictured at 111 Hull St., the site of a former paper mill, where South Falls, a 14-story, 255-unit apartment tower, will be built by developers WVS Co. and Fountainhead Properties.

In Hopewell a few weeks ago, I settled in for dinner with friends and family at the Boathouse at City Point, an architecturally distinctive new restaurant overlooking the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers.

While absorbing the fusion of aromas, savvy contemporary design and waterfront setting, I looked up to see Walter Parks and his wife, Sandi Wilson-Parks, both Richmond architects, and their two grown sons and a family friend, enter the lofty dining room.

Unaware that his firm, Walter Parks Architects, had designed the elegant space, I gesticulated while exclaiming, "This is wonderful," as they passed by.

"Thank you," Parks nodded in his characteristically friendly, but unassuming manner.

Unlike the scores of mostly medium-rise Richmond apartment complexes his firm has designed in recent years, this restaurant has considerably more zip and zing. While not like seeing Frank Lloyd Wright in his Midway Gardens dining court in Chicago, or Philip Johnson holding forth at the Four Seasons in Manhattan, seeing Parks enjoying a space of his own design still was pretty cool.

The Walter Parks architecture firm currently may be the most prolific in Richmond. It's a safe bet that at least one structure from its drawing boards is underway in every other neighborhood. So, in addition to eateries, breweries, music, murals and tattoos, add Parks-designed apartments to the mix of what defines RVA now.

click to enlarge The Square, a mixed-use building in the 900 block of West Grace Street on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, has 150 apartments. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Square, a mixed-use building in the 900 block of West Grace Street on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, has 150 apartments.

Consider the half-block construction site at West Grace and Lombardy, near Stuart Circle, where two sprawling parking levels will be topped by 106 apartments, one- and two-bedroom units. The Penny at Jackson Ward is a seven-story, 166-apartment behemoth at 2 W. Marshall St. In the Financial District, the Locks Tower nestles housing onto a site beside the twin high rises of the Riverfront Plaza.

At the foot of Church Hill, near Tobacco Row, another large apartment complex is underway at East Main and 25th streets. Ground should soon be broken in Manchester for South Falls, an upscale residential tower near the flood wall, just west of Hull Street and the Mayo Bridge. Farther south, along a once moribund stretch of U.S. Route One, the Port City project, in former tobacco plants, and the iconic Model Tobacco building complex, will contain 600 living units. And in Scott's Addition at 3022 W. Broad St., plans are on the boards for the Summit, a 176-unit apartment complex.

The prolific, modest-sized 19-employee Parks firm currently has some 20 projects underway. These will add to the thousands of living units the firm has designed during its 25 years. While 200 of these complexes were historic tax credit projects, as demand for housing continues, so does the physical and visual impact of this firm, which is shifting to ground-up design.

Many local developers have embraced Walter Parks Architects: "Walter has the ability, better than anybody else, to understand both the special limitations of historic buildings— that each floor and each apartment is going to be different— and the requirements of the rules pertaining to historic conversions," says Rick Gregory of Lynx Ventures, a Virginia developer. He has worked with the firm for 15 years on a dozen of projects beginning with the Plant Zero mixed-use complex on Hull Street in Manchester. "No one else can sit down and do the rubric like his firm."

click to enlarge Gate 5 is an apartment building overlooking the James River and Kanawha Canal at South 12th Street. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gate 5 is an apartment building overlooking the James River and Kanawha Canal at South 12th Street.

"Walter has tremendous people skills that one needs to connect the developer with the city buildings permits people, and the general contractor, to keep everyone synchronized," says developer Gregory. "This is really important."

Some observers complain that despite the Parks firm's ubiquity hereabouts, its buildings aren't stronger architecturally. But author Justin Fox, in the Feb. 18 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, suggests that similar residential structures are being built nationwide: "These buildings are in almost every U.S. city. They range from three to seven stories tall and can stretch for blocks. They're usually full of rental apartments. … Close to city centers, they tend toward blocky, often colorful modernism. … Their outer walls are covered with fiber cement, metal, stucco or bricks."

Walter Parks, himself, is comfortable with his firm's approach.

"I'll stick to the trenches: We do what I call the fabric. That's what makes the city, not the cathedrals and the capitols. We fill in the missing teeth [such as vacant lots, surface parking lots] to make the streets more vibrant."

Full disclosure; While I write, I'm seated in an office suite designed by Walter Parks — in a converted Manchester warehouse near the Plant Zero complex. Above me is a wooden ceiling and weathered beams worthy of "Moby Dick." The walls are painted in bold hues straight off of a Prada or Kate Spade color chart.

A few weeks after our encounter at the Boathouse in Hopewell, Walter Parks and I are having dinner in another restaurant with high ceilings and huge glass windows, Bistro 27 on West Broad Street across from the Maggie Walker statue. His firm's offices are a block away on Adams Street in Jackson Ward.

I ask him about the origins of a map I'd seen earlier at that hangs in his office on a back hall wall near the employee break room. It features the familiar Richmond grid and empty lots, with colored squares indicating where his firm had restored, or designed in-fill buildings.

click to enlarge Among recent historic rehabilitation projects designed by Walter Parks Architects was the conversion of a former 1954 doctors’ office to headquarters for Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market at 3540 Floyd Ave. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Among recent historic rehabilitation projects designed by Walter Parks Architects was the conversion of a former 1954 doctors’ office to headquarters for Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market at 3540 Floyd Ave.

"When my sons were younger, I enjoyed driving around and showing them what we'd designed. One of them suggested that we map out where our work is located."

In addition to new apartment buildings, his firm has restored older buildings. These include the Ellwood Thompson office building on Thompson Street, in a former doctors' office. More expansive is the Haxall Point complex in the Financial District. Nearby is the American Bank Building at East Main and Ninth streets, now an apartment building with retail on the first floor.

If Parks has pushed his firm associates to imbue the old with a sense of the new, it could be that such architectural melding is preternatural. Although born in California, while a young boy he was reared in two ancient places, Greece and Turkey while his father served in the Army with NATO assignments.

"All my dreams have always taken place in ruins," Parks says. "They still do."

When Walter was 5 years old, his family lived in Izmir, Turkey, a populous and large port city known in ancient times as Smyrna. He and his three older sisters lived with their parents in a fourth-floor, in-town apartment that opened onto teeming streets. They later moved to Athens where he vividly remembers living in a thoroughly modern house that overlooked the Aegean Sea. It had a suspended staircase and sleek black marble surfaces.

click to enlarge The Penny in Jackson Ward, a 166-unit apartment building is rising at 2 W. Marshall St. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Penny in Jackson Ward, a 166-unit apartment building is rising at 2 W. Marshall St.

The peripatetic Parks family moved often— to Newburgh, New York, El Paso, Texas, and Gaithersburg, Maryland. Parks graduated from Hayfield High secondary school in Alexandria near Fort Belvoir.

"I always thought of myself as going to West Point, the military would be the answer," he says. "But after a stint in a Junior ROTC I quickly realized the military wasn't for me."

He'd been drawn to Legos, adept at building models, and making settings for electric trains. And while in high school he got his first taste of the possibilities in architecture from a mechanical drawing class and a stint working for Cooper-Lecky, a top-drawer Washington architecture firm, a job he found by doggedly pounding the pavement. At the time, the firm was creating the working drawings for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a controversial design by Maya Lin, an architecture student.

Says Parks: "I did a graphic related to the memorial, I was super proud of that. It's been downhill ever since."

Still not especially sure of his plans or himself, and a little rebellious, Parks entered the architecture program at Virginia Tech, considered then and now, among the nation's highest-ranked programs. "I figured out how to sneak up the steps and go out atop Burruss Hall tower to watch the sun rise," he says, referring to the collegiate gothic administration building faced in Hokie stone, a campus landmark that faces the university drill field.

Parks says that although he didn't know anybody at first, that wasn't a problem since he'd always been the new kid. He credits one of his architecture professors, Eugene Egger, for clicking him onto architecture.

click to enlarge For the offices of Dovetail Construction Co. on Brook Road, new energy-efficient office spaces were set within a historic trolley-car barn. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • For the offices of Dovetail Construction Co. on Brook Road, new energy-efficient office spaces were set within a historic trolley-car barn.

"He would sit down and seem interested in what I was working on. He tried to take me to another level." Today, one of Parks' favorite possessions is a book of architectural sketches by Egger.

It was also while at Virginia Tech that Parks met his wife Sandi Wilson, an architecture student from Virginia Beach. They were married during the Christmas holiday in their final year in school.

Upon moving to Richmond, he worked for two established Richmond architecture firms, Warren Hardwicke and Ernie Rose, respectively.

But with a touch of rebellion, "I view myself as an underdog," he started his own firm.

Sandi Wilson-Parks, also a practicing architect, does not work with her husband.

"We seldom talk architecture," he says. "I try and not bring it home."

To unwind, he retreats to the garage at their traditionally-styled home in the near West End and picks up any one of his many vintage guitars. When his sons are around, Wilson, 27, who works at Cap Tech, may join him on the guitar, while Max, 25, who works for NASA, plays the drums.

When asked to name his favorite architect, Parks doesn't hesitate: Louis Kahn.

The Estonian-born immigrant, who worked for much of his career in Philadelphia, was a master in use of concrete. "His Salk Institute in California is amazing," Parks says.

A favorite work of architecture is the Brion Family Cemetery, a meshing of powerful concrete forms, landscape and water features designed by Carlo Scarpa in Asolo, Italy, in the foothills north of Venice.

And though very much a modernist, remember that Parks dreams in ruins.

click to enlarge Terrace 202 is a colorful, 57-unit apartment building in Shockoe Bottom. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Terrace 202 is a colorful, 57-unit apartment building in Shockoe Bottom.

"My favorite building in Richmond is the old Vepco (Virginia Electric and Power Co.) plant on the Haxall Canal at the foot of 12th Street on Brown's Island. It is a ruinous, but stable building with classical proportions and very much a lasting monument to architecture and engineering of the early 20th century industrial age."

As his firm continues to adapt old buildings, be they weathered tobacco warehouses in South Richmond or smooth, red brick former office structures in Scott's Addition, it is the space and connectedness of elements that he finds interesting

"An architect has to understand the spaces in a building," he explains. "You have to stumble through it. It's then that you find interesting things. It's when I'm in the rough spaces that I try to imagine the finished product."

"The apartments that we will create in themselves can all be pretty similar. But it's how you get to them that is interesting: the exterior approaches, the lobbies, the passages and hallways. The sequence of events is important. If you're not pleased to be in the building before you get to the apartment, we've not done a good job."

The sequence of spaces and the possibilities of building up to drama can be understood when approaching the firm's transformation of the Model Tobacco and Port City complexes, currently underway in South Richmond. First comes the realization that you are amid a major slice of American road culture, U. S. Route One, a highway from Maine to Key West, Florida. More local are a plethora of weathered tire stores, auto repair shops and casual eateries. Then, there is the powerful architecture of the decades-old landmarks themselves, whether they have overlapping aluminum shed exteriors or soaring smoke stacks. Leaving your car and approaching the renovated structures on foot, you become increasingly aware of old rail lines, huge windows and hulking reminders of related shipping storage or power facilities.

click to enlarge The new mixed-use Eggleston Plaza, in Jackson Ward at North Second and East Leigh streets, reflects the Italianate scale and features of nearby historic buildings. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The new mixed-use Eggleston Plaza, in Jackson Ward at North Second and East Leigh streets, reflects the Italianate scale and features of nearby historic buildings.

"Now there's a lot of new construction since so much of the historic fabric has been developed," Gregory says. "[Parks] understands that we need to build buildings that are financially feasible and not a pretty building on a piece of paper. His goal is to design a building that actually gets built."

Among the staff and 10 architects at Walter Parks that ensure that things get built is Sarah McInerney, a 15-year veteran of the firm who has worked on the American Tobacco Co. Building, the GRTC Bus Barns conversion on Robinson Street, the Stove Lofts apartments on West Leigh Street and the current conversion projects on Route 1.

"Of the architects on staff here, six or seven have been here for at least 10 years," she says. Despite the workload — there are also projects in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Newport News and Norfolk — McInerney says people generally keep a nine-to-five work day and go home on time. "Walter understands the importance of family," she says.

click to enlarge Walter Parks attends the Jan. 11 opening ceremonies for the first phase of Port City on U.S. 1. The project is redeveloping 11 acres of former tobacco factories into 135 housing units. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Walter Parks attends the Jan. 11 opening ceremonies for the first phase of Port City on U.S. 1. The project is redeveloping 11 acres of former tobacco factories into 135 housing units.

"They do all the work," Parks says. "The firm's got my name on the shingle, but I am not Beyonce."

And what kind of project has eluded his firm?

"I'd like to see a high-rise condominium downtown," Parks says, citing such complexes as the Berkshire, Franklin Tower and Lexington Tower on West Franklin Street that were built during the late 1960s, and the Prestwould, built decades before that.

"What happened to buildings like that?"

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