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Eclectic Awakening 

After a decade of modernist architecture, this year’s new buildings embrace historic styles.

In October, 10 blocks down East Main in Shockoe Bottom, the eagerly awaited Main Street Station redo should be completed. The terminal’s iconic clock tower may be Richmond’s most visible landmark with thousands of vehicles passing it daily on I-95. It is our very own “Big Ben.”

Across town, at the University of Richmond, the new Weinstein Hall, by SMBW Architects, is welcoming students and faculty this fall. This social sciences academic building advances the verdant campus’ cloisters-inspired master plan while delivering the university’s most fully realized Neo-Gothic expression since the first buildings were constructed in 1914.

So this season, after a decade in which modernism prevailed locally — witness The Library of Virginia, the convention center and the planned Virginia Museum of Fine Arts expansion — unabashed, academic historicism is back. Buildings whose flamboyant styles were considered by many to be frumpy are being revitalized at eyebrow-raising costs. But the aesthetic payback should be tremendous.

Second Presbyterian’s large and growing downtown congregation is making a major architectural and preservation statement with its restoration. Other designs nationwide by the church’s original architect, Minard LeFever (a noted 19th-century New York tastemaker), were studied and visited to recapture the designer’s intent.

Ninety percent of Second Presbyterian’s exterior stone was replaced with a dense and nonporous russet brownstone quarried in Kirkheim, Germany. It was shipped to India for cutting.

While always respectful of its Gothic Revival landmark, Second had not always known what to make of its Victorian bearings: Original lighting fixtures have disappeared during the years. And old-timers remember arriving one Sunday in the 1950s to find the spectacular, dark, wood-stained reredos (which looms behind the pulpit), painted light tan (the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s widely saw filigree abandoned for modernistic simplicity).

What congregants won’t see are critical, structural improvements that include the installation of state-of-the-art stainless-steel supports: The weathered roof was close to collapsing.

“We’ve rejuvenated the building for the next 400 years,” architect Harnsberger says, “and we’ve recovered its ornamental character.”

Ornament is also back at the Main Street Station where constructors and painters are working at a fast pace.

For too long, with Main Street Station shuttered, the Bottom’s piece de resistence has loomed like a beached whale over the neighborhood. Soon, each stopping train will add vitality into this rapidly evolving district. And travelers will have a downtown alternative to the Staples Mill Road depot, which has all the charm of a Third-World health clinic.

The 1901 station was designed by Wilson, Harris and Richards, a Philadelphia firm when, like U.S. airports today, train stations were urban gateways. The building is Renaissance Revival in style with a wedding-cakelike layering of classical elements. The station’s steeply pitched roof adjoins the nine-story tower to create a memorable urban silhouette from all vantage points.

Unlike both Second Presbyterian and the station, the picturesque tower of Weinstein Hall at UR doesn’t pierce the skyline: SMBW Architects have been respectful of the campus’s Boatwright Tower and the newer Jepson Hall. But the quality of the new building’s design, materials and construction gives the structure high stature on an architecturally memorable campus. Next to this new $12 million social-sciences complex, many other recent buildings on campus look comparatively thin. The building is trimmed in granite and Indiana limestone, and the complexity of the ornamentation is impressive. Even the most discriminating observer might not know that Weinstein is spanking new.

“Ex Linis, textus,” (“From threads come fabric”) is inscribed in an exuberant, carved scroll over a main door. UR not only is continuing its rich architectural tapestry, but also pumping things up a notch.

In a city that gives lip service to the classicism of Thomas Jefferson, but too often settles for the mediocre architecturally, it is fascinating and gratifying that picturesque and eclectic buildings are being studiously generated and renovated for future generations to use and enjoy. S

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