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Flying High 

A high-rise rehab sets an example downtown.

It dawned on me: This is the Heritage Building, the Heritage Building, for crying out loud. For at least two generations this 12-story building has been sheathed and disguised behind no-nonsense gray and white aluminum panels. In the early 1960s, the 1909 building had been stripped of all vestiges of its classical appearance and re-clad to compete economically and aesthetically (well, maybe not) with new, sleek office towers such as the Ross and Fidelity buildings then being built nearby.

In a remarkable rehabilitation guided by local developers Ron Hunt and Jim Hart, and under the direction of architect Walter Parks, this early-20th-century high rise begins its next chapter. It's no longer an office building; apartments have been configured on the upper floors, while ground-level spaces are devoted to pedestrian-oriented retail activities.

This born-again landmark at 1001 E. Main St. began life as the American Building and initially housed the American National Bank. It was designed by Wyatt and Nolting, a Baltimore firm, in association with Richmond architect Charles K. Bryant. Wyatt had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, the international breeding ground for architects that preached using ancient classical motifs and forms for modern applications.

High-rise buildings around the turn of the last century proved to be perfect lab rats for such Beaux Arts-inclined designers. These architects also used the proportions and décor of the classical orders of architecture as their direct inspiration. The Heritage Building is an example. Here, a one-story plinth serves as the base of the building (it slopes to become two stories as 10th Street descends steeply). Then, nine floors of offices rose above this. This expanse reflects the shaft of the column. Finally, as with Doric, Ionic or Corinthean columns, a decorative capital and entablature added flourish near the roofline.

The architects originally created a cavetto cornice, one that swoops upward at a 90-degree arc (other rare examples of the cornice include the Egyptian Building on the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus and the Chesterfield Apartment Building at 900 W. Franklin St., near the university's Monroe Park campus).

But rather than copy one of the established Greek or Roman orders of architecture, the architects showed their modernist leanings by creating their own decorative scheme. The Roman-arched windows on the top floor are set into the cavetto cornice to create a pure Arts and Crafts form that is Venetian Revival in spirit.

Almost a century later, the fact that the developers and architect were able to rebuild this lost entablature so convincingly is unexpected and therefore spectacular. The colorful roofline of this building can take its place as one of downtown's architectural delights.

What happens at the street level, while quite acceptable, is not as successful as the upper reaches. The spirit of the original, twin-arched entrance openings has been recaptured with the addition of quoins surrounding the arches. But the red-brick facing (from a 1970s rehab) has been retained. On a Colonial-revival West End church — say Reveille United Methodist, First Presbyterian or Second Baptist — this porous brick works fine, but here it clashes with the otherwise gray brick building. Why not paint it gray?

Past a smallish lobby, elevators now whisk residents to one of 51 apartments. The living spaces have gloriously high ceilings (which hearken back to pre-air-conditioning days) and plenty of windows that admit light. The upper two floors are now dual-storied penthouses with decks.

The views from many of the units are amazing, especially the northern vistas that include the Italianate Lewis Powell Courthouse and Jefferson's State Capitol and the river views to the south.

If Richmond is repopulating itself, this is a prime example of how new living spaces can be carved out of former commercial buildings in the heart of things.

This takes us back to Capitol Square: Another high rise that has long loomed over the greensward is the Ninth Street Office Building (the former Hotel Richmond). This century-old building (1904) and its companion, the Eighth Street Office Building (the former Murphy's Hotel, 1911), are contemporaries of the Heritage Building.

As I walked through Capitol Square that morning, I thought, If the old forlorn and forgotten Heritage Building could be resuscitated so brilliantly with residential spaces carved out of an unlikely location, why can't the old hotels — whose futures are threatened, though their architectural merit is so apparent — be rewarded with similar reaffirmation? Sometimes lessons in what we should be doing are all around us, if only we'll take the hints. S

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