The Fate of the Carpenter Center 

Wilder's performing arts committee submits a plan that's both disturbing and encouraging.

Such facilities were proposed initially for the southeast corner of the block bounded by Broad, Grace, Sixth and Seventh streets in the still-standing section of the former Thalhimers department store.

We also haven't heard any recent discussion of an architectural approach to an expanded center and the remainder of the built-out block. If form follows function, this can be determined only after the overall program has been established. But it's not too soon to establish some general parameters for what could happen on this prominent downtown site that is flanked by two major construction projects — the conversion of the Miller & Rhoads building into condos and a hotel, and the new federal courthouse. And because major city tax dollars are involved, the Carpenter Center block will be the first city-sponsored marquee project to be built downtown since the convention center.

So from a point of civic pride — and there seems to be a general can-do spirit in the air — what happens here, including the hole-in-the-ground where a music hall was once proposed, may be a signature municipal project of the first quarter of the 21st century. It must be approached thoughtfully and with full appreciation for what the space demands and offers.

An intelligent plan should hit as many cylinders as possible. Yes, it should serve performing arts activities and be an exciting and beautiful destination for audiences. But the plan also must address architecturally the prominent streets and buildings situated nearby. The overall project should accommodate mixed uses. Because Broad Street is an important work-day destination, an office building fronting Broad as part of the mix would be appropriate. This could also generate money to support ongoing performing arts center activities.

At street level, on all four sides of the block, shops and eateries would cater to locals and visitors alike. This is essential. The lack of basic amenities in this part of downtown is pathetic (I recently entered the Marriott Hotel at Fifth Street in search of a magazine stand and, finding none, walked seven blocks until I could purchase a Newsweek in the lobby of VCU Medical Center on Marshall and 12th streets).

And if the redeveloped Carpenter Center block has outdoor spaces, they should be carefully thought out both visually and programmatically.

First reactions to the May 4 interim report of the performing arts committee appointed by Mayor L. Douglas Wilder are both promising and disturbing.

What is encouraging is that the plan supports the exploration of "'public private partnerships' where capital and operating funds are generated by co-constructed or jointly developed office buildings, parking enterprises, etc."

What is disturbing is that preliminary plans indicate the demolition of the five-story Thalhimers building in the southeast quadrant of the block. One scenario puts a sculpture garden on this site. This is the last thing needed there.

The Thalhimers building at Grace and Seventh is a clean, modernist building designed in 1955 by Copeland Novak & Israel, a New York architectural firm known for major retail projects in Manhattan. The flat, marble-veneer facade was probably inspired by New York's Museum of Modern Art, a 1939 landmark by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone. Sadly, too many of our downtown, midcentury modernist buildings have been destroyed of late for parking lots. These include the Woolworths, G.C. Murphy and Atlantic Life buildings.

An expanded Carpenter Center could be extended into the cavernous Thalhimers building. From the outside, its scale and blocky massing make it an excellent foil to the irregular-shaped courthouse taking form across Seventh Street. It's already an excellent antidote to the exuberant fantasy-facade of the Carpenter Center, a former 1920s movie palace.

The preservation tax credits inherent to maintaining the Thalhimers building should make the option of adaptive reuse all the more attractive.

As the mayor's performing arts committee continues its work in the coming months, it should not just develop a plan for reopening the Carpenter Center and reworking the old Thalhimers building, but also offer a comprehensive proposal for the entire block.

Let's retire the idea of a too-small music hall being shoehorned into a too-small lot on Broad Street and consider a development here that can generate all-day vitality. The energy level would be ramped up considerably in the evenings, especially along Grace Street, with simultaneous performances under way in two very different 20th-century local landmarks. S


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