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The renovation of the former Home for Confederate Women is a good example of a new use for an old building. 

Confederate Victory

It's both curious and ironic. What was Merrill C. Lee, an architect new to Richmond, thinking in 1932 when he designed the Home for Confederate Women? The glorious temple-front palace that fronts Sheppard Street at Stuart Avenue is a scaled-down version of the White House. The White House, for Pete's sake — in 1932 the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was reviled by many Southerners) and even worse, Abraham Lincoln who had presided over the Confederacy's demise. There are few more Unionist symbols than 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But in a broader context, since White House architect James Hoban based his design for the executive mansion on standard British 18th-century patternbooks, the executive mansion is more continental or international than American in flavor. Therefore, when the retirement home for wives and daughters of Confederate veterans was first completed on the oversized block bounded by Boulevard, Grove, Kensington and Sheppard, it must have looked spectacular. Especially compared to the humbler buildings nearby — barracks, dining facilities, a chapel and activities buildings that crowded the site to serve Confederate veterans who already populated the grounds.

In 1935, the grandiose ladies' home got some worthy company. As the ranks of old soldiers were thinning, the commonwealth of Virginia decided to build the recently formed Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on the block's southeastern corner. The architect of the new museum also turned to Britain for inspiration. The original and central block of the museum is based on Sir Christopher Wren's Hampton Court, a late-Renaissance royal residence. But despite being architecturally linked stylistically, for more than 60 years these two conservative, utilitarian — but robustly handsome — 20th-century neoclassical buildings coexisted on the same block with no dialogue. True, their back doors opened onto the same parking lot.

But all that has changed. The museum recently acquired the former retirement home, retooled the place deftly with architect The Glave Firm, renamed the converted facility The Center for Education and Outreach, and opened for business in late March.

The reconfigured building has good-sized studio classrooms, a welcoming educational resource room, and a multimedia computer laboratory. These were all carved out of former living spaces. The public rooms — the entrance hall, parlor and stately dining room — have been handsomely furnished and will be used by the museum and be available to its members for special events, meetings and parties. The building also houses the museum's communications and marketing staff, photography department and offices for TheatreVirginia, the Virginia Association of Museums and The Council, a volunteer support group for the museum.

While the formal public rooms converge on a hall that opens onto a two-story portico that faces Sheppard, the building's entrance has been turned around. The new front door opens off the museum's landscaped parking lot. The new one-story entrance portico doesn't encroach on the historical integrity of the old building, but makes enough of a statement to read as the new entryway from half a block away. Newly configured brick sidewalks succeed in creating an institutional link between the CEO (as the building will be called) and the museum.

The renewed building's sandstone facing sparkles in the daylight. These exterior surfaces suggest what the real White House actually looked like prior to the early 19th century, when the first layers of paint were applied after the burning of Washington, D.C.

From across the parking lot, the CEO looks a lot like a building one might see London in Kensington or Regents parks with their classical buildings set off in parklike settings. The CEO solidifies a sense that the Virginia Museum is now a campus.

The interior is a revelation. Natural light floods most of the rooms, creating far different work spaces for much of the museum staff who used to toil in a subterranean labyrinth of windowless spaces.

The building is essentially a five-part building — a central block flanked by two hyphens and wings at each end.

The hyphens enclose loggias — the southernmost of which leads to the educational resource room (a fancy name for library). While the ceiling of the resource room has been lowered to accommodate heating and air conditioning, Glave has added such strong architectural components as a new vaulted ceiling above the windows and paneling that reflects the older interiors.

The public rooms are warm and welcoming, especially the dinning room with its hand-blocked scenic 1815 wallpaper, "Monuments of Paris." The green upholstered dining chairs are based on those at Mount Vernon.

Seeing this pristine building during its opening weeks is sort of like opening King Tut's Tomb. Here was an old, all-but-inaccessible building that has been made available to a new generation of users and eyes — essentially all of Virginia's citizens since this is a public facility. The building will be open for close inspection on Thursday, April 22, during "Monumental Treasures and Tiny Gems," a Historic Garden Week in Virginia tour.

This end of the West of the Boulevard neighborhood is already a virtual outdoor museum, and with this exciting restoration, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts adds a sparkling diamond to its crown with a brilliantly conceived and executed
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