Architectural Ancestry: Depression Era Apartments

4-Unit Apartment

This article comes to us from guest writer, Robert Winthrop. Winthrop is partner at Winthrop, Jenkins, and Associates, a Virginia based architecture firm specializing in historic renovation. Historic buildings have also been his focus in numerous writings and lectures. As author of The Architecture of Jackson Ward, Cast and Wrought: The Architectural Metalwork of Downtown Richmond, Virginia, and Architecture in Downtown Richmond, Winthrop has established himself as an authority on the city’s architectural history.

*   *   *

The impact of the Great Depression on Richmond’s architecture and the architectural profession cannot be underestimated.  Simply stated, the profession all but vanished between 1930 and 1945. The collapse of building and construction reflected the devastated economy.

Between 1900 and 1930, Richmond developed a thriving architectural profession made up of talented and imaginative men and firms. By 1945, only a few firms survived, and most of the smaller firms vanished. The Depression struck when many of Richmond’s younger architects were reaching professional maturity. In what would have been their most productive mature years, they had little or no work.  When building activity resumed in 1947-1950, the styles and architectural richness of early 20th century architecture were forgotten in favor of austerity and International Style inspired minimalism.

The full extent of the collapse can be easily seen in Richmond city building permits records. Several major building types all but vanished. These building types include the apartment house and the custom designed single-family house.

Apartments were a new building type in early Twentieth Century Richmond. By 1914, they became popular and comparatively common, with 10 permits issued for apartments in 1918 and 26 permits in 1919. In the mid-twenties Richmond typically issued thirty to forty apartment house permits a year. This changed after the stock market crash of 1929. There was only one permit issued in 1930, 1932 and 1936. No permits for apartments were issued in 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1937. In 1938, 1940 and 1945 there were two permits a year. 1939 was the best year in permits between 1930 and 1947. The city issued four apartment house permits that year.  World War II created a lull in the lackluster apartment market. No permits were issued in 1942, 1943 and 1944.

Firms that specialized in apartment house design found themselves without work. Bascom Rowlett, Max Ruehrmund, Carl Lindner, and Otis Asbury as well as construction firms such as the Davis Brothers, and Muhleman & Kayhoe were particularly hard hit. Lindner designed 44 apartment houses before 1929, and only two after that date. Ruehrmund did 77 apartments before the crash and only one after the crash in 1930.

The economic disaster also affected single family housing dramatically.  Richmond issued a single permit for an upscale house in 1932. There were two permits in 1933 and only three permits in 1934, 1935 and 1936.

When construction of apartments resumed in the late 1940s, most of the buildings were FHA or similar federally sponsored projects.  While they were marketed as Garden Apartments, that is a misnomer. Open space surrounded the buildings, but there were no gardens. The buildings were built with small apartments and with little architectural detail. They seem graceless compared to the imaginative apartments of the late twenties.

The austerity and economy of these buildings are easy to understand. The nation had built little between 1930 and 1950. There were huge unmet needs.  Millions of service men and women returned home after World War II and they all wanted a home or place of their own. A small house or apartment was better than living in the back bedroom of the family home or in a boarding house.

While the architectural and building professions had been badly hurt, it is important to note that real estate developers had all but vanished as a profession. Many of the developers, designers and builders of the nation were gone. The Federal government stepped into the void and FHA housing was the first large scale building to follow the depression.

The few individual apartment houses of the Depression era are of interest and illustrate the new architectural trends well. Carl Lindner produced the most elaborate apartment house of the depression Era in 1932.  At 3412 Park Avenue he designed a full scale Georgian Revival building that showed no trace of austerity.  In the same year he designed the initial plans for the Lock Lane Apartments. These were the first Garden Apartments in the city. The complex was not finished until 1950, and the first residents appeared in city directories in the early 1940s, so the development of the project was exceptionally slow.

Curiously Garden apartments had no porches facing their open spaces. Some had service porches to the rear, but the apartments had comparatively small windows facing the green spaces of the complex.  The “gardens” were simply circulation spaces. The lack of porches may reflect the influence of the restoration of Williamsburg. Front porches are a 19th century preference and were rare in the 18th century. Porches may have seemed old fashioned or they may have been seen as a frill.

The next Garden complex filled the block next to the Beltline, between Hanover, Stuart and Thompson Street in 1938. Located on the edge of the West of the Boulevard area, Gilmour Court was designed by Washington D.C. architect Raymond C. Snow. Snow had career designing hotels before the Depression. He produced federally sponsored housing after the crash. The architecture of the Gilmour Court is minimal with almost no ornamentation. The landscaping is sparse.

W. Pringle, who had designed some fine Art Deco buildings in the Twenties, designed the large apartment house at 2602-08 Kensington Avenue in 1945. Three stories tall, it is a massive building in a stripped down Colonial Revival style. It wraps around an open space on the street. The space a simply a front yard and is minimally landscaped. He also designed the apartment house at 2606 Park Avenue in 1947.

One of the most prolific designers of the new garden apartments was T. Tucker Carlton. One of his first works was Malvern Manor.  Construction began on this huge complex in 1946. Eventually the apartments filled an area on Malvern between Grove and Cary Streets. Facing Windsor Farms, Malvern Manor is well detailed and the site planning forms some handsome spaces.

A year later he designed the Kensington Place complex across the street from Gilmour Court.  He did the Willa at 3300-04 Grace Street in the same year. Marcellus Wright designed the Hanover Arms at 3513-83 Hanover Avenue in 1947. It was made up of individual small buildings. The detailing of these buildings is more minimal than Malvern Manor.

Most impressive group of post war apartments is on Chamberlayne Avenue. The east side of the road is lined with large apartment complexes. The first of the buildings was Chamberlayne Gardens at 4801-4819 Chamberlayne, designed by Norfolk architect Bernard B. Spigel in 1946.  It was soon joined by Pringle’s Wicker apartments at 4210-32 Old Brook road, Hammond Court by T. Tucker Carlton at 2907-2027 Chamberlayne and the Westminster. All of these date from 1947.

There were numerous four unit apartments developed in the early forties. These were standardized in design with two level porches flanking a central entrance. A group of houses in the 3200 block of East Grace Street illustrate this type well. Dating from 1939, the porches must have been a blessing in pre-air conditioning Richmond. The designs are modest but handsome.

It is easy to neglect these buildings.  They are well built masonry buildings and are in good condition considering that most are nearly 70-years old. The quality of construction compares well with the vinyl-clad, lumber yards that are modern apartments. Modern apartments burn easily, and even worse, some melt when there is a fire nearby.

The recent renovations of the Lock Lane and Malvern Manor apartments, combined with installation of quality landscaping, illustrates the potential of these buildings. If the Chamberlayne Avenue cluster of apartments received the same treatment, it would result in the transformation of this well located urban district.

Article and images from Robert P. Winthrop

Interview: Walter Parks

AR Walter Parks 1

This winter, Don O’Keefe and Mario Accordino interviewed architect Walter Parks at his office in Jackson Ward. Since founding his studio in 1993, Parks has worked on projects ranging from single family homes to large, mixed-use structures. He is most well known for the many urban multi-family housing buildings which his firm has designed across the city. More about Parks, the firm, and their projects can be found here:

*     *     *

What do you think are the benefits of designing in Richmond?

I think we have an extremely rich context. I love urban environments and Richmond in particular has great work. My mantra is “cities are living and breathing, they grow, they change.” To have a great city, you have to be able to see all the ages across the face of it. You can see old pockets, and you can watch as the city develops. It’s cool that we have this strong fabric but also voids that were emptied by fires or neglect. To be able to infill those voids is a great opportunity, as compared to a site out in Henrico.

You have been involved in a lot of neighborhoods including a lot of work in Shockoe Bottom.

We have done a tremendous amount of work in Shockoe. We’ve done work in Church Hill as well. Those are more discrete, simpler forms and frames. It’s difficult to get a small site like that because of the parameters of the project. To be adventurous with that kind of project is really difficult. I think most of those that we’ve done have not been as successful as we’ve wanted. I think the ones that other people have done have also not been as successful as they probably hoped. But when you get to a larger scale, like things in the Bottom, there’s more energy. There’s more of an ability to create something of today that actually works with the fabric.

How have you been able to take advantage of the environment in the Bottom?

The red building [Terrace 202] that we did down there, was under CAR review. It was a special use project so we spent a lot of time working that through. To get that done was a huge endeavor and probably wasn’t the most profitable job we did. At the end of the day, nobody knows that. At the end of the day what you have is the building. Our job is to make sure that the building is great. I like that building, I like the way it fits in, I like the way it relates to American Tobacco. It’s a modern building, but I can compare and contrast it to the historical buildings across the street pretty effectively. That is pretty successful from our perspective. One of the things that is very difficult to get in a new building is the sense of patina, or sense of patterning that doesn’t overwhelm the building. I think we hit it with that, and I’m pleased with the way the reds work together. What that material does is give us a tight skin that reads as a box but close up it becomes more lively, which was the goal.

Moving on to another project in the Bottom, could you talk about Trolley Commons? Was it under the same sort of architectural review?

Absolutely not.

Is the way you approach the design completely different based on the review or also the streetscape around the site?

It’s the streetscape. Main St should be a more active street. If you think of the other site, it’s in a quieter environment. Main St is a thriving commercial street where you would love to see more energy. The other street is adjacent to the Adam Craig House, and American Tobacco is one block with few doors in it. On Main St, every 20 feet you have another activated storefront. That rhythm works towards that grid, that activity.

What did you think your responsibility was to the existing firehouse?

The firehouse is a standalone site. When we got it there was a 70’s addition attached that we demolished to free the building. We recreated the original site for the firehouse. We recreated the knee walls at the entrance. I’m not a big fan of recreating things that are gone, but in this case it was a nice, well-proportioned building. [Our] design recreated it’s historical situation, which helped us in terms of the modern buildings on each side. Usually, I don’t like voids in the street. We refer to them as missing teeth, right? In this case, because of the way the firehouse was designed, it really needed space on each side. One of the spaces is used as an outdoor dining area, which works for the street, for the city fabric, and makes the building stand.

Could you talk about environmental sensitivity in the firm’s work?

Rebuilding our cities is one of the best things we can do environmentally. Forget for a moment about better materials and more hi-tech solar energy. Pretend there were no new developments for sustainable materials. Building in the city reduces traffic, reduces congestion, reduces cars. I don’t have to build a stormwater management plant because it’s already here. I’m not demolishing a field or a farm or trees. I’ve got a gravel lot or shards of what used to be there, so to start with developing in the city, especially rehabbing an old building with old materials, I’m not throwing anything away. I’m recycling an entire building. Dovetail [Construction] is beautiful in that regard. We took an old building and recycled it. We used solar panels, we used geothermal. All of those things were great, but it started with not decimating a site and starting over. Architects like the pretty picture, where you can see the building all alone, standing. It’s the essential, the equestrian statue. That’s really not important to me. When you put the building in the framework, it creates a sustainable city which is just better.

Do you see yourself as someone who is pushing a particular urban agenda?

There is a quote that says “People come to the city to live. They stay to live the good life.” The quote is from Aristotle. It’s an ancient idea, that cities are where humanity comes together. There’s more opportunity. It’s the great life, as far as I’m concerned. So I do have that as an agenda. I love urban, downtown living. I love the idea that I go to Lift [coffee shop] for my coffee. I eat out at restaurants, I enjoy the street. The best evening [is] a beautiful First Friday when you get to see the mix of people walking up and down the street outside. That’s the city at its finest.

Do you think that it is part of your role as an architect in the city to help spread the word about the benefits of urbanism?

The way I can spread the word, the way I do spread the word, is with the work. The work has to stand on its own. If you have to stand next to the work and hand out leaflets about what you were trying to do, you’ve kind of failed. If the building doesn’t work when we’re done with it, then we didn’t convey the message. In terms of pushing the city forward, I don’t want to design the building of the future. I want to design the building of today. We’re living in these times and these are great times.

In projects where approval is pending, do you get involved politically? Do you attend meetings and try to shape opinion, or do you leave that to the developer or other parties?

We’re pretty involved in getting projects developed. We find projects and bring them to developers. I do have an agenda. We want to see the city developed. We want to see the city revived. I want to see Richmond evolve and so anything we can do to create those opportunities, we do. Anytime we have resistance from the neighborhood that’s unfounded, that’s built out of fear or bad information we absolutely get involved and try to give people a fair view of what we’re talking about or what the development can bring to them.

We were speaking with Mimi Sadler and Camden Whitehead and they referenced your firm in particular as doing a good job of “satisfying many masters” in that you have many stakeholders but at the same time you are achieving what you want to achieve. They mentioned the Commission of Architectural Review specifically.

You know, the CAR that I’ve dealt with has generally been open-minded. I go in and I show what I have. I don’t try and hide things, I show what I intend, and I look over and feel sorry for the people who are waiting in line, because I will debate and question and work back and forth more than the next guy. But my goal is, at the end of the day, to have a great project. To do a project and then blame CAR for it is not acceptable. There’s not a plaque that you put on the building that says “This would have been better except…” Honestly when we did that red building, that was a great job by CAR. It wasn’t easy, and it took a little while, but in the end we got a great product. I think there were other cases where it didn’t do so well. It’s about the relationship between the board and the architect or the developer. You have to be willing to listen, and it’s just another problem solving exercise. I guess there are some places where you can’t get there. I think Alexandria is awful. The fake, federal things that get shoved in there because they meet their review standards are god-awful. I think it ruins the city and I fight that all the time. Making a modern building that is pretend historic is the worst. It’s the worst. The Short Pump-like architecture, and some of it is filtering into the city, is death in my opinion. We don’t want the suburbs building into our city. That said, I’m all for buildings being built that I don’t like. There should be a variation in fabric and in styles, and if I don’t like them all, that’s great.

Taking this idea of the tension in development back up to Church Hill or perhaps to the Fan, you don’t seem to typically involve yourself in those areas. Do you think that there is potential in the next few years for you to start being involved?

I love the Fan, I love the variation in the Fan. I’m sad to see some of the 70’s renovations getting washed away, getting ‘fixed’ because I think there were a smattering of those which were interesting. You found these little discoveries in there. I’m glad that the Fan is not in an architectural review district. That gives people more freedom and opportunity. We did an interesting project over on Hanover in a blank lot which was done in copper. It’s not very prominent, but again, the thing about the Fan is the little discoveries. There is a very consistent fabric but to have these nuances in it makes it lively, makes it the Fan.

What type of work could succeed in the Fan? If a site that is 4 or 5 townhouses wide came up for development, what do you think would be an appropriate direction for the Fan?

There is one being built near the Boulevard, where Burt [Pinnock, of Baskervill] is doing a series of row houses. I’m really glad to see that being built. I think it works with the scale, with the rhythm and the texture of the Fan. It’s clearly a project of its day. I think that’s a great project that works in the neighborhood. There are also opportunities on the edge of the Fan, on Main and Cary. I fully expect that area to evolve.

Where do things go from here, both for Walter Parks Architects and for Richmond?

There’s a lot to do. I’m focused on Manchester which is a really exciting place right now. The difference between 5 years ago and 5 years from now will be remarkable. The proximity of Manchester to downtown is preeminent. To be able to create that as a living space as opposed to an industrial core is going to be great for the city. That’s a focus of mine right now. The other real focus is to be able to see Broad St between City Hall and Foushee improve. The idea that someone’s going to come out of the convention center and see what I think of as some of the worst of Richmond, in terms of maintenance and quality of care in the architecture, is awful. There are some nice buildings but they’ve really been let go and that’s a stick in my eye. A lot of great things have happened but we need to continue that. City Hall is on board and I think everyone is on the same page in terms of trying to get those things done. Those are our goals and I think Richmond ought to focus on those as well.

D.OK. and  M.F.A.

Shockoe Hill Cemetery

AR Shockoe HIll 3

4th and Hospital Streets

As the 18th century drew to a close, space grew scarce in St. John’s Churchyard, Richmond’s de facto resting place. Anticipating this demand, the City of Richmond invested in property in an underdeveloped area north of the Court End section of downtown, then a fashionable residential area. The site sat opposite Hospital Street from the existing Hebrew Cemetery, founded in 1816. The cemetery opened its gates in 1822 with the imaginative title New Burying Ground.

The New Burying Ground occupied 4 acres at the north western corner of the current graveyard. The largest and oldest grouping of trees on the site remain here. Over the next few decades, the Cemetery expanded further, reaching its current size of nearly 13 acres in 1870. Along the way, it was renamed Shockoe Hill Cemetery.

As St. John’s Churchyard was to 18th century Richmond, Shockoe Hill was to the 19th. As the years passed, the cemetery amassed an impressive portfolio of Virginia notables, including Richmond’s First Mayor William Foushee, Governor William H. Cabell, Union Spy Elizabeth Van Lew, and herculean Portuguese immigrant turned Revolutionary War hero Peter Francesco. The highlight of the Cemetery’s museum quality collection is Chief Justice John Marshall, the longest serving Chief Justice and the establisher of judicial review.

Thankfully, each of these graves remains preserved and open to the public. Many other fine gravestones and intricate cast iron elements has survived as well. All graves were placed within an orderly master plan, a slight augmentation of a three by three grid. This arrangement respects the surrounding street grid by aligning the west entrance and path with Federal Street and south entrance with N. 3rd Street. This strict adherence to the neighborhood grid, reinforced by a planar wall on the surrounding street edge, characterize Shockoe Hill as a product of the Federal era and a direct descendant of the Colonial churchyard at St. John’s.

Towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, the dominance of Shockoe Hill was supplanted by the massive new burial grounds along the river to the south west, beginning with Hollywood Cemetery. Hollywood, Riverview, Mt. Calvary, and others brought romantic, winding cemetery landscapes into vogue. The divestment from Shockoe HIll was greatly exacerbated by the construction of Interstate 95 to the south and east and the Gilpin Court housing project to the west, beginning in the 1950s.

Recently, maintenence at Shockoe Hill has been improving, though still more time and attention will be required if it is to be preserved indefinitely. In response to this challenge, the Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery formed in 2006 with the goal of increasing exposure of and maintenance for this historic landmark. There is even talk of opening some portions of the grounds for new burials. With nearly 2 centuries of history behind it, Shockoe Hill Cemetery continues to continues to play an intimate role in the life and death of Richmond.



Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery

Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter

AR VCU Brandcenter 6

Clive Wilkinson
103 South Jefferson Street

The VCU Brandcenter is the graduate advertising program of Virginia Commonwealth University. Founded in 1996 as the Adcenter, the program is frequently recognized as the top graduate advertising program in the country. Its success, growth, and high profile prompted an expansion and renovation in 2008.

Clive Wilkinson of Los Angeles was selected as the architect. Wilkinson is one of the most influential and well known designers of creative work spaces in the United States, having designed headquarters for companies such as Google, Nokia, and Accenture. Furthermore, his firm is experienced in working with advertising agencies and has provided offices for Chiat/Day and Ogilvy & Mather. Many of the same principles used in previous projects were applied to the Brandcenter; namely, openness, modularity, flexibility, and an emphasis on promoting collaboration

The building is situated on Jefferson Street in Monroe Ward, just north of the downtown expressway. The project includes an existing building, the former carriage house for the Jefferson Hotel, and a contemporary addition which are bridged by a new glazed stairway and hall. The addition has a reception area, meeting rooms, and classroom space. The addition also features a ground floor student commons with a massive custom concrete table as well as a roof deck with a view of the skyline.

The carriage house received a massive interior overhaul creating a lounge, conference, and seminar room on the ground floor and faculty offices on the second. The ground floor historically had no vertical supports while the second floor was suspended by wires from roof trusses. This rendered floor space open enough for a carriage to make a full turn in the building. This openness was retained in the renovation. Some measure of privacy is achieved by a custom shell-like structure which folds down from the ceiling creating a conference room. Modular foam cubes can be stacked against the wall or used as furniture. A lecture area in the rear is separated from the main space by way of a large, sound proof curtain.

The Brandcenter is a stone’s throw away from the south east corner of Monroe Park and two blocks south of The Jefferson. Despite what seems like a prime location, the building sits on a nearly empty block and is within a one block radius of many surface parking lots. The VCU master plan shows the university’s intent to encircle the building with housing. Using the Brandcenter as a model, further development could transform southern Monroe Ward into a tasteful urban district.


Photographs by author

The VCU master plan can be found here:

Architects of Richmond: Charles M. Robinson

First English Lutheran

Article and photographs by Robert P. Winthrop.

As part of a continuing series we are featuring an essay from a guest writer, Robert Winthrop. Winthrop is partner at Winthrop, Jenkins, and Associates, a Virginia based architecture firm specializing in historic renovation. Historic buildings have also been his focus in numerous writings and lectures. As author of The Architecture of Jackson Ward, Cast and Wrought: The Architectural Metalwork of Downtown Richmond, Virginia, and Architecture in Downtown Richmond, Winthrop has established himself as an authority on the city’s architectural history.

Winthrop has adapted these essays from a lecture series at the Virginia Historical Society. The series, entitled “Sophisticates and Wild Men,” followed the interaction between the exuberant Victorian architects and the sober classicists at the turn of the twentieth century.

*   *   *

Charles M. Robinson (1867-1932) was one of the few Richmond architects to have an influence throughout Virginia. Most architects had practices confined to a single city or region. Robinson has major works spreading from Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley to South Boston, Roanoke, Williamsburg and Norfolk.

His father was an architect and builder, James T. Robinson. Born in 1867 in Hamilton, Virginia, a hamlet in Loudoun County, the family moved to Welland, Ontario, in the post war period where he went to school. Welland is now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario. He went to work for D. S. Hopkins, a noted architect in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and later for John Kevan Peebles, a Virginian practicing architecture in Pittsburgh. Robinson established a successful firm in Altoona, Pennsylvania, but returned to Virginia in 1906.

Once he was back in Virginia his career exploded. This was largely due to his skills as a designer of educational structures. The new schools were a result of the new state constitution of 1902. While the constitution is noted today for disenfranchising much of the black population of the state, it also emphasized public education. The General Assembly passed an act authorizing Normal Schools for educating teachers for the new system in 1908.

While the City of Richmond built some impressive school buildings in the later 19th century, most of the schools in the state were modest. In 1900, only 4% of Virginia students went on to high school and even Richmond did not have a building for high school students. It seems this need for new schools was enough for to bring him back to the state after developing his successful career in Altoona. By 1907 he had designed five schools in Virginia. By 1908 he was designing another fifteen, including his first school in Richmond.

He won the competition for a new campus for the State Normal School at Harrisonburg in 1908. This is now James Madison University. He designed the original seven buildings for the school. In 1909 he began work at the campuses of the Normal School in Fredericksburg, now Mary Washington University. He designed the original buildings there. He also did the plan and early buildings at Radford in 1914.

His most impressive university work was the massive expansion of William & Mary. There he created the sunken garden and designed 17 buildings in a style harmonious with the original Wren campus.

As he worked on the campuses he designed a remarkable number of public schools throughout the state. These included many schools in Norfolk, Newport News., Portsmouth and Richmond. While he designed for these large cities, he also produced hundreds of schools for smaller towns and counties.

Robinson had a rare ability to produce a huge amount of work at a consistently high level. Depending on the client and budget his buildings can range from being modest and sensible to being imposing and impressive. They are always are well built, logically planned, efficient and handsome. Robinson seemed to have a knack for creating architecturally impressive buildings for the notoriously stingy state, county and city school boards.

Historically Virginia was generally opposed to public education. Many upper class Virginians thought giving farm hands or the laborers in their mills an education was counterproductive. You don’t need a degree to work in a tobacco field. It had been illegal to teach slaves how to read until after the Civil War.

Richmond and other larger cities were modern and they needed educated people to work in the offices and in the new professions associated with modernity. The tenants of new skyscrapers of downtown Richmond needed educated and skilled labor, accountants, clerks and typists. Richmond’s schools tended to be architecturally impressive, as befitted a modern city.

The superintendent of schools in Richmond from 1909 to 1919, J. A. C. Chandler, was Robinson’s close friend. He and his predecessors were in the forefront of the movement to create a modern school system. The schools tended to be monumental; they were physical manifestations of the city’s commitment to modernity. Chandler left Richmond in 1919 to become the president of William & Mary. He remained the President until 1934, by which time he created the modern William & Mary.

Highland Park and Fox Schools, his first schools in Richmond, were essays in the Craftsman, Arts & Crafts style. Binford School, built in 1914, is in a collegiate Gothic style. The Ginter Park School of 1915 and Albert Hill of 1925 are in the Spanish style. Robinson’s last school in the city is a spectacular Art Deco building, Thomas Jefferson High school.

He was comfortable and skilled at all of these styles. These schools are standardized in plan, but not in a cookie cutter way. Each building has its own character and identity. The plans are simple and logical with large, light filled classrooms facing on wide corridors. In many cases the corridors form the wall of central gymnasiums, auditoriums and cafeterias. This is both efficient and reduces the footprint of the schools on their comparatively small, urban sites.

While schools and academic buildings were a major part of Robinson’s work he had other projects. He was the architect of the First English Lutheran Church on Stuart Circle in 1909-11. This is a massive, imaginatively planned granite building. The church fits well on the pie shaped lot. This church relates to his earlier work in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

His finest church work is the Cannon Chapel for the University of Richmond. Completed in 1929, it is a fine essay in the Collegiate Gothic style. Its design relates to English college chapels such as the King’s College Chapel at Cambridge. Cram and Fergusson’s West Point chapel and the same firm’s chapel at Princeton were the more immediate prototype. Cram was the architect of most of the buildings at the newly relocated Richmond College and the new Westhampton College. Robinson’s chapel is stylistically related to the earlier buildings.

While Robinson was not well known for his residential work, his Laburnum Park development and most notably his Laburnum Court are distinguished. He drew the plans for the entire neighborhood featuring landscaped boulevards throughout. This district is spacious and handsome. It is filled with charming and modest homes for Richmond’s growing middle class. In this neighborhood Robinson brought a touch of the grandeur of Monument Avenue to the middle class.

The architect-designed small house has vanished as a building type today. Robinson designed every house in Laburnum Court. They are simple, sensible and charming. Dating from 1919, the houses are as desirable today as they were a century ago. They are in the progressive, Craftsman style, with minimal stylistic references. They are modest, sensible and handsome. The houses surrounded a central park area and were served by a central heating plant. They are as far away from the modern taste for McMansions as is possible.

Robinson designed many shops and offices. He created several distinguished buildings for Miller & Roads. The most handsome of these is the row at 319-323 West Broad Street. Built in 1913, this building is modern and inspired by the mid-western Chicago Style.

While Robinson designed a wild rage of building types, he remains best known for the schools and college buildings. He dominated school building in the state for twenty-five years, and in terms of number and quality of his schools, he has never been equalled.

Robert Winthrop

Portfolio: Under Construction II

E Broad and 10th Streets: Children's Pa vilion
A year later, we check back on some of the projects profiled in the first edition of Under Construction to see how they have progressed. New additions are included in this photo series as well, covering a range of building types and locations. Some chaos is settling, some is just beginning.


Photographs by author

St. Peter’s Catholic Church


800 East Grace Street
Architect Unknown
1834. 1855, transcept

Perhaps unfairly overshadowed by St. Paul’s, the larger and more lavishly articulated church across the street, St. Peter’s Catholic Church is nonetheless a wonderful presence on the downtown streetscape. Its temple front in the Doric order is a classical structure of solid beauty.

This sanctuary (there is no separate parish hall) was Richmond’s second catholic church and the city’s first catholic cathedral (from 1840 to 1906). Architecturally the building might be viewed as a bridge between the restrained neo-classicism of the 1810s and 1820s and the full-blown Greek revival style of the 1840s (as exemplified by St. Paul’s). The church interior, with its cruciform shape and apse, is intimate and warm.

The overall facade was perhaps inspired by the Church of St.-Philippe-du-Roule in Paris. The pediment facing Grace Street is supported by two flanking sets of four paired columns, an arrangement made popular by another Parisian landmark, the Louvre. This pairing of columns is similar to the garden portico of the White House of Confederacy, nearby at 1201 E. Clay Street.

With the shift of Richmond’s Catholic diocese center to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart on Monroe Park in 1906, this church reverted to parish status. In the 1970s the bishop closed another Catholic church downtown, with a mostly African-American congregation, and merged it with St. Peter’s seeking to break the long-held tradition that, as the Rev. Martin Luther King once said, “…the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”


Photographs by M.F.A.