The Locks


Architect (Restoration): Walter Parks Architects
Date: Late 19th to early 20th century

Address: 311 S. 11th Street

In the vicinity of the 1100 block of Byrd Street, just east of the gleaming office towers of Riverfront Plaza and the Williams Mullins building, downtown’s topography shifts dramatically. This almost 100 foot change signals the dividing line between Virginia’s Tidewater and Piedmont regions. Today, the nearby gushing river waters attract kayakers and canoeists. Two centuries ago they lured industrialists eager to harness water power. Hydroelectric plants, canals and millraces once supported dozens of factories and manufacturing operations in this vicinity.

Fortunately, four contiguous, late 19th- and early 20th century structures, varying in dimension and architectural intensity, remain from that earlier period. They form an irregular but handsome ensemble along the Haxall Millrace near the downtown Canal Walk. For many years, until the turn of the millennium, these structures were occupied by Reynolds Metals Co.  Recently they have been repurposed as The Locks, a mostly residential complex with a smattering of commercial operations. The latter includes Casa del Barco, a Mexican restaurant located on the ground floor of the Italianate building, with a popular waterside patio and a footbridge completed in August 2014 connecting to the Canal Walk.

The Italianate
A Mexican restaurant occupies the ground level of the Italianate, the most architecturally elaborate of the four buildings at the Locks. Built in 1901, it served a tobacco company as well as Union Envelope Co. The impressive central stair tower with decorative corbelling at its entablature is flanked by two symmetrical wings, each with seven window bays. All of the apartments on the upper three floors front the south side of the building with the hallways running along the north side of the building.

The Flume is a no-nonsense, early modernist industrial structure of reinforced concrete construction with large, metal casement windows. It is devoid of ornament. Built sometime around 1915, its architect, Charles M. Robinson, was a prominent Richmond architect best known here for designs of scores of Virginia schools and college buildings.

White Byrd and North Canal
Built in 1900, the two-story White Byrd building was originally a tobacco warehouse. Similarly, the North Canal buildings (built in 1886 and 1895) housed tobacco operations. While these buildings aren’t spectacular in themselves, their importance lies in how they are critical components of the overall Locks assemblage that is wedged into a topographically challenging site.

The careful renovations of these four buildings, the addition of a modest, but elegantly contemporary multi-purpose room, a swimming pool, and a series of M.C. Escher-like balconies and stairways, make the Locks one of the most satisfying architectural experiences in the city. All this, and the Canal Walk too.


Sister City Profile: Richmond-upon-Thames

richmond-upon-thamesAs part of a continuing series, ArchitectureRichmond has documented the cities that comprise our five active Sister City partnerships, in order to learn more about similar urban environments throughout the world as a point of reference for our own development. This is the final installment.

Richmond-upon-Thames is a borough of London, England with a population of 190,000. Richmond, the principal town in the borough, is a mixed use urban area with a history dating back over 1,000 years. Other notable areas in the borough include Barnes and East Sheen. The borough is among the most affluent places in England and is rated as having some of the country’s happiest residents.

Richmond Palace was built in 1501 by King Henry VII, formerly the Earl of Richmond, and served as the firebrand for the development of the surrounding town. The borough became more urbanized in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the growth in population and density of central London. Despite the continued growth of London, now the largest city in the European Union, Richmond-upon-Thames has been able to retain a high proportion of green space. The borough is famous for its parks and open spaces such as Richmond Palace, The Richmond Green, Hampton Court Palace, and Kew Gardens. This feature serves as one of the borough’s defining characteristics and has added to its appeal as a residential hotspot. A connection is easily drawn to our own city with its extensive park system, botanical gardens, and verdant manor homes such as Maymont, Wilton, and Agecroft Hall.

Many of the green spaces in the borough have been sustained by their protection under English law. Palaces and parks alike have been given special historic protection based on their significance. No space in Richmond-upon-Thames has a more unique protection than Richmond Hill. The view from the top of the hill was protected in 1902 by a special act of Parliament and is the only such provision in all of England.

The view from Richmond Hill has a meaningful place in English history. English writer and poet Sir Walter Scott said the view presented “an unrivaled landscape.” It has also been painted by notable artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and J.M.W. Turner. The most important legacy of this view is not in England, however, but across the atlantic in our own Richmond, Virginia. William Byrd II, who had spent some of his childhood in Richmond-upon-Thames, named our city Richmond after seeing the similarities between the view of the Thames in England and the view of the James in Virginia.

Richmond-upon-Thames’ population continues to grow as competition for space in London’s urban core intensifies and as some affluent residents seek garden-like respite of the outer boroughs. Several notable modern architects have designed homes or multi-family units in Richmond-upon-Thames such as David Chipperfield and James Stirling. The borough also served as the training grounds for the Chinese, Irish, and South African teams in the London 2012 Olympic Games.


2000 Riverside



Architect: Marcellus Wright & Partners
Date: 1965

Address: 2000 Riverside Drive

A modest skyline of mostly apartment buildings is fast changing the silhouette of Manchester.  Half a century ago, however, while this district was in serious decline, in 1965 in the adjacent neighborhood of Springhill, South Richmond received a shot of verticality with completion of River Towers. This 15-story apartment building is at 2000 Riverside Drive near the southern end of the Robert E. Lee Bridge. Its balconies offer unparalleled vistas of both the downtown skyline and the wilds of the James River. And when viewed from points north of the James, the apartment tower remains a welcome brick and concrete slab of modernism rising above the foliage and rocks of the nearby James River Park.

“It is one of my favorite buildings,” says Fred Cox, senior partner of Marcellus Wright Cox Architects, who was on the design team for the project (along with William Moseley, who would go on to establish the Moseley Architects firm), when they worked together at Marcellus Wright & Partners. “We did the River Towers at about the same time we were designing the Monroe Tower and Berkshire apartments downtown on West Franklin Street.” Explains Cox:  “Everybody was trying to urbanize the former suburbs and we all got stirred up to tear down the crazy old buildings downtown.”

“We had a formula [for designing these apartments]. There were just three floors to design—the ground level, the residential floors and the penthouse. It was real simple.” Cox, who graduated from architecture school at the University of Virginia as a fierce modernist, says:  “Le Corbusier was my hero.” A highlight of his budding architectural career was an impromptu personal tour of the iconic Yale School of Art & Architecture by its architect, Paul Rudolph, soon after the building’s completion in the early 1960s.

River Towers was recently refurbished and rebranded “Riverside 2000.” This name change adjusts the long-misleading implication that there is more than one tower here. Cox says that a second structure, originally intended to be sited at a 90 degree angle to the first building in the block to the immediate east, never materialized after one of the developers withdrew from the project (with funding).

“Almost no building comes easily,” says Cox.


Architectural Ancestry: Mosby Dry Goods Store

Mosby Dry goods

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 former Mosby store at 201-205 West Broad Street was the home of an up-scale department store and was designed by one of the nation’s best department store architects, New York’s Starrett & van Vleck in 1916. They designed Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Abraham & Straus, and Alexander’s in New York City as well as many other stores throughout the nation. The first of their major stores, Lord & Taylor, was designed in 1914, two years before the Mosby store. They would design the Grace Street side of Miller & Rhodes in 1922.

The design for the Mosby store was directly related to New York’s 1906 Gorham Building. Stanford White designed this master piece for the Gorham jewelers and silversmiths while his partner, Charles McKim, designed the flagship store the Tiffany Company. Their firm, McKim, Meade & White was the best known architectural firm in country. White was well known in Virginia as the architect of the reconstruction of Jefferson’s Rotunda and the construction of a new academic group at the end of Jefferson’s lawn. His murder in 1906 tended to overshadow his considerable architectural gifts. The murder involved Evelyn Nesbit, the “girl on the red velvet swing”, and a deranged millionaire, Harry K. Thaw. The resulting trial was sensational in the extreme and ruined White’s reputation.

Both White and McKim’s buildings are masterpieces of commercial design, but the Gorham Building was more graceful, spare and elegant than the Tiffany building. The Gorham Building’s first level arcade is directly related to the early Renaissance work of Brunelleschi in Florence. The glass filled arcade provided the show windows needed for retail establishments.

White combined Renaissance detailing with a high rise building in a way that struck contemporaries as sensible and unaffected. The main level of the Mosby building is vaulted and exceptionally well preserved. The store was technologically advanced and was the first fireproof department store building in Richmond.

The associate architects of the store, Richmond’s Carneal & Johnston, used the same basic design for the Methodist Publishing House Building, best known as the Cokesbury Building at 415 East Grace Street. Built in 1921, this is a direct copy of the Mosby structure. Unfortunately the arched openings have been partially filled in which reduces the impact of the arcade.

The Mosby building remains one of the finest and best preserved buildings of its type in the city. The Gorham building itself was altered by ripping out a part of the arcade in the mid-twentieth Century. The Mosby Building is now closer to looking like the Gorham building than the mutilated original.

Article and images from Robert P. Winthrop

Note: The Mosby Dry Goods Store will soon enter a new chapter in its history as it is remade into a boutique hotel. More information on this contemporary transformation is available here.

Neighborhood Profile: Bon Air

Bon Air 2

Bon Air is a neighborhood in northern Chesterfield County. Located roughly 8 miles west of Downtown Richmond, Bon Air was formed as a getaway for wealthy Richmonders. The name, meaning “good air” in french, was selected to evoke the bucolic countryside which Richmonders could now escape to.

The village was formed around the Bon Air Hotel, built in 1880 in stick style. The resort complex offered a range of amenities from croquet to jousting. Bowling and billiards were soon added, though restricted to male customers. A carpenter gothic chapel was built next to the hotel in 1882, presumably allowing weekending Richmonders to stay in Bon Air for Sunday.  Immediately surrounding the resort complex a number of Richmonders built private vacation homes. The rest of the 1880s saw a growing number of permanent residents in Bon Air and an increasingly complex internal economy.

Richmond’s electric streetcar lines opened in 1888 bringing the most important change to Bon Air since its inception. The line was an outlet to channel additional vacationers from the city to the resort, but its efficiency made commuting the reverse direction feasible. The Bon Air hotel burned to the ground in 1889, reinforcing the shift from resort village to bedroom community, a status which Bon Air retains to this day.

Despite more than 100 years of suburban growth, the core of Bon Air retains the feeling of a Victorian era getaway. The area is anchored by the 1881 annex of the Bon Air Hotel and includes a number of Victorian and stick style residences. This cluster of preserved buildings was listed as a National Historic District in 1988, 100 years after the streetcar reached it.

Today, Bon Air is part of Chesterfield County. The area has no independent municipal structure; it carries only the unimaginative title of “census designated place.” Though the core village has been seamlessly integrated into a larger suburban landscape, the residents of Bon Air continue to celebrate their distinct architectural and historical heritage.


Photographs by author

Sister City Profile: Windhoek, Namibia

Panoramic-View-of-WindhoekAs part of a continuing series, ArchitectureRichmond will document the cities that comprise our five active Sister City partnerships, in order to learn more about similar urban environments throughout the world as a point of reference for our own development.

With a population of approximately 330,000, Windhoek is the geographic, political, economic and cultural center of Namibia, its most populous city and capital. First settled on the site of a hot spring, the present-day city was founded by German colonisation in 1890 with the construction of the Alte Feste (Old Fortress) underway, and the building remains as the city’s oldest structure today. German influence is still seen clearly in the urban planning, ethnic makeup, language, and architecture of the city. One German born architect, Wilhelm Sander, is responsible for three iconic castles in Windhoek, incorporating Tudor and medieval elements with regional materials, resulting in quasi-European symbols of power mingling with thick growths of palm trees and desert plains at temperatures often above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Development in Windhoek slowed in the first half of the 20th Century, picking up in 1948 with the beginning of apartheid rule and several major civic infrastructural projects. Although surrounded by natural reserves of rolling mountains and very little development outside the city’s borders, its recent expansion to an area of 1,982 sq mi makes it the third largest city in the world, geographically. Despite its size, there is little urbanised area outside Windhoek’s center, with most of the built form exhibiting suburban organisational and density characteristics. The isolation inherent in the urban design of these neighborhoods was exacerbated by the segregative behaviors of apartheid and the residents continue to deal with issues of separation and difficulty of access to the city center. With the current urbanization of Namibia, the city of Windhoek is growing at a quick rate of 4.3% per year, much of the growth occurring in informal settlements in the city’s periphery.

As its population is eclectic, so is its architecture. Various buildings incorporate north African style architecture, seen in the Supreme Court building; Art Nouveau elements, as in Christuskirche; and neo-classicism, seen in the Turnhalle. In addition to stylistic interest, Windhoek boasts several notable efforts of sustainable development, and boasts the first water treatment plant in the world to recycle domestic sewage and reuse it as potable water, built in 1958.

Richmond’s Sister Cities relationship with Windhoek has been less active than other cities since the partnership formed in 1998. Both cities have participated in meetings between representative visits and small exchanges including a fire truck that Richmond donated to Windhoek in 2007. With its fascinating history, unique architecture and expected growth, Richmond and Windhoek should further engage each other as there is much to be learned for both capital cities.


In Support of Pear Street


Spatial Affairs Bureau

A controversial new development has been proposed in the East End. The development, commonly known as Pear Street, is sited in Shockoe Bottom at the eastern terminus of Tobacco Row, a street of large tobacco warehouses which has been converted into a mixed use neighborhood. The site is currently zoned for industrial use so the residential development requires a special use permit from City Council. The proposal recently received a recommendation for approval from the Richmond Planning Commission but some East End residents stand in opposition. As such, its fate at City Council remains unclear. This article provides a positive perspective on the Pear Street development and its implications for the city.

I will begin by addressing common concerns voiced by those in opposition to Pear Street. It seems the most common concern is the building’s height. Depending on who you ask, and likely what side of the issue they are on, the building rises 13 or 16 stories. From the Main Street frontage the tower is 13 stories, but the site falls away steeply to the south revealing 3 stories of semi-underground parking. The building would rise only around 45 feet shy of the neighboring Lucky Strike Smoke Stack, making it the tallest habitable building in the neighborhood. The development sits near the base of Libby Hill Park, a popular urban green in Church Hill known for the “View that Named Richmond.” That view, which faces east from the park, will remain unaffected by the development but the larger panorama for the which the park has become known will not. While some oppose the building’s height outright as being incongruous with the neighborhood, most are concerned with the effect it would have on this exceptional view.

I believe that Pear Street will have a positive visual impact on the view from Libby Hill. The building will improve the view from the park by adding a vibrant and modern vertical punctuation to Tobacco Row, one which maintains a dialogue with the adjacent Lucky Strike tower. Few renderings and drawings have been made widely available but those that have show a building with an interesting massing and material choices and window details which respect the character of Tobacco Row without being derivative. Details aside, I think the mass of the tower has been greatly exaggerated by those who would see it undone. A panoramic rendering of the view might show just how slender a footprint the development has in the overall view shed. I don’t know why such an image is not widely available as it would, in theory, illustrate the point of either side.

Beyond and above such aesthetic concerns lie the Pear Street development’s planning implications. Pear Street’s strong vertical density represents a sustainable direction within the overall context of development in the metropolitan area. By concentrating residential units, mid and high rise buildings use less land and require less infrastructure than their horizontally sprawling counterparts. This translates into less urban runoff and habitat destruction. The more “urban” the project (the closer its proximity to a high density of other functions), the more cost effective and environmentally friendly non-automobile transit is. If sufficient density is achieved in the Bottom increasingly intense forms of public transit, such as street cars and light rail, will become more feasible. Density will also make walking and biking more viable by increasing the capacity for retail in an existing area. The proposed building would have a direct and positive impact on the city’s sustainable growth, promoting a pedestrian oriented retail culture in the Bottom.

Pear Street would also contribute to the success of the planned redevelopment of Great Shiplock Park. As the Richmond Riverfront Plan is realized, Great Shiplock will be of increasing importance as it forms the eastern capstone of the central riverfront park system. Pear Street, a residential building, would provide a healthy boost to Great Shiplock park’s user base as well as desirable informal ‘citizen monitoring’ in the mode suggested by Jane Jacobs (1). According to Jacob’s “eyes on the street” principle, the new residents should also help change the reputation of the Bottom, an area known for occasional crime and frequent ‘hooliganism.’

While Pear Street can be viewed as a discrete issue, it is important to tie the development into a larger narrative. I am optimistic about this building and the new phase of American planning which it represents. The fact that people of means might be ready and willing to live in a mid-rise building in Richmond, in Shockoe Bottom no less, would have been mind-boggling to many two decades ago. As the momentum of urban renewal grows, a future of well cared for townhomes and tasteful neighborhood shops is increasingly secure. While the trend has played an important role in shattering the de facto suburbanity of America’s middle classes, I often wonder what might lie beyond it. Are the city’s people open to continual growth or will we set a developmental ceiling somewhere around the current state of, say, the Fan?

Pear Street poses just such a question. Developments like this ask whether Richmond is a city in which urban development means rehabilitated town homes or new multi-family buildings, quaint eateries for the weekend or “real-life” retail for the days in between, or a few bike racks for the young and adventurous or diverse transit for just as diverse a populous. We are likely to face these questions with increasing frequency as the number of pre WWII buildings left unrenovated dwindles. I am proud of what Richmond has accomplished since the failed course charted in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but I feel simply returning to bygone planning is unacceptable. In my view, Pear Street represents an opportunity to move beyond recapturing lost ground to a new developmental high water mark.



ArchitectureRichmond writer Ed Slipek recently covered this issue in a recent article for Style Weekly. Slipek’s piece took a critical perspective on the proposal.  Another article by the Richmond Times Dispatch can be found here.


1. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961. Reprint, New York: Random House, 1992), 35.

June 24th. Note: A typo in a previous version of this article stated that the View that Named Richmond faced west from the park, not east.