Portfolio: Modernism of Willow Lawn

AR West End Portfolio 12
Willow Lawn Shopping Center opened in Richmond’s Near West End in 1956. The development was a new frontier in the city, giving concrete form to the postwar American Dream of middle class suburbanity. In the mall’s periphery a new type of suburban landscape was being developed. Offices, hotels, and apartments were created, replicating the economic diversity of the old city center on a horizontally stretched plane. The vast spaces between building plots were filled alternately with asphalt and trimmed grass. On this open podium, mid-century architects set to work creating exuberant modern sculptures to be viewed in the round.

In the past half century, development has pushed further west and intensified. The suburban landscape is no longer remarkable; instead it is expected. Meanwhile, changing demographics and tastes have left the office parks of Willow Lawn feeling antiquated despite the atmosphere of optimism in which they were made. Its buildings now stand as surreal monuments, simulacra of a future that never materialized.

This series of photos attempts to capture the unique landscape of Willow Lawn.

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Photographs by author.

Maymont

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Architect: Edgerton S. Rogers
Dates: 1890-1893
Address: 1700 Hampton Street, 2201 Shields Lake Drive

Maymont was built in 1890 as the Gilded Age estate of millionaire businessman and philanthropist James H. Dooley. The mansion was built for himself and his wife, Sallie May Dooley, and named in her honor.

The 100 acre estate was a dairy farm up until it was purchased by Dooley in 1890. Architect Edgerton S. Rogers of Richmond was commissioned to build a 33 room mansion on the highest hill on the property. From this vista the Dooleys could survey the James river or descend into any of their gardens at will. The house is eclectically Victorian in style, favoring the rusticated stonework and steep gables of the then popular Romanesque.

During the decades that the Dooley’s inhabited the home, increasingly elaborate and exotic gardening programs were carried out. The family’s collection of art and oddities from around the world grew simultaneously and now contains pieces ranging from Tiffany vases to a jewel box that is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. The most impressive pieces in the estate are the many species of trees collected by James Dooley on his travels abroad.  The couple lived in the mansion until 1925 when they passed away. The Dooleys willed the estate, gardens and all, to the City of Richmond and its people.

Now a city park, Maymont is eminently accessible. Close to density of Richmond’s urban core and just across the Nickel bridge from the largely suburban south side, the estate serves as a welcome respite to city residents. Within the confines of the park, visitors can tour the historic home and grounds, or spend time at the children’s zoo, nature center, or the always popular Italian and Japanese gardens. The park attracts well over half a million people each year and admission is free.

Maymont was recognized in 2011 as one of the ten best public spaces in the country by the American Planning Association.

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Photos by M.F.A.

The Locks

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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.

Flume
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.

E.S.

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.

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2000 Riverside

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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.

E.S.

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.

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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

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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 still resembles 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.

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Photographs by author