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.

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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 Louden 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 Pittsburg. 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 building 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 rage form 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 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 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 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.

M.F.A.

Photographs by author

St. Peter’s Catholic Church

IMG_6706

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.”

E.S.

Photographs by M.F.A.

The Next Step

AR Thank You WordPress-01
On new year’s day, our Kickstarter campaign closed with nearly $5,500 in support from our readers. We would like to give a sincere thank you to everyone who donated in support of architecture, design, and planning journalism in our city.

We are now hard at work, fulfilling rewards for our donors and putting together a new website with our programmer. In a couple of months, we should have the all-new site up, complete with the visual inventory, maps, walking tours and more. Even as the new site is under construction, we will be posting new articles to the existing site so keep checking in. Readers can look forward to fresh articles from the core team, a new series of articles from long time contributor Robert Winthrop, and fresh perspectives from some new faces. 2015 will be the best year yet, thanks to you.

Sincerely,

A.R. Staff,

Mario Accordino
Don O’Keefe
Edwin Slipek

A Brand New ArchitectureRichmond

Architecture Richmond Kickstarter Package-01

In 2011, three friends, Mario Accordino, Don O’Keefe, and Ed Slipek, had an idea for a way to give something back to their native city of Richmond. The goal was simple. They wanted to create an organization that helped residents and visitors alike to better connect with the city.

In three years, ArchitectureRichmond has published some 150 articles on the site. We have documented and illuminated buildings, spaces, events, and issues in neighborhoods across the city. Now ArchitectureRichmond must grow to provide options that enable people to learn about and take pride in the city we call home.

The images above show what the new ArchitectureRichmond will look like. Every existing part of the site will be revamped, with an improved homepage, a searchable version of our growing architectural inventory, and a video explaining our mission. Joining these improvements will be brand new features like architecture maps and DIY walking tours, all optimized for mobile viewing.

Our goal is as simple now as it was then: make the best resource for local architecture and urbanism in the country. As of today, ArchitectureRichmond is launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $5,000 by New Year’s. This budget will allow us to design and program the new website and features, produce our first video feature, and create new printed materials including some great thank you gifts for our supporters. Please take a look at our Kickstarter and make a commitment to architecture and design journalism in Richmond. We can do it, but we need your help.

Thank you.

ArchitectureRichmond Staff,
Mario Accordino, Don O’Keefe, and Ed Slipek
Link to our Kickstarter campaign:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/architecturerichmond/architecturerichmond-20

Portfolio: Holidays in Richmond

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A Special Holiday Announcement: ArchitectureRichmond would like to remind our readers to visit our Kickstarter page and make a commitment to architecture and design journalism in Richmond today. You can learn more about our Kickstarter campaign here. Thank you.

Tangled lights and wreaths are dragged out of the closet across the country every year, and Richmond is no exception. These themed decorations have more than an impact on one’s mood or shopping stress. They can fundamentally change the experience of the architecture and urbanism of a place. Colored lights illuminate and frame the voids that exist as structural solids in the daytime. Wreaths and ribbons emphasize or alter a facade’s identity and direct gazes to previously unnoticed details and perspectives. Leftover or unused walls and spaces become canvases for expression and gathering, all in the spirit of the season. These fifteen photos are but a small sample of Richmond’s architectural transformation during the winter.

M.F.A.

Photographs by M.F.A., final three by D.OK.

Stuart Court Apartments

AR Stuart Court 5


William Lawrence Bottomley
1924
1600 Monument Avenue

A Special Announcement: ArchitectureRichmond would like to remind our readers to visit our Kickstarter page and make a commitment to architecture and design journalism in Richmond today. You can learn more about our Kickstarter campaign here. Thank you.

The Stuart Court Apartments stands at the northwest corner of Stuart Circle and both derive their names from the statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart in the central roundabout. Stuart Circle is an architectural showcase intersection, studded with notable works: St. John’s United Church of Christ, by Carl Max Lindner Sr., and the First English Lutheran Church and Stuart Circle Hospital, now know as One Monument Avenue, both the work of Charles Robinson. The architect of Stuart Court, New York City based William Lawrence Bottomley, would have been well aware of these designers as he practiced extensively in Richmond. His design responds accordingly.

Dating to 1924, Stuart Court is the youngest structure on the circle, excluding the addition to One Monument Avenue. This gap can be felt in the building’s siting. Rather than bending with the corner as others on the intersection do, Stuart Court retreats. The setback forms a concave space which accommodates a drop off lane, a record of the increasing importance of automobiles by the 1920s. Population and housing demand increased in 1920s Richmond as well, and those pressures are also readable in the building’s form. At 10 stories, it is the tallest building in the urban portion of Monument Avenue and is one of only a few mid-rise buildings in the neighborhood west of Monroe Park .

Stylistically, the lower registers of Stuart Court match the ground level norm in Monument Avenue. The simple planes of the facade are adorned with quoins and Georgian Revival window mouldings. At the upper reaches, Bottomley switched to eclectic polychrome panels of ornament, vaguely Moorish in origin. Negative space between the low relief ornament was painted in contrasting colors which makes it greatly more readable from ground level. The final three floors of the building stagger back from the street, culminating in a palatial roof composition with chimneys, urns, and auxiliary structures adding romance to the tower’s terraced profile.

Today Stuart Court is home to around 60 units of housing, some with up to 3 bedrooms and separated dining, kitchen, and living spaces. The basement retail space is one of the few along Monument Avenue. The staircase down from the street is flanked by oversized urns, creating a subtly funerary ambience. Despite the prime location, distinguished history, and generous plans, the exterior seems to have fallen on hard times. Many of the original cornices, moldings, finials, and urns have been lost and patch work paint jobs litter the facade. Still, the building’s most valuable contribution to the neighborhood may be demographic rather than architectural in nature. The Stuart Court Apartments allow a many people to realize the dream of living along Richmond’s most prestigious residential avenue who would otherwise have to look elsewhere.

D.OK