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.


Opinion: Filling in the Gaps

 Richmond & Chesapeake Bay Railway Terminal of 1907

Article and photographs by Robert P. Winthrop.

The following is an opinion article 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.

*   *   *

Architects often confront the question if we should express the character of our own age, or restore a neglected or mutilated earlier building.  It seems that in many cases the ego of the architect is the determining factor. Should you restore an earlier appearance to recreate a vanished street scape, or create a new expression?

The architect Steven Holl elected to reject any historic reference in his proposed Institute for Contemporary Art for VCU at the corner of Belvidere and Broad Street.  While the site is surrounded by historic districts and buildings, the site itself is vacant and no trace of its historic context remains.

Steven Holl is an internationally known architect and the character of his work is equally well known.  He was hired to do what he does best: create a dramatic, modern building.  There is an inherent dichotomy between the function of the building as a showplace for modern art and historic preservation concerns. Several blocks away architects have made a different choice.

At Richmond’s oldest surviving theater, the Empire, Commonwealth Architects recreated a long vanished façade. The original triumphal arch front designed by architect Claude K. Howell in 1912 had been stripped off in the middle of the last century. The architect of that renovation stripped away all the fussy and useless decoration and made the Empire into the Booker-T Theater. It was 1950s modern and up-to-date.

The restored front of the Empire, now the November Theater, is more correctly an evocation of the earlier front. The original front had considerably more architectural decoration. The architects made good choices and there is enough of the original façade to recreate the feel and architectural impact of the original.

The old Empire was part of an effort to make Broad Street into Broadway. The renovated November Theater recreates this imagery. It is hard to believe future Richmond will long to recreate the blank front of the Booker-T.

A few blocks away to the west of the proposed Institute of Contemporary Art site was the mutilated front of William Noland’s Richmond & Chesapeake Bay Railway Terminal of 1907. The central feature of the front was a reworking of a triumphal arch designed by Noland & Baskervill. It served as the welcome arch for a street carnival in 1900.  While the Richmond & Chesapeake Bay Railroad never became a great company, the building expressed the hopes and aspirations of the railroad.

Like the November Theater, the front was mutilated. In this case the covering was anodized aluminum, and the destruction beneath the new front was less complete than at the Empire. Recently the aluminum was peeled off revealing the remains of the original façade. Commonwealth Architects has renovated the building and restored the front.

This building is now providing facilities for VCU’s nationally known art program. Historically VCU’s art buildings are both hidden and innocuous.  The Pollack building is a dark hole on Harrison Street. The Anderson Gallery is completely hidden from view.  The large School of the Arts building on Broad Street is stunningly bland and seems to have been carefully designed to insure that no one would ever think that anyone with talent or imagination is associated with VCU.

The triumphal arch of the Terminal is on axis with Linden Street and visually connects the building to the outbreak of monumental buildings facing Monroe Park. William Noland had the rare ability to create an intimate, monumental building.

Both the Richmond & Chesapeake Terminal and the November Theater evoke a time when Richmond was proud to be a modern and sophisticated city. One aspect of this sophistication is expressed in the city’s cultural and artistic life.

Both the Empire and the Terminal were important buildings historically and architecturally. By stripping them of their architectural features, they lost any sense of their importance. They were mutilated.  Instead of expressing the aspirations of a great city, they were renovated into suburban blandness.  They were covered in the material-du-jour of the modern cheap renovation. By recreating these landmark buildings and combining them with new elements such as the ICA, there is a chance that Broad Street will become an expression of Richmond’s cultural and artistic potential.

In Richmond answering the question as to using a modern expression or a traditional expression may be moot. On Broad Street the answer is to be both. 

Manchester Floodwall Walk



Army Corps of Engineers

Following a string of floods during the 1970’s and 80’s, headlined by the city’s worst modern era flood of 36.5 feet in 1972, Richmond took preventative action in the form of a 3.2 mile floodwall system. This article focuses on a portion of that undertaking, the concrete wall in Manchester, which was built to withstand a water level up to 32 feet.

Due to its narrow dimensions and limited space for gathering, the Floodwall Walk is almost always experienced as a journey. If one starts the walk from the west, access is secluded at best with entrances the rear of the Suntrust building’s parking lot or in a nondescript lot off of Semmes Avenue. However the walkway quickly leads to the Manchester Overlook, featuring one of the city’s more flattering angles: a legible density of downtown with picturesque rapids beneath. The trail is continued steeply through a dense overgrowth down to the Manchester Climbing Walls, remnant monoliths of the Richmond and Petersburg railroad bridge which stood during the nineteenth century.  A worn dirt path brings one underneath the massive arched supports of the Manchester Bridge, one of the most awe-inspiring spaces in the city. The heart of the Walk begins atop the concrete floodwall, which curves sharply to bends in the river. Riprap lines its northern face, a granite continuation of the herons’ rocky habitat in the river below. Both draw the attention of birders, fishermen and kayakers in the warmer months. The path rises above the CSX Viaduct and dips down to ground level behind the floodwall, meandering along a canal until a final lookout point at the 14th Street Bridge in the shadow of the Southern States building.

Approaching the 20th anniversary of the floodwall, it is difficult to imagine the river encroaching on the structure as it would have decades ago. Instead of a multi-million dollar barrier, what we see now is a path, a view, a park. While the structure doesn’t allow for the same level of pedestrian access to the river’s edge and the associated wading or sunbathing, it has become an amenity unique for a piece of civil engineering inherently intended to divide. And in contrast to the Canal Walk, its manicured counterpart along the northern banks of the James, the Manchester Floodwall Walk resembles a wilder kind of beauty, grown from layers of imposing infrastructure, untamed vegetation, minimal human intrusion and the incomparable James.


Photographs by author and D.OK.

Sister Cities profile: Saitama

Saitama A.R. 6

Saitama is a city of roughly 1.2 million inhabitants located in the Kanto region of Japan, near the eastern coast of the country’s main island. While some form of the name Saitama can be traced back more than 1,200 years, the modern city was established in 2001 as part of political reconsolidation of several existing municipalities. The city serves as the capital of Saitama prefecture, fulfilling a role much like Richmond within Virginia.

Unlike Richmond, Saitama does not define it’s own metropolitan region. Instead, it lies within the greater urban area of Tokyo. As such, many of its residents commute to Tokyo for work. The city’s comparatively affordable residential square footage and proximity to Tokyo has turned the entire prefecture into a bedroom community. Still, Saitama is home to a growing internal economy. Many service sector jobs, which account for the majority of employment, are clustered around the city’s urban core, Omiya Station.

As in most Japanese cities, rail infrastructure has been a dominant force in shaping Saitama. Omiya Station has served as the area’s central rail transit hub since 1885. It now unites city bus and rail functions with pedestrian and bicycle amenities. The station’s periphery is the most densely built section of the prefecture with numerous office towers, department stores, and cultural buildings. Omiya station is also a hub for inter-city rail including one of Japan’s well known bullet train routes. This integration of inner and inter-city transit with a variety of mixed-use and pedestrian oriented urbanity is similar to what many in Richmond envision for Main Street Station. Our Sister City serves as a relevant example of how to address our own sustainable transportation planning challenges.

Saitama’s population growth and modern infrastructure has not been at the expense of its history which continues to define its character. Many of Saitama’s most important traditional sites are located just to the north east of the city center. The Omiya Bonzai Village is home to numerous workshops, a shopping street, and a museum, all dedicated to this ancient botanical art form. The area is anchored by the Hikawa Shrine, a large religious complex dating back to 473 B.C.E..

The interaction between history and modernity, or perhaps the line between them, is an issue faced by Richmond and Saitama. So are sustainability, transit, and land use. No doubt, each city would benefit from an examination of the other. Richmond’s status as Saitama’s Sister City affords that very opportunity.

The two cities currently operate an exchange for students and teachers, as well a little league baseball tournament which has been running for nearly 20 years. More information about the partnership can be found on the City Council’s website.

Photographs by author

Architects of Richmond: Max Ernst Ruehrmund

The Anne Frances

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.

*   *   *

Max Ruehrmund (1891-1948) was a younger son of Carl Ruehrmund, and the only one to take up a career in architecture. Born in Richmond, he received an engineering degree with honors from the Virginia Military Institute in 1912.

After graduation, he returned to Richmond and worked for his father. This was his only architectural training, although he would have had considerable drafting experience from VMI.  Max Ruehrmund’s work was almost entirely residential and he developed many projects himself along with his father and sometimes with cousins, Carl Lindner and Charles Phillips.  While Ruehrmund did some work with upscale housing, most of his development work was for middle and working class housing.

It is difficult to know who designed what in his work. The first apartment designed by Ruehrmund and Son, dates from 1916 and was located on Lombardy near Grove Avenue. It was built for H. A. Phillips. Mr. Phillips may have been Charles Phillips’ father and Max’s uncle. By 1918 Max was the developer for his own projects. He developed five projects that year.  He developed 14 projects in 1919.

In 1922 the Manufacturer’s Record listed a $1,250,000 project consisting of ten apartment houses and 150 homes in what is now the West of the Boulevard area between Belmont and Roseneath Road. The permits for the apartments were listed separately by the city, but only a few of the houses were separately permitted.

In total, there are 79 permits for apartment houses by Max Ruehrmund and permits for 165 houses. There are another 100 or so houses mentioned in the Manufacturer’s Record that were not in the list of permits. This includes 80 houses on Rosewood Avenue. Ruehrmund seems to have regarded himself as being primarily a developer and his designs tended to be standardized. Since he designed over seventy apartment houses, mostly in the West of the Boulevard area, obviously standardization was necessary.

Examination of building permits shows that Ruehrmund would undertake a cluster of projects one year and then would do another cluster several years later when the first group was presumably finished and occupied. Real estate developers are often caught in a boom or bust cycle and this was the case with Ruehrmund.

The 1919 apartments included the Anne Frances Apartments on Monument Avenue, his most impressive apartment house. This is a grand composition with a bowed two-story, Corinthian portico on a limestone base. The detailing is sophisticated, elegant and refined. Two years later he designed the Halifax two blocks away. The Halifax used paired columns to create a grand composition. His own house sits next door.  It is an Art & Crafts design with German medieval overtones. Most of his projects were in a slightly medieval style with a preference for Tudor.

While it is clear that Ruehrmund was skilled at creating impressive, up-scale compositions and buildings, he came to specialize in more modest structures.  His specialty was in creating three story walk-up apartments in a Tudor-Elizabethan style.  There is no clear indication if Max or his father designed these buildings. Ruehrmund & Son was listed as Max E. Ruehrmund by 1920 in city permits. When Carl Ruehrmund died in 1927, the architecture of the firm lost its flare and inspiration. While this may be due to Max’s financial situation, it is possible the senior Ruehrmund had exercised some quality control over the work.

The Tudor-Elizabethan apartments are impressive and quite elaborately detailed. Where they have been well maintained, they retain considerable charm. He also designed less elaborate buildings in a simpler Craftsman inspired style. Many of his buildings feature paired gables flanking a central entrance feature. The decoration is varied for each project, although these variations are minor.

Max was interested in providing modest housing for working class and middle class families. This is a market that was not addressed by most architects. In 1915 he undertook his first development project, a group of low-cost cottages on Idlewood Avenue. These sold for $500.00 each and remarkably many remain in use today.  These century old houses are in good physical condition, and many are being renovated by young families.

His architectural career seems to have ended with the Stock Market crash. His last apartment house permit of 1930 is a simplified Art Deco building in Stuart Avenue. The last housing project permit was in 1927.

With his cousins, Carl Lindner and Charles Phillips, Max had a great influence on the architecture of the West of the Boulevard area as well as the residential areas associated with Byrd Park. The restoration and rehabilitation of these building would transform these areas.


Robert Winthrop

Virginia’s Favorite Architecture

Virignia's Favorite Architectue Mashup AR Richmond selections-01

Recently, the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects conducted an open poll to determine the commonwealth’s most beloved buildings. The result is “Virginia’s Favorite Architecture,” a list of 100 well known structures around the state. Richmond had a deservedly good showing, earning 23 of the overall spots. Here are three more Richmond structures which would have made good additions.

While the list covers a wide range of building uses, the facilities / public utilities category could have used a few more examples. One such case is the Byrd Park Pump House, part of Pump House Park . The building is fascinating for its integration of social and utility functions; it served as a pump house and dance hall. The gothic revival structure would also be the only on the list by designer Wilfred E Cutshaw, the city engineer who heavily influenced Richmond’s public spaces during Reconstruction.

Another architectural quality the list could have placed more emphasis on is interiors. While many buildings on the list contain beautiful spaces, few of them are chosen because of their exceptional interior design. The VCU Brandcenter is such a building. A contemporary renovation and addition of a brick carriage house for the university’s graduate advertising and communications school, the structure is special not for its exterior appearance but for its striking internal spaces. Its volume seems to be flooded with natural light. Its organization is fluid yet circulation patterns are clear. Bright colors and flexible, creative workspaces enliven the building from the inside out. Its innovative design makes it a worthy entry on Virginia’s contemporary architecture ledger.

Church Hill’s ChildSavers Building, formerly home to the radio station WRVA, is well known for its unique form and dramatic site. Big name architect Philip Johnson designed the building in 1968, adding some international cache to the neighborhood. The lawn on the building’s west side commands an expansive view of Richmond’s skyline. This and the neighboring overlook are popular spots for taking photos, lounging, and enjoying the scenery. While the ChildSavers building is often the backdrop for these activities, it excels as in that capacity. Its rough hewn concrete faces accept the shadows of surrounding magnolias and crape myrtles gracefully; the building has a surprisingly southern ambience for being designed by a man from Cleveland. Somehow, the ChildSavers building seems like it has always been there, which makes it deserving of a spot alongside other time-honored Virginia structures.

The VSAIA should be commended for this undertaking. Both the initial vision and the voter response suggest that interest in a beautiful, culturally-informed built environment is alive and well in the commonwealth. Surely Virginians can take pride in the wealth of quality architecture in the state.

M.F.A. and D.OK.

Photographs by D.OK.
Background photos in lead graphic taken from “Virginia’s Favorite Architecture”

Retail Has Come to South Addison

Addison 1

Addison Street has been a main north-south retail corridor of the Fan District for decades, even before its northern portion was renamed “Strawberry Street” in 1978. What is now Strawberry Street has long benefited from a posh clientele while its southern half has been ignored, especially since the Downtown Expressway separated it from Byrd Park in 1976. Thanks to a new group of pioneering retailers, that is beginning to change.

Lamplighter Roasting Company opened on Addison Street in 2009. The shop’s clever reuse of an old-school automobile service station turned heads, leading some life-long Richmonders to venture south of Cary Street for the first time in decades. 2013 brought the next wave in the neighborhood’s evolution with three new shops following Lamplighter’s lead.

Addison Handmade & Vintage and Yesterday’s Heroes sell consignment and small batch items, mostly clothing. Addison Handmade & Vintage is arranged sparsely, letting its pressed tin ceiling and fashionable bare-filament bulbs stand out. Yesterday’s Heroes has taken a more rugged approach to both stock and design; one wall features a hardwood panel covered in military garb. Halona, a glass arts shop, rounds out the trio, which is located in a quaint, party walled commercial row.

Unlike their coffee shop progenitor, these stores deal in hard goods. The Fan District’s status as hot bed of culinary activity has been a model for urban rejuvenation elsewhere in Richmond. However, the Fan now faces the problem of accommodating a new, pedestrian-oriented populace that wants to access more than just a good meal on foot. Three such stores in a row constitutes a remarkable achievement in this regard. A once obscure corner of the neighborhood is now showing how the Fan can again lead Richmond into a new phase of urban transformation.


Photographs by author.