The Source for Richmond Architecture and Design Information

Opinion: Why VCU Shouldn’t Destroy the West Hospital


For nearly two centuries, the VCU Medical Center has been expanding steadily in the Court End neighborhood of central Richmond. This vast complex of hospitals, classrooms, offices, laboratories, and dorms has become an important engine of Richmond’s wellbeing and growth. It is also an increasingly important center for research, being one of less than 60 hospitals in the nation designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.

The continued success of the VCU Medical Center is vital to Richmond’s future, but its advancement should not (and does not need to) come at the expense of our city’s physical, historical, and aesthetic character. That is what makes the school’s recently revealed plan to demolish the West Hospital building so disturbing. The West Hospital, a 17-story tower at the corner of Broad and 12th streets, is one of the most significant art deco structures in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Its textured brickwork, decorative brass and copper ornament, and striking ziggurat form have enriched the city’s landscape since it was completed in 1941.

The University has considered demolishing the West Hospital at several points, but each time wiser minds have prevailed after considering the building’s aesthetic and historical importance. Preserving the West Hospital would be in line with some of VCU’s other successful restoration efforts on the medical campus, including the Hunton Student Center (1841) and the famed Egyptian Building (1845). The university struck a sensible balance between historic preservation and modern needs when it replaced the 7-story A. D. Williams Clinic, essentially a smaller version of the West Hospital to its immediate north, with the McGlothlin Medical Education Center. The McGlothlin building (designed by well-known New York architect Pei, Cobb, Freed) is directly connected to the West Hospital, and the two make a happy marriage.

Even the 2020 VCU Master Plan called for updating the West Hospital for continued use as offices. This makes the university’s recent about-face all the more puzzling. The mechanical systems and ceiling heights of the building may be too dated for medical uses, but it can surely be repurposed for classrooms, offices, or even dormitories. The environmental impact of demolishing a building of this size is also questionable. The preservation mantra that “the greenest building is the one that already exists” is not always true, but it certainly is in this case.

Ultimately, VCU’s plan to destroy the West Hospital is a bad idea not only because it would deprive the city of one of its most charismatic structures, but because there isn’t a convincing need to. The Court End neighborhood may be densely built by Richmond’s standards, but it is hardly Midtown Manhattan or the Chicago Loop. If the University can’t redevelop one of the many parking lots or decks they own, they might consider growing upward, rather than out. There are many ways to expand without demolishing the West Hospital. VCU should pursue them.

Don O’Keefe

Image credit: Taber Andrew Bain via Creative Commons License

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *