Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Season of Big Ideas

The recently deceased Navy Hill project is not the only Big Idea in Richmond city planning that has come and gone. Richmond’s designers and architects, politicians and businessmen have often become enamored with grand plans, and Navy Hill is just the most recent of these always sweeping and often misguided proposals.  One good example emerged in 1972 that combined Capitol Square and a suburban shopping mall, the entire park was turned into a concrete plinth on which to display Virginia’s Capitol Building. The hollowed interior of the hill below the Capitol was to be devoted to subterranean offices and that barrack of commuter culture, a parking deck.

As ridiculously ugly as the 1972 Capitol Square proposal was, for sheer destruction of downtown Richmond nothing beats a proposal from the 1920s to create a vast plaza across Broad Street, running north several blocks from the Capitol to a mammoth City municipal campus.  The title given this horror makes it seem even more evil in its banality: “Civic Center.”

The appalling plan proposed in the 1920s to erase the center of the City of Richmond, replacing it with a concentration of law and government in a formal park setting.

The drawing, “Proposed Civic Center for Richmond Virginia – Study No. 4” is from the collection of the Library of Virginia and was among the files of architectural drawings discovered some years ago in the basement of the current City Hall. This document was not the creation of some wild-eyed consultant from out of town but is a City-generated  production.  The signature on the plan, “Drawn by W.F. Beamon,” is that of William F. Beamon, at an employee of the City of Richmond Department of Public Works.

Christopher Silver, writing in “Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics and Race,” noted “James Bolton, Chief of the city’s Bureau of Survey and Design, informed the newly reconstituted City Planning Commission in 1932 that his department already possessed a number of preliminary studies concerning ‘development of a Civic Center,’” and this drawing may be part of those studies.

The roll of historic buildings lost if this plan had been implemented would have been a monstrous blow to the history of Richmond and a historic and architectural loss of national importance.  The buildings to be destroyed in the “Civic Center” proposal include Broad Street Methodist Church, designed by Albert West in 1859, which then still stood on the corner of Tenth and Broad.  Both First Baptist Church (1841) and First African Baptist Church, built in 1876, would be leveled, as would the John Marshall House (1788).  Perhaps worst of all, the 1814 Monumental Church would have been demolished, and its shattered walls probably dumped down the hill into Shockoe Valley along with much of Richmond’s architectural history. 

In the 1920s proposal, VCU’s Cabaniss Hall was saved from the proposed demolition of many buildings around it, including the Monumental Church (to the right).  Ironically, Robert Mills’ 1814 church still stands as one of Richmond’s greatest architectural treasurers, while Cabaniss Hall (shown here during demolition in 1992) no longer stands.

If you stood today on the corner of Broad Street in front of the National Theater and held one hand pointed north, up Seventh Street, and held one hand pointed east, down Broad Street, almost everything visible between your hands would have been erased.  In the distance, the square bulk of the 1846 VCU Egyptian Building would have stood in silhouette against the green tree line of Church Hill.  You’d be looking at it across twenty-five city blocks of broken glass, brick dust, and shattered siding boards.

On the right side of the study, the brick walkways of the Capitol Square meander much as they always have, but the landscape uphill has been seriously altered. In the corner of Capitol Square the distinctive footprints of the Finance Building (1895) and the 1922 State Office Building remain in “Study No. 4.” However, the brick Bell Tower that was the visual terminus of Franklin Street since it was constructed in 1824, is gone.  Virginia’s elegant Governor’s Mansion (1813) has been erased from the landscape and apparently replaced by a statuary group mirroring the Washington memorial.  The Memorial Hospital (built in 1900) on the corner of Broad and Governor streets may have been spared, but the three houses behind it of Morson’s Row (built in 1853) appear in this drawing to be covered by a street labeled, “To 14th & Main Sts.” This new street was apparently planned to blast its way downhill toward the river, taking a path directly through another now-vanished Richmond neighborhood called Council Chamber Hill.

The boundaries to the north of Capitol Square have been expanded in this proposal, replacing the ornate Gothic granite Old City Hall (1894) with one of two “museums” on the plan.  The central museum building with flanking State offices would look north over a large open space with symmetrically planted trees.  A new State Library would replace the one then in Capitol Square and on the west, an enormous “Auditorium” building almost the size of a city block forms the western side of the complex.

A detail of the “Civic Center” plan, showing the reengineering of Capitol Square, now open to the north, toward the looming presence of the Richmond Municipal Building tower. 

Across Broad Street a large park set with symmetrical walks and a “mirror pool” faced the “Municipal Building” and tower. The building and its central tower were designed by Richmond architectural firm, Carneal and Johnston, working with Alfred Bossom, an English architect.  Bossom designed the First National Bank Building at 823 East Main Street, one of Richmond’s first “skyscrapers,” which was completed in 1913.  Bossom termed the proposed design of Richmond’s new municipal tower “nothing short of brilliant,”  saying “If those who were so ready to criticize the award and the manner of building that was provided in the winning design had only taken the trouble to examine the plans first, they would have forgotten to criticize.” 

As planned, the new Municipal Tower would be 40 feet taller than Bossom’s 262-foot bank building on Main Street and just short of the height of the modern Richmond City Hall, which is 315 feet tall.

When the plan for the new Municipal Tower were published, they weren’t universally hailed as the triumph that architect Bossom promised.  “The design for the new municipal building in Richmond is described as a combination of a Greek Temple and an Egyptian obelisk,” commented the Radford News, adding bleakly, “it looks like some kind of combination.” 

A Lynchburg newspaper was merciless in its folksy criticism of the new municipal headquarters and made comments later termed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as “a vein of very objectionable sarcasm:"

The new Richmond building appears to be a cross between the most modern type of twenty-foot-front skyscraper and the old-style tobacco warehouse.  If it were a little more rounded it might look like a capsized carpet tack , and if it were globular, it might look like a shoe button, but as it is, it looks nothing more than Richmond’s new municipal building.  We understand that the people of Richmond sent to New York for an architect to select plans for the building.  He must remind himself of the fisherman who fished all week and caught a frog.

The towering City Hall and its surrounding Civic Center did not survive the two economic blows of the Great Depression and World War II.  With peace and buoyed by the optimism and industry of post-war America, in 1946 the Richmond Planning Commission issued a new Master Plan, part of which again addressed the idea of a carefully planned “Civic Center.”  The formality of the earlier plan gave way to a more modern and relaxed arrangement, with much attention given to the needs of the Medical College of Virginia (today’s V.C.U. Medical Center).  A screen of generously-spaced hospital and research buildings (labeled 18 on the plan) surrounds downtown on the north-east. 

This proposal for a new “Civic Center”
appeared in the City’s 1946 Master Plan.

Despite calling for the demolition of Richmond’s granite gothic masterpiece, the 1894 City Hall, the 1946 Master Plan claimed to have great respect for particular historical structures, calling for the destruction of any context around them to properly show them off.  “All these buildings are now surrounded by other structures,” the authors of the Master Plan state, “…and the creation of open space around them is imperative if their charm is to be preserved.”  The effect would be more of an unnatural open-air display of Richmond’s history than then seeing these irreplaceable structures against the variety of buildings that were always their backdrop and setting.

A detail of the 1946 plan for Downtown Richmond.

The site of the much-derided 1894 City Hall is shown as an open lawn north to Broad Street, framed by the new (1940) State Library building on the east and what is now the General Assembly building on the west. The lawn continues north of Broad between a large municipal office building and a State office building, and ends at the reproduced 1818 City Hall and the 1812 John Wickham house, now the Valentine Museum.  The City Market at Sixth and Marshall streets has been expanded to take up an entire block.  Across Marshall Street, a massive “Armory, Sports Arena and Auditorium” was planned to replace the 1910 Richmond Blues Armory.  To the east, a “State Museum” and its formal landscape has replaced the fated Council Chamber Hill neighborhood.

Richmond’s 1814 City Hall.  Alarmed by the collapse of part of the Capitol in 1870, the City of Richmond tore the building down three years later.  Part of the 1946 plan was to duplicate it as an annex to the Valentine Museum.

One of the most astonishing proposals of the Master Plan is the reconstruction of Richmond’s first City Hall, which was completed in 1818 and demolished by the City 55 years later.  “The Valentine -Wickham House was designed by Mills, and it is suggested the brick buildings crowding this architectural gem on the west be torn down and replaced by a reproduction of the first City Hall which was also designed by Mills.  This should add greatly to the historical appeal of the Civic Center.”  This “New, Old, Old City Hall” is shown on the plan above marked 12.

In the grand sweep of Richmond history, the drawing called “Study No. 4” is not that important.  It is a 90 year-old plan that was never implemented and an odd survivor when so much more valuable documentation has disappeared over the years.  And yet, as a cautionary tale, it is invaluable.  So is the nasty testimony of the plan for the suburban mall and Capitol Square mashup and the ideas put forward by the 1946 Master Plan.  They all illustrate the horrible consequences of poor planning and overly bold architects in the employ of ambitious politicians.   

The urban prairie where the real Navy Hill once stood and our giant, dead coliseum will have to wait for another wave of municipal planners.  They will no doubt come armed with PowerPoint presentations of vast, open spaces teeming with happy citizens, baking in the Richmond heat and surrounded by the inevitable ring of colorful if meaningless Festival Flags. Navy Hill will no doubt one day again be built on, but let us not forget the dire tales provided by the proposals of the past and the irreversible consequences of the next Big Idea.

- Selden.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Imagine how many nice old buildings there would be if they hadn't torn down navy hill to build the colosseum in the first place. And Fulton bottom, and... The list goes on.

Also consider that in 1920 many of the old venerable buildings that they were thinking about tearing down were only about 100 years old. People don't think much about a building from the 1920 nowadays......