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Home RVA A Tale of Two City Halls: Part One, Bringing in the New
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A Tale of Two City Halls: Part One, Bringing in the New

Published on January 4, 2013 by

It was the best of times,

It was the worst of times.

It was Hardywood craft beer,

It was a 40 of PBR.

Welcome to 2013, everybody!  We survived a Mayan Apocalypse, a Fiscal Cliff, and another ad filled election season.  Bully on us!  With the changing of the calendar year comes a changing of the political guard.  While Washington is still looking generally the same, here in RVA we are welcoming three new additions to our City Council.  (Read the RVANews article, here.  This is as deep into current politics as we’re going to get.)

I thought now might be a good time to take a look at City Hall: The Structure, which changes only slightly less than City Hall: The People.  RVA has had three City Halls in its history, and perhaps no buildings in Richmond better personify Richmond’s struggle to stay modern while being steeped in its history.

When someone refers to City Hall they are usually referring to the building which currently houses the City of Richmond Government and its employees.  Since we will be moving through time, this won’t always work.  For clarity’s sake I will refer to the buildings as such: “New City Hall” is the building which currently (January 4, 2013) contains some 800 government employees.  It was built in 1970 and is at 900 East Broad Street.  “Old City Hall” was built in 1894 and is located at 1001 East Broad Street.  “First City Hall” was built in 1816 and was eventually demolished.  (More on that later.)  First City Hall stood about where New City Hall now sits, bringing everything back in a circle of life kind of way.

Let’s talk New City Hall First.

Hey, guys!  Let's build a box!  Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Hey, guys! Let’s build a box! Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Built in 1970 to replace the oft hated working conditions of Old City Hall, the original design for New City Hall was described as, “a straightforward, uniform structure,” in an article for Architectural Record by Sara Hart.  Translation: that building was ugly.

Seriously, look at that thing! Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Seriously, look at that thing! Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Marshall Street looked much different back then!  Photo courtesy of (you guessed it) VCU Libraries.

Marshall Street looked much different back then! Photo courtesy of (you guessed it) VCU Libraries.

When originally built, New City Hall was a Georgia marble-clad box with deeply recessed windows.  Not only was it ugly, but it also became quickly structurally unsound.  The thin marble veneer that just made the box look so lovely was cracking and pulling away from the rest of the building.  Enter SMBW. (Scribner, Messer, Brady & Wade Architects and not fans of the Oxford comma.)  They recommended the removal of a majority of the granite and instead opted for aluminum.  The removed the edges of the box and created the structure that we see today.  (One could call this “Newest City Hall”, but things are complicated enough as it is.)  While I personally would still not call the structure attractive… it is still a vast improvement over the monstrosity of design from the folks who brought you The BeeJees and Saturday Night Fever.

Look less bad, Richmond!  Photo courtesy of me.

Look less bad, Richmond! The cars aren’t quite as interesting, though.  Photo courtesy of me.

Perhaps I am being a bit harsh.  I mean, yeah… I think it’s pretty ugly (but not as ugly as before!)… but the view.  As the fifth tallest building in the City of Richmond, New City Hall stands at 19 stories, or 315 feet.  (96 meters, Britain.  Cheerio!)  On top of that (literally!), the top floor is home to a glass encased observatory that is open to the public during regular business hours.  From the top of this not-quite-as-ugly-but-still-rather-ugly rectangle you can see Richmond spreading out in front of you.  The James River, I-95 running into the distance… it’s all there.  It gives a whole new perspective on the city.

That's something I could stare at for some time.  There are picnic tables that make for a great place to eat lunch.

That’s something I could stare at for some time. There are picnic tables that make for a great place to eat lunch.

 

In the background is the tallest building in Richmond, The Monroe Building.  Also shown is...

In the background is the tallest building in Richmond, The Monroe Building. Also shown is…

As you may also have noticed, there is a rather ornate building that is clearly visible from the observation deck of New City Hall.  That, my friends, would be Old City Hall.  It stands there, a prime example of Gothic Revival.  With a number of granite towers equal to the number of times the building has been slated for demolition.  (That would be 2.)  One even has a clock tower, which always gets me in the mood to perform weather experiments involving a bolt of lightning. (Great Scott!)  Its ornate-itude stands in sharp contrast to the big box I’m currently standing on top of.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…  tune in next week for The New Adventures of Old City Hall!

 
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2 Comments  comments 

2 Responses

  1. This article is great and certainly echoes my feelings about New City Hall. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  2. Dee

    Very interesting history about the City Hall. I’ve been here all my life and I’ve never been to the top…mostly fear of height has prevented me from going up :)

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