4.27.2012 Three eccentric mid-century office buildings in Richmond's Willow Lawn readily serve as semaphores of a new preservation paradox (first image). The last entry discussed architect Haigh Jamgochian, his radical unbuilt work, and his acclaimed Markel Building (1965), which in 2008, was designated as a historic landmark for Henrico County. Adjacent to his crinkled ilk of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (1959), two buildings designed by Richmond-based architect Edward Francis Sinnott, Jr. are seldom viewed tout ensemble with the Markel Building, even if they similarly exemplify the Modern Movement in its transition to postmodernity. Completed five years after the Markel building, the Eastern Shore Realty and Continental Insurance firms contribute to a site now rife with paradoxes of preservation practice. Against the liminal affect of their site, these buildings linger on the threshold between alien and icon (Eastern Shore is shown in elevation, and the Continental is shown in a rendering as well as a current photograph).
The Preservation Paradox
Whether simplifying or convoluting the paradox at hand, Boston-based architect and historic preservation expert David Fixler has observed that “preservation is a modern construct." The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, in fact, gives some ground to Fixler’s observation, describing preservation as a tone in the "productive harmony" of modern society. While the Act pioneered a legal process for preservation, its rhetoric bordered that of a poetic manifesto, which can be partially credited to the report that formed its language, With Heritage So Rich (1965). Presented at the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, it cited failed urban renewal schemes and sprawling development as its catalyst, marking the shift of urban planning from a mere trajectory of architectural practice to a profession that regulates development. This excerpt adapted from the report became one of the seven purposes of the NHPA:
In the face of ever-increasing extensions of urban centers, highways, and residential commercial, and industrial developments, the present governmental and nongovernmental historic preservation programs and activities are inadequate to insure future generations a genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation.
While these federal preservation measures formed in the mid 1960s, so did the development at West Broad and Willow Lawn. As an historic district, it would interpret the classic American corporate landscape as well as modernism’s transition into postmodernism. Thus, it would also represent one aspect of the very impetus of the NHPA. Though Jamgochian and Sinnott’s buildings did not displace an existing urban fabric, they readily exemplify the problem of “ever-increasing... urban centers” cited in the Act. This site also exemplifies the quintessential brand of postmodern urbanism: sprawl. As firms preferred locating in Richmond’s periphery, the historic core suffered a high rate of commercial vacancy, which still plagues it today.
Even if mournfully, early examples of sprawl are being historically canonized, while reaching the legal age for preservation. The geographer David Ley wrote one of these eulogies to healthy cities:
A corporate urban landscape, the product of an increasingly corporate society, became the legacy of the Modern Movement, and through the 1960s and 1970s a critique emerged that the planning and design of the modern city was a blueprint for placelessness, of anonymous, impersonal spaces, massive structures and automobile throughways...
Often considered the pioneers of postmodern architecture (as well as postmodern urban theory), Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown viewed “placelessness” rather objectively (if not optimistically) in their late 1960s report on Las Vegas' strip, Learning from Las Vegas. For Venturi and Scott Brown, sprawl like the Shops at Willow Lawn would soon be recognized as significant historic fabric:
The vivid imagery by night and day that characterizes this urban and rural phenomenon is artfully perceived from the moving car via its bold scale in our Automobile Age while its Pop iconography involving signs and symbols vitally engages the hype-sensibility that predominates in our Information Age.
The surroundings of these buildings site undoubtedly represent this “hype sensibility,” which continues to develop even further west. Even more so, it illustrates Ley’s observation that an increasingly corporate America catalyzed sprawl.
Bernstein Enterprises and the Exodus from East Grace to Willow Lawn
A site visit to the Continental building revealed an uncanny relationship between its very own setting, the development seen across the street at the Shops at Willow Lawn and the exodus of commerce from Richmond’s historic core. On the fourth floor, the offices of Bernstein Enterprises, photographs of past development projects lined the walls, with the Continental building displayed as one of their own (image showing the white building with arches spanning its facade). Another rendering revealed that they had also commissioned the adjacent Eastern Shore building (image showing the stumpy concrete Brutalist expression). Against these and an assortment of severely gaunt complexes, a vintage photograph of the East Grace Street shopping district seemed incredibly alien (black and white image showing the 500 block).
Perhaps not ironically, Bernstein Enterprises had actually developed East Grace Street, one of the most attractive commercial strips in the city’s historic core once known as “the Fifth Avenue of Richmond.” First fully active around the 1950s, this strip has remained dormant since the 1980s—the same time that Bernstein expanded their own Shops at Willow Lawn to attract commerce to Richmond’s West End (the last image showing the vacant Lane Bryant at 509-513 East Grace Street). Bernstein Enterprises still owns these properties, and the entry for 509-513 East Grace describes the terms for occupying the buildings, which seem far from an investor's definition of expedient. Still, these properties contribute to the East Grace Street Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Place, while the historical importance of the Continental building and its surroundings—the very place that catalyzed their vacancy—begins to surface.
While the many criticisms of postmodern urbanism reflect an overall sense of resentment of downtown exoduses in favor of mediocre architecture and automobile-oriented urbanism, the grounds for its characteristic of placelessness seem too dismissive. To recall Venturi and Scott Brown’s approach, capturing the essence of a place may simply be in the eye of the beholder. In a personal interview, Scott Brown explained:
You use the notion that problems push you in a direction you find unacceptable and ugly. But if you live with them, think about them, work with them, you might find that: (a) they get to be beautiful in your mind, and (b) they lead you to a new aesthetic. Suffer their ugliness! You find that you can see them in a way that’s beautiful... which may horrify a lot of people, but in the end will be accepted because now there’s a new vision of duty, partly directed by the change you made.
In these few sentences, Scott Brown has described the ethical battle a preservationist may have to fight when considering examples of the Modern Movement and after as heritage. Perhaps through an openness to living with it, thinking about it, and working with it, the odd pastiche at West Broad and Willow Lawn will soon be transformed from an alien to an icon.