It’s not easy being a preservationist, even in a city as old as Richmond.
That arduous reality makes it so vital for a capital region rich in history to continue supporting reputable developers willing to write new chapters by reclaiming buildings and neighborhoods with storied pasts.
The latest round of advocacy for such a desired result comes from the intrepid Historic Richmond Foundation, whose newest official guide to our “architectural treasures” is a must-read. “In With the Old,” the February installment of the nonprofit organization’s three-part Winter Lecture Series held in St. Catherine’s Middle School Auditorium, showcased the work of seven champions of preservation, including a husband-and-wife team that proves marriage can indeed survive house renovation.
Julie and Paul Weissend of Dovetail Construction Co. Inc. focus on residential renovation and commercial buildings. Their victories included the revival of a 1914 mansion on Monument Avenue in the city and the magical “Oz-like” overhaul of what had been a trolley barn for the Richmond-Ashland Railway Co. that’s now an energy self-sustainable headquarters for their company.
Charles Macfarlane of Macfarlane Partners tackles challenging restorations with Sam McDonald of Property Results. Macfarlane detailed what it took to breathe new life into the Power Plant at Lucky Strike along the city’s Tobacco Row. He also mentioned his circa 1784 residence for 12 years, the Adam Craig House at 1812 E. Grace St., which he has up for sale.
Clark Glave of Ark Construction and Development Corp. started as a contractor when he picked up a saw to build a deck and realized that activity paid the bills more so than his college English degree. He displayed the get-your-hands-dirty spirit that there’s no such thing as a dilapidated historic mess that can’t be saved from the wrecking ball.
Richard Souter of The WVS Cos. won a lot of approving nods when he told how Rocketts Landing, especially the Boathouse restaurant and its views of the downtown skyline from the James River, demonstrated how major projects in key spots pay dividends to the entire community when they’re fun places to live and play — and even work. His company has added a residential-commercial mix called The Locks along downtown’s waterfront, where an upscale restaurant is helping to revive the former Reynolds Metals North Plant.
Robin Miller of Miller & Associates is noticeably proud of his role in the emerging turnaround of Manchester in South Richmond, where he lives. Teamed up with Chesterfield County Supervisor Daniel Gecker, Miller is recognized in Richmond, Petersburg and Staunton as a new urbanist developer with the credentials of turning the bleak and negative into the neat and catalysts for positive change.
Scott Ukrop of 3north is another Manchester success via his company’s Corrugated Box project, which is a comfortable meeting place for creative types as well as an eclectic home for entrepreneurs. Ukrop also is eager to include public spaces, like Monroe Park near Virginia Commonwealth University’s academic campus, in the must-do list of ways to radically improve cities as welcoming places for residents, visitors and tourists.
Arranged as panelists with pictures of their work projected behind them, the developers tactfully detailed formidable obstacles. Among them:
• The often poor condition of the historic, perhaps hysteric, buildings that test even the hardiest of problem-solvers.
• Financing restrictions, tightened by regulations and the recession.
• The sometimes frustrating maze of required municipal approvals.
• The make-or-break necessity of historic tax credits as critical to a project’s profitability (as well as the damage caused by bad apples who misapply the benefit).
• The unforeseen problems that extend the finish time.
Yes, the preservationists say with nervous laughter, the risk of bankruptcy dances with each project.
But the ever-wracking dangers are outweighed by the satisfaction of tangibly saving a visible example of the city’s history for future generations to appreciate.
Revitalization is cathartic and an important bridge between a community’s past, present and future. And it’s the needed energy that propels a neighborhood or section of town to rebound from crime-ridden, worn-out and vacant to safe, vibrant and bustling with homeowners and renters invested in their surroundings.
Developers sometimes get dismissed as self-serving.
But in the case of preservation, “self” here is also the community. And developers who save our old buildings are certainly serving Richmond.
May they always be a force for good.
Tom Silvestri is president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He moderated the Historic Richmond Foundation program on Feb. 28. While in no way an authority on preservation, he still has enough lumps and bruises from what seemed like an endless renovation project of a 1920s row house. He also can’t watch the 1986 movie “The Money Pit.”
Revitalization is cathartic and an important bridge between a community’s past, present and future.