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Back on Track

Thanks to a $14 million restoration, Richmond's Beaux-Arts train station is back as a transport hub and beacon for downtown revitalization.

October 01, 2004 |

On June 2, 1900, three-year-old John Skelton Williams, whose father was the president of Sea-board Air Line Railroad, celebrated the ongoing construction of the Main Street Station in Richmond, Va., by helping drive a golden spike into a section of track. Some 103 years later, before a crowd of 300, Williams's daughter used the same silver hammer to commemorate the Beaux-Arts-style station's renaissance.

Once Richmond's traffic hub, Main Street Station fell into more than simple disrepair after Am-trak discontinued service in 1975. As its four-faced clock chronicled the decades atop a six-story tower, the 50,000-sf building survived fires, floods, thieves, and, most ignominious of all, temporary conversion to a disco. For many years it stood dark — a menacing black hole in the Shockoe Bottom historic district, which contains the oldest city market in the country. Interstate 95 funneled 150,000 cars a day around it.

Then, 13 years ago, came an ambitious plan from the U.S. Transportation Department and the city to restore the headhouse and reopen the station as a multimodal hub. "It has been through a lot — sort of the little station that could," says Richmond city planner Viktoria Badger, who has been on the project from the start.

Uriel Schlair, project director with architect Gensler's Chicago office, says the project went beyond the building itself: "We needed to balance Richmond's past with its future and give the city a practical transportation solution, while bringing new life to the surrounding neighborhood."

The $51.6 million project was designed to create a multimodal facility that serves as a visitor welcome center and a hub for Amtrak, Greyhound, city transit buses, airport shuttles, taxis, and tour buses. The first phase included the $14.1 million restoration of the landmark headhouse and construction of a new elevated Amtrak platform on the east side of the station, a mechanical plant on the west side, and 156 parking spaces, plus public art. Phase two, which begins this year, covers the renovation of the train shed.

All aboard!

Main Street Station opened during the golden age of railroad travel, when train stations provided a clear signal of a city's relative prosperity. It was designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm of Wilson, Harrison and Richards for the Chesapeake & Ohio and Seaboard Air Line railroads. Funding issues delayed construction for a decade. By the time it was built, neoclassical design was in vogue, so this Romanesque/Beaux-Arts station is rare in the U.S. In fact, it is one of just seven in the nation, earning it a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nearly a century later, in 1995, negotiations between various transportation corporations and city, state, and Federal offices delayed the start of the project (which at the time was under the direction of project architect Harry Weese Associates' Washington, D.C., office). In 2000, when the job again ramped up, HWA had disbanded, with several associates joining Gensler.

Construction finally got under way in 2001, with Gensler as the project architect, local GC Daniel & Company, and project and construction manager URS, San Francisco. The city owns the station, while the Richmond Metropolitan Authority maintains it. "This team cooperated beyond corporate and municipal boundaries," said James Sved, URS project manager. "Once we had a baseline, it was quite seamless and beautiful."

First stop, 1901

Restoring the five-story headhouse required exhaustive research, as few original drawings were extant, and many of the building's original exterior and interior features were either destroyed or obstructed by years of paint and plaster. "We used old photographs and extracted figures, gradually stripping down to the original forms to establish the roots of the structure," said Schlair.

"With a public building such as this, there are many historic periods represented, all of which have their fans," he says. "But the team and the public agreed that we'd restore the building to day one, which kept us all focused." This meant that all discussions over interpretive recreation of destroyed elements and code-required changes to the original were guided by the ultimate goal of keeping faithful to the turn-of-the-century timeframe.

Thus, when new ADA-compliant light fixtures were needed for the stair landings, the traditional sconces could not be used. Instead, the design team developed a compliant fixture featuring the logos of the C&O and Seaboard railroad lines. "The design team had developed a fixture, and I had just photographed the logos that were on the back of the building, inside the dormers where nobody ever saw them," says Sved. "The two were a perfect match, and the result is dramatic."

The lighting design was changed to meet code requirements and modern lighting standards. As a result, the building's rich color palette has been toned down a bit, but remains true to the base tones. Where Chicago, New York, or Philadelphia buildings of the era would have been white and austere, the team found the local color palette circa 1900 to be a vivid post-Victorian. The outcome is a building of lush, folksy gold, nettle, French white, and manuscript.

All ADA and MEP upgrades, such as a new elevator, were done as unobtrusively as possible, with piping, vents, and wiring fitted behind walls. Several modifications were made to the original design during the construction phase to improve security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For example, storage lockers proposed for the building were eliminated, which necessitated redesigning bathrooms and other public areas.

Staying true to the original did result in some significant changes to the structure. A glass-floored loggia adjacent to the main waiting room, which had been enclosed some 80 years earlier, was restored. According to Badger, all restoration work was coordinated with the state historic preservation office and follows Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, a requirement of all Federally funded national historic landmarks.

Riding the rails

Focusing on the historic timeframe was essential. "Every time they opened up a wall, there was something different in it than what was expected, resulting in about a one-year delay," Badger said. In addition to extensive lead and asbestos abatement, the team had to install a new structural steel support system for the original plank system on the second floor of the station.

There were also significant element reconstruction challenges. All but two of a dozen 22-foot columns that frame the grand waiting room were destroyed in a 1983 fire, requiring the team to meticulously research and form the new faux marble columns. Recreating the ticketing hall tile wainscot — only a tiny sampling of which remained in an electrical closet — took eight months of R&D at Loyola University, Chicago.

"The train station was like any building in need of extensive restoration — you don't know what you're getting into until you're there, so you need to remain flexible and identify all your options," said Michael Wescott, manager with local project contractor Daniel & Company.

This was certainly true of the renovation of the station's exterior surfaces, where time had taken its toll on the masonry surfaces and terra-cotta details. Pompeian brickwork needed extensive tuck-pointing, freeze and thaw cycles cracked the terra cotta and allowed water to infiltrate the building, balustrades were structurally unsound, and stone-work was deteriorating.

While the Pompeian brickwork was carefully collected and repaired, sections of the rare terra cotta had to be replaced. "The original terra cotta was fired with speckles of iron ore in the clay mix," says URS's Sved. "We were fortunate to find a company that could replicate it, and Daniel & Company brought in skilled stone masons to handle it all." The team had to be flexible in order to move from one area of the building to the next as material lead times required — for the terra cotta, this time ranged from 16 to 18 weeks.

Crews had to work on active tracks as they constructed the new 500-foot passenger platform. "Our timing needed to be to the minute," says Wescott. "We'd have four or five trains a day interrupting our work flow."

Historic documentation extended to all parts of the renovation process, including the train platform. While the new train platform itself was constructed of modern precast concrete planks that can be removed for maintenance, the railings and steel support structure emulate the original ironwork details. The entire platform rests on the original trestles, making it the largest intact train trestle system in the U.S.

Punching a ticket to the future

The Main Street Station project provides an alternative to Richmond's congested Routes 95 and 64 corridors and offers competitive options to automobile and airline travel. The Federal Inter-modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 authorizes funds for cleaning areas of the country in danger of violating the Federal Clean Air Act by encouraging less automobile travel.

For Amtrak, the project supports future growth of Northeast Corridor routes, notably the high-speed "Acela" train along the coast. This will require more space for parking and track improvements for faster trains. Ultimately, train ridership from Richmond is projected to increase 300% over the next 20 years, and officials expect 6,100 permanent jobs to be created and 730 new houses to be built in the area by 2015.

"We knew we had a unique opportunity to bring this station to life — but the challenge was to not only restore the structure, but to have this 20th-century building conform to 21st-century codes and requirements," says Robert Boell, Gensler project architect. To make practical use of the structure — far too big for today's more modest rail transportation needs — the top three floors of the station have been adapted into office space, and new retail space has been added.

To keep these uses viable, the team abated the noise generated by I-95 traffic by developing windows that closely resemble the historic fenestration that have acoustical properties that minimize exterior sounds.

Today the station, complete with restored clock tower, serves as both a beacon to travelers and a community asset, with its grand foyer (great for wedding receptions) and its museum of Richmond's past. "When you see the building, you know life is there," said Boell. "It's now an anchor for the redevelopment of the surrounding communities."

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