Richmond, Virginia is a city steeped in a rich history. It’s not far from where the first Thanksgiving took place, and it’s where the Revolution kicked off with Patrick Henry’s "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech. Located on the picturesque James River, the capital of Virginia has always been an influential city where significant historical events unfolded during the Revolution and Civil War.
Naturally, in a city imbued with so much history, there is a distinct architecture that echoes the past’s narrative—from St. John’s Church in Church Hill to the state capitol, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson.
But, among the classically designed buildings—Georgian mansions, Tudor Revivals, and Cape Cods (which are stunning in their own right, but a dime a dozen)—are modern gems hidden throughout the city. It’s the buildings from recent history—specifically the 1930s onward—that are summoning the limelight.
The juxtaposition of modern and traditional makes Richmond such a visually dynamic city. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation that define modern architecture stand out against traditional materials like red brick and cobblestones, and classical details like columns and arches.
"By the very fact that Richmond is an historic city defined by architecture from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, good modern architecture is a departure from 'the norm,’" says Andrea Levine, chairwoman of Modern Richmond, a nonprofit dedicated to highlighting the region’s modernism, and a local real estate agent. "We have a city known for Victorians, Georgians, Colonials, and Capes. Our modern architecture is noticed."
In its 10th year, Modern Richmond is celebrating a decade of architectural tours by releasing a Modern Richmond Book showcasing some of the area's most unique properties. With the publication of the book, it’s an opportune time to appreciate the city’s distinct architectural scene.
Local metal manufacturer George E. Hoppe Jr. was responsible for bringing modernism to Richmond. After visiting New York, he was so roused by the Bauhaus movement that he returned home to introduce the first International Style home in 1936, and then went on to build more than a dozen more residences throughout the area.
From the mid-’30s up through the 1960s, the midcentury modern architectural style flourished in the city. Big-name architects like Richard Neutra (The Rice House, 1000 Old Locke Lane), Edward Durell Stone (W. T. Holt House, 4009 Chellowe Road) and George Matsumoto (Lipman Residence, 5310 Riverside Drive) left their mark.
Local architects made a name for themselves too—including Alan McCullough, Marcellus Wright Jr., and Frederick "Bud" Hyland, who apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin.
Although Colonial Revival is the widely accepted architectural style across the region, the modernism movement is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the city these days.
"It is universally more accepted. As Richmond grows and attracts residents from larger cities, so does the demand," adds Levine. "Quite a bit of the new construction, both residential and commercial, is leaning more towards modern design and architecture."
Sadly, in the past some of Richmond’s modern structures have been underappreciated or misunderstood, and in turn torn down. For instance, Richmond architect Haigh Jamgochian’s futuristic "Half Moon House," which was built in the late 1960s, was demolished in 2004. The house was a real treasure to the modernist community.
"We have lost quite a few legacies in the past, and even now still need to continue working on preserving some of the structures we have," says Levine. "It is Modern Richmond’s eventual goal as a nonprofit to do this."
Although Jamgochian’s lunar-inspired dwelling is no longer, the innovative architect’s aluminum-clad Markel Building, which was built in 1965, can still be seen today. If you're driving around in Richmond’s Willow Lawn area, you can’t miss it; the flying saucer-like structure appears as though it has crash-landed among offices and strip malls.
While residential and commercial design has taken a more contemporary turn in the city, cutting-edge design is influencing the future of Richmond’s public spaces as well.
BridgePark, a two-mile urban greenway and park, looks to connect the two sides of Richmond with the riverfront. The walking and biking promenade, which will give residents another avenue to the James River, will have a series of stops along the way, including the state capitol. The project has plans to move forward with the city, but a birth date is still to be determined. Stay tuned!
Where to Stay
Located in the heart of Richmond’s Downtown Arts District, Quirk Hotel is an ideal home base if you are looking to take in the contemporary arts scene. Located on the main drag where the city’s First Fridays art walk takes place, the chic boutique hotel is also a stone’s throw from tasty restaurants (walk across the street to Comfort). With an in-house art gallery, funky gift shop, and rooftop bar, you may just want to hang around for a while.
For a taste of old-school Richmond, shack up at The Jefferson Hotel, a palatial Beaux Arts structure where the who’s who used to stay back in the day. Food-wise, the luxury hotel is known for its amazing happy hour deals and Sunday champagne brunch.
Where to Shop
A midcentury furniture dealer once told me that Central Virginia is ripe with mod furniture and decor because of its proximity to not just Washington, DC, but big military bases. After World War II, military officers came back to the U.S. from overseas with troves of European furnishings, art, and decor, outfitting their homes with what were then seen as progressive pieces.
Over the decades, these furnishings have found their way into estate sales and secondhand shops, where a younger generation sees their value and appreciates the aesthetic.
A handful of local dealers that specialize in midcentury furniture and decor are Dust, Epoch, and Urban Dwellers. Other vendors like Verve Home Furnishings have inventory that runs the gamut from Hollywood regency to ’70s glam and ’80s statement pieces.
Most recently Midcentury Morris, an appointment-only shop, opened its doors—and in its 11,000 square feet of warehouse space you’ll find more than 1,000 iconic pieces of inventory, including chandeliers by Arteluce and Stilnovo, and furnishings by design greats like Warren Platner, Osvaldo Borsani, Marcel Breuer, and Harvey Probber.
And, you can’t skip LaDiff. The three-story furniture store in the city’s historic Shockoe Bottom has been the area’s go-to for contemporary furnishings for the past four decades.
Aside from furniture vendors, there’s a great selection of gift shops and home decor stores too.
Need Supply Co., the global brand and lifestyle e-tailer, calls Richmond home with a brick-and-mortar store in the city’s vibrant Carytown shopping district. Poke your head in to check out the shop’s cherry-picked selection of chic housewares.
In Church Hill, the contemporary gift shop Dear Neighbor radiates minimalist and new-age vibes, selling Drift/Riot jewelry made by owner Kristy Cotter, along with cool apothecary goods and ceramic housewares.
Located in the Downtown Arts District, The Someday Shop is a home boutique with eclectic and earthy goods that can instantly add texture to your space. Think Turkish Kilim pillows, llama rugs, vintage copper, and greenery like bromeliads and orchids.
Down the road in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood, Accoutre is a home store dedicated to high-functioning, beautiful tools for the kitchen and table. Hardware is sourced from near (locally made Join or Die oyster knives and Dayberry Brooms) and far (Danish textiles from Karin Carlander and Japanese Nambu Tekki cast iron).
What to Eat & Drink
We are a city of well-fed folks. In the past five years, the region’s food and beverage scene has exploded with more than 30 breweries, and what seems like a new restaurant opening on a weekly basis.
For a quality cup of joe, hit up Ironclad Coffee Roasters in Shockoe Bottom. If you have a hearty breakfast in mind, you’ll want to grab a table at Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen. With its retro-inspired diner vibes and dishes like cinnamon babka french toast, it’s a quality place to start your day.
A James Beard semi-finalist in the "outstanding baker" category, Sub Rosa Bakery is where dough is done old-school—grains stone-milled and bread baked in wood-fired ovens. Grab your sweet tarts and pastries and a few of their signature loaves for the road.
A few streets away, the new-ish Church Hill eatery Alewife is a modern take on the fish house. With the Chesapeake Bay just around the river bend, this is the place where you want to eat your fruits de mer.
To hit several birds with one stone, mosey over to Scott’s Addition, an industrial area that has recently been revitalized and is densely populated with breweries and artisanal beverage makers, like Ardent Craft Ales, Blue Bee Cider, and The Veil Brewing Co. to name a few. For eats, while in the ’hood, you’ll want to check out ZZQ for authentic Texas Barbecue, Brenner Pass for an Alpine-inspired dinner, and Longoven, a pop-up turned brick-and-mortar that serves sophisticated tasting plates that change with the season.
What to See & Do
If you're visiting for the weekend, it’s worth driving around a few neighborhoods to get a taste of modern residential architecture.
South of the James River, cruise up and down the winding Riverside Drive and you’ll spot some stunners. Charles Goodman was known for creating Hollin Hills, the first midcentury modern neighborhood in the Washington, DC area. He came to Richmond in the 1950s to design around 80 prefabricated homes for the area's first and only planned midcentury development, Highland Hills, which is tucked away in the Bon Air neighborhood.
You’ll also want to scope out the Hillcrest neighborhood in the city’s Near West End. Driving west on Cary Street, take a left onto Hillcrest Avenue and you’ll see homes by Hyland and Marcellus Wright and Son Architects, one of the city’s first modern architecture firms. A few streets west of Hillcrest, you’ll come across other gems by Richmond’s first modernist Hoppe Jr. (residences at 103 Tempsford Lane and 201 Ampthill Road, and the John Rolfe Apartments at 101 Tempsford Lane).
The best place to visually take in Richmond is the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that spans the James River. Start your trek at Brown’s Island to view the Three Days in April 1865 installation about the fall of the Confederate Capitol, and then mosey across the river, where you’ll find a series of towering weathered rings that are part of the The Path Untraveled sculpture.
Feast your eyes on works ranging from the old masters to pop art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which is open to the public for free. Plan your visit for a Friday afternoon, so afterwards you can grab a bottle of vino and loll in the grassy sculpture garden during the museum’s weekly happy hour.
Designed by the internationally known contemporary architect Steven Holl, Virginia Commonwealth University’s new Institute for Contemporary Art has garnered attention for its avant-garde design and thought-provoking exhibits. The new museum is located in the Downtown Arts District, just a stone’s throw from contemporary galleries and theaters.
Architecturally speaking, it would be amiss not to mention the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. Built in 1919, the 27,000-square-foot Tudor Revival is open for tours, and houses both permanent and rotating design exhibits. To celebrate its centennial anniversary, the nonprofit is also hosting a lecture series throughout the year.
Mark Your Calendar
Modern Richmond Week—September 16 to 22, 2019
Modern Richmond’s annual week-long celebration of modern architecture with lectures, tours, and a market.
CURRENT Art Fair—October 24 to 27, 2019
This contemporary art fair consists of 18 Virginia galleries and art organizations showing works by an array of visual artists that are local to the area and internationally known.
InLight—Early November 2019 (exact dates TBD)
1708 Gallery’s 12th annual light festival.
Craft + Design Show—November 22 to 24, 2019
The Visual Art Center of Richmond’s 55th annual contemporary craft show, with more than 150 makers from across the country.