Site's Gravitas Calls for Classic Architecture

Author: Carroll William Westfall

Posted: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 12:00 am in the Richmond Times-Dispatch | Updated: 12:04 am, Wed Dec 11, 2013.

By: Professor Carroll William Westfall

Every Richmonder should applaud the initiatives to redevelop Shockoe Bottom and the Diamond site on Boulevard. These are key sites that will mend two frayed parts of the city. This undertaking needs to move full steam ahead.

The commemoration of the Bottom’s slave-trading history is especially and profoundly important. No matter what project finally finds a place in the Bottom, with or without a ballpark, its presence in Richmond is long overdue.

Being part of a large project should assist its accomplishment, especially since the subsidy derived from the necessary infrastructure improvement would be a big help toward that end.

The images released so far show a vibrant and attractive district that will serve the variety of entertainment, commercial and residential activities proposed for the revitalized district. But the images proposed for commemorating the slave-trading history are very wide of the mark.

They suggest that the same architecture, although sleeker and more abstract, is adequate for this deeply emotional historic site. The structure shown in one image might be confused with an entrance to the ballpark and the adjoining pavilion with a high-class art gallery or a misplaced ultramodern house.

The city officials have even said that the proposed design for the burial ground can be compared to the sculpture garden at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Forgotten here is that not all buildings in a city are equally important. Ballparks, office buildings and residences cannot carry the heavy burden that the Bottom’s slave commemoration must. The sponsors and architects seem to think that currently fashionable ideas among the art crowd, like those found in the proposed VCU Institute of Contemporary Art gallery or the recently completed Virginia Museum gardens, will serve here as well.

This special site deserves something more profound, something that speaks of the trade’s degradation, of its victims’ heroic resistance, of the tragic events that led to emancipation and of the still unfulfilled promise of freedom. The historical significance of the Bottom’s slave history is local, to be sure, but it carries national historic significance as well. The architecture of the commemoration site needs to rise well above the architecture that serves the local redevelopment’s economic necessities, and it must project permanence, something current styles and construction do not.

It deserves nothing less than a distinct identity in the projected development and a worthy visible presence in the city and nation.

The only architecture with the emotional richness and gravitas that can fulfill these roles is traditional, classical architecture — the kind Jefferson’s Capitol established as the architecture that most clearly expresses America’s fundamental values.

Yes, that slaveholder was the author of the Declaration of Independence, a document whose words about equality have yet to be fully realized. However, slavery ended because words can be more powerful that deeds, and those words embodied a promise that had to be fulfilled by deeds.

Jefferson as author is commemorated in Washington with classical architecture, the same architecture used for Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is the architecture of the U. S. Capitol where the laws enforcing equality were drafted, of the Supreme Court where they were validated, and in countless courthouses where they are enforced.

All of this needs to be expressed in the buildings and grounds that occupy this special section of the redeveloped Bottom.

Many architects working in the United States are capable of satisfying the high standards the slave commemoration complex demands.

A competition ought to be held to find the right, the best design.

Experience suggests that a classical building need not be more expensive than the modern architecture that looks ephemeral, that a competition need not delay the project, and that it is easier to raise money for the right design than for one whose merits only the experts can see.


Carroll William Westfall is a resident of Richmond who has taught the history of architecture at the University of Virginia and now at the University of Notre Dame. Contact him at