Transportation Case Study: Richmond's Rail Revival

Abandoned since 1975, Main Street Station is resurrected in all its glory.
Abandoned since 1975, Main Street Station is resurrected in all its glory.

Transportation Case Study: Richmond’s Rail Revival

Transportation Case Study: Richmond's Rail Revival

By Heidi Schwartz 

Published in the August 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

For those who appreciate great architecture, it’s tragic when jewels are lost through neglect or abuse, particularly when those icons provide brief glimpses into the historic culture of a country. Many of those emblems are inextricably rooted in traditions of yesteryear, and through no fault of their own, they no longer have a place in today’s world.

Such was the unfortunate fate of Richmond, VA’s historic Main Street Train Station. Originally constructed in 1901, the Romanesque/Victorian/Beaux Arts design was at one time a tribute to the golden age of railroad travel. But from the moment it first opened its doors, the building was slightly out of sync with the other structures of its time.

“The building was originally designed by Wilson, Harris, and Richards—three famous railroad terminal specialists out of Philadelphia—prior to the Spanish American War,” explains David Gilman, project manager with the city of Richmond. “When the war broke out in early 1898, economic hardships prevented the completion of the structure until after the war ended, which is why it was a little bit old fashioned at the time it was built.”

Due to this delay, Main Street Station was a rare, anachronistic architectural specimen. By the time it was completed, the Beaux Arts style had been eclipsed by the neoclassical—the preferred railroad station design style still seen in big cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. In fact, there are only seven other structures like Main Street Station in the entire country. Subsequently, both its head house and shed have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

From Historic To Derelict 

Despite its rich history and lofty status, the station’s practical term as a significant railroad terminal ended in 1975, when Amtrak discontinued its service to downtown Richmond. During this time, the head house portion of the building became a discount shopping mall and a poorly designed disco; “temporary” office space for state employees were set up in the shed area. (“It was supposed to be temporary for two years and it ended up being about 12 years, says Viktoria Badger, principal planner for the city of Richmond’s Department of Transportation.)

In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), pronounced “Ice Tea,” made broad changes in the way transportation decisions would be made. ISTEA emphasized diversity and balance of modes, as well as the preservation of existing systems before construction of new facilities. This legislation attracted Badger, because it “opened funding up from roads to more of the multi modal use. We were one of the first cities to jump on it to get funding for the station. More than $53 million of the $54.1 million for the project has been secured from the federal, state, and local governments.”

On behalf of the city of Richmond, Badger could optimize ISTEA’s funding to turn the symbolic, but neglected structure into a multi modal transportation hub. She envisioned “38 trains, a downtown circulator, airport shuttles, taxis, vanpools, tour buses, and Greyhound service in the future.”

Badger’s enthusiasm for the project was contagious, despite the current dilapidated state of the building. Historic preservation specialist and project manager Uriel Schlair of Gensler’s Chicago office recalls, “When I first saw it, the inside was horrendous. It was boarded up and it was an eyesore for the city.”

He noticed “traces of a few failing attempts to revive the building, like a little nightclub that someone tried to open in the corner. There were other signs of intervention that were very short lived and inappropriately executed. But the rest was a mess. It was a building in progressive stages of decay. A section of the wall ultimately had to be replaced. A floor was about to cave in. Windows were broken. The place was boarded up for more than 20 years and showed neglect and severe levels of deterioration. Still, we recognized the jewel this building is and its potential to the city and to its surrounding neighborhood. From the outside, the building was stunning. It stood out in an exceptional way.”

Changing Of The Guards 

In 1983, a serious fire nearly destroyed the building entirely. Gilman explains, “One day when the fire happened, the building was on the verge of being demolished for safety issues, but that lasted only one day. Then they determined it was safe to stand, so we started bringing it back.”

Owned by a private developer and bank during the time of the fire, the building was purchased by the state in 1995. Shortly after, Badger established contact with Harry Weese Associates (HWA) in Washington, DC and asked the architectural firm to conduct an initial feasibility study regarding the restoration.

Schlair recalls, “By about 1996, HWA was on board, sharing studies with a team of engineers and architects who started generating ideas. Some of them began to carve their path towards the next wave of developments. In about 1997, the project came to a screeching halt; there was no activity of any sort. Then it was revived again, and schematic design was established with the city. Then it expired again for a while.”

Bureaucratic negotiations continued to delay the project’s resurrection until 2000, but Badger was always there to revive it when the mood shifted in her favor. She says, “It sat for several years, because we had so much trouble getting the facility. The state would not sell it to us. We actually had to have general assembly action telling the state it would sell to us. It was a political thing.”

Meanwhile, HWA went through its own metamorphosis. The death of owner Harry Weese in 1998 created a chain reaction of events.

At this time, Schlair recalls, “HWA’s Washington, DC office closed its doors and the project was transferred to the Chicago office of HWA, where I was based. I grabbed it, because, at the time, it was in its early phases. It looked fascinating. My specialty has always been restoration and preservation of historic structures anyway. So landmark structures and restoration were ‘in my blood’ for years prior. Obviously, here was a sexy building and I wanted it!”

Eventually, Gensler acquired the Chicago office of HWA, and the firm inherited Main Street Station. Schlair joined Gensler’s Chicago office and stayed on with the project in a change of hands that transitioned through him. “I, as well as engineers from the Richmond firms of HCYU and Daniel Associates, was the linkage between the past and the present in respect to the architectural and engineering design and construction aspects of the project,” he says.

Fortunately, no aspects of the design were watered down during the change. “Gensler was gracious and totally accepting of our role in the project and our approach to this unique undertaking. It was, from our end, a seamless transition,” Schlair recalls.

But because the project sat on the shelf for several years, Paul Piotrowski of URS (the owner representatives onsite throughout the construction of the project) recalls, “There were issues with codes. Once we got into the throes of construction, we realized codes had changed in the interim, so we had to redesign. These weren’t scope changes being driven by the owner or circumstances; they were code issues that dictated the redesign. We built the project and had to design some of the elements as we went along.”

An Inside Job 

Construction on the project began in August 2001, but it wasn’t without its setbacks. Gilman recalls, “The first six months was basically taken up gutting a lot of the building, because there was asbestos throughout. In 1901, high quality plaster contained asbestos, so we had to remove all of that before we did anything else.”

After the asbestos was contained, the team started serious work on restoring the interiors—more than just a matter of semantics, according to Piotrowski. “There’s a difference between restoration and rehabilitation; this was a restoration. We were trying to match the original materials and the usage of the building, which is very labor intensive. Meanwhile, there aren’t many skilled tradesmen who can do plasterwork and things like that. To make matters worse, every time we opened up a wall, we wouldn’t know what to expect.”

To complicate matters, there were no as built plans, which led to many surprises. For instance, the railroad didn’t use concrete for its elevated slabs inside the building; instead, there was a substance referred to as “rammed ash.” This material was nothing more than ground up coal ash that had been moistened and then rammed into place.

Gilman recalls, “At one point, there had been a kitchen for a restaurant constructed in one of the rooms we restored. When we took all of the kitchen equipment out, the floor broke up into basketball sized chunks of rammed ash, and it was just incredibly scary to walk across it. We had never heard of rammed ash before, so we were on a learning curve. Eventually, we made the decision to pull it out and put a whole new floor in. When we broke it apart, it smelled just like coal clinker.”

While some problems were resolved through the replacement of outdated materials, other structural issues were much more serious. Despite the reputation of excellent craftsmanship of bygone days, many of the original building standards were downright dangerous.

“I always thought of the railroad as heavy industry,” says Gilman, “but you could not build that building today. It was amazing how poorly constructed it was and how we had to reinforce it and stabilize portions of it over and over again. It’s a safe, sturdy building now, but before our restoration, you could find one brick thick walls that went up 40′.”

Schlair confirms, “There were absolutely no life safety systems, in contrast to contemporary design and construction practices. We have a greater understanding of the behavior of materials, people, upkeep, maintenance needs, appearance, and durability, and technology. None of that was available in the past.”

Furthermore, the building was built in the days before other important conveniences and safety measures. For instance, “The front door was just an opening. We designed a glass wall to put in there, air conditioned the building, and made it ADA accessible. We added security cameras, smoke detectors, and all the modern things that were required. We also wired it for fiber optic into the central plant for disbursement in the building. It still has the look of a 1901 building, but it functions as a 2005 building,” says Gilman.

“All ADA and MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] 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.” [“Back On Track” by Renee Young, Building Design and Construction, online here.]

Another important challenge was restoring the building’s interior to its original glory days. The Gensler team was able to reproduce the ticketing hall wainscoting using as reference a tiny sample found in an electrical closet.

Other restorations were more elusive. “We had a lot of pictures of the station from the old days, but they were all in black and white,” says Gilman.

“We couldn’t even conduct a complete historic paint analysis,” says Schlair, who recalls his frustration, “because those portions of the plaster had been removed by the fire. So it was a matter of developing an interpretive scheme that we generated based on research and educated opinions.”

In the end, the team visited other buildings from the same era to come up with color schemes that would mimic the original black and white photographs. The final color palette was slightly subdued to compensate for lighting updates required by code. Still, it maintained the flavor of the vivid post-Victorian scheme popular around 1900.

Ed Lyon, who was present at the grand opening, wrote, “The interior has been painted in ‘folksy gold,’ which appears to be more peach than gold. The ceiling in the grand waiting room is ‘nettle’ (sea green), French white, and a pale tan color called ‘manuscript.’ The city has added some new touches, including transforming ceilings in the two parlors into starry skies. There are numerous black and white photos from the 20th century showing how the station survived floods and fires.” [“First Train Service Since 1975: Richmond’s Main Street Station Reopens During Historic Ceremony” by Ed Lyon, Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Magazine, Feb. 2004; online here.]

The fire also ruined a portion of the roof, while the water damage from the fire hoses basically obliterated most traces of the historic features that were in the building. Column capitals were destroyed. “The entire authentic interior scheme was lost to the fire damage, essentially,” says Schlair.

Aside from the structural difficulties associated with the project, the restoration team experienced its share of supernatural incidents as well. Badger half jokes when she mentions the ghost on the upper floor.

She says, “The workers who were doing all of the stripping of the woodwork swore that they heard movement upstairs. But when they’d go upstairs to check it out, they couldn’t see anybody. Then one of the guys from URS thought he heard something like an air conditioner or a body sliding across the floor upstairs; when he went up there, no one was there. He had been a transit cop in New York, so he wasn’t the type to get phased easily.”

“To top it off,” adds Badger, “we had some cameras that just wouldn’t work up there!” (Nothing more has been heard since the completion of the project, leading Gilman to believe, “the ghost is happy with the renovation.”)

Revealing Details 

Restoring the original aesthetics of the building created numerous challenges. For example, handmade tiles on the first floor were nearly impossible to match. Eventually, Gensler located Brian Fiorentino, a Loyola University professor and ceramicist, who agreed to recreate tiles for the first floor of the building.

The men’s loggia at the front of the building also offered its share of challenges and surprises. Badger recalls, “The floors were covered with old wooden planks; when we removed them, we found the original glass skylights that opened down below. It was a beautiful detail we were able to uncover.”

The restoration of the men’s loggia unearthed some architectural elements that had been preserved since the 1920s. Rosettes set in arches were just a few of the treasures found in the process.

Meanwhile, a new structural steel support system was necessary in order to restore the second floor of the station.

Another one of the team’s challenges in the waiting room was to recreate the 22′ columns that framed the space. As previously mentioned, all but two of the original dozen columns had been destroyed in the 1983 fire.

These marble columns and the high, vaulted ceiling, make the second floor grand waiting room one of Badger’s favorite aspects of the project. (Although, as an urban planner, she was fascinated by the entire thing.) Details include waves, egg and darts, and leaves.

Ironically, none of this detail was easily visible before the restoration, because it was situated 70′, 80′, and 90′ high in the air. Gilman says, “We had to use cameras with telephoto lenses in order to document these details. It’s just amazing that the original designers would put that much effort into something put in a place where no one could see it.”

Now, Interstate 95 swings within six or seven feet of the clock tower, making it possible for drivers to appreciate some of the beautiful detail inside. Badger notes, “the top of the tower has gorgeous cherubs, cornucopia, and lions that are now on display to those who travel that portion of the highway in Richmond.”

A Jewel In The Rough 

While not as severely damaged as the interior of the building, the exterior suffered its share of deterioration over the years as well. Young writes, “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.”

The simple fact that coal burning trains had used the station for many decades translated into surface decay caused by coal dust, sunlight, and hydrochloric acid. Gilman says, “A lot of the stones had to be pulled out and replaced. This surprised me; I didn’t know you could pull a stone out of a building like that.”

And since the tracks were still active, all exterior repairs had to be interrupted several times a day for safety reasons. Gilman recalls, “Every time a train came by, we had to stop work. We had a flagman on each side (since there were different train companies on each side) who would talk to the dispatcher when a train was coming. They’d make our men leave the site and wouldn’t allow them to return until the train left. This would happen every day, several times a day. The worst was when the track actually broke with a train on top of it. The train was stuck for two days, and we couldn’t touch any work at that time.”

Historic preservation extended to the new train platform as well. While the new platform was constructed of modern precast concrete planks that could be removed for maintenance purposes, the railings and steel support structure replicated the original ironwork details. Now the entire platform rests on the original trestles, making it the largest intact train trestle system in the country.

Piotrowski says, “It’s really cool how the platform extends out. Some of the elements we added were primarily functional, but they certainly contributed to the modern safety issues. Yet, when you walk back into the building, you feel like you’ve gone back in time. “

Spotlighting the extraordinary exterior features of the restored structure was another dramatic element of the project. In fact, the night lighting aspect wasn’t even part of the original plan.

Schlair recalls, “I was the one who brought it before the city and explained the positive impact it would have. We wanted to show off the building and call attention to it, particularly highlighting its return to life.”

As representative of the city, Badger embraced this concept from the outset. She recognized its value immediately.

“So we hired an architectural lighting firm out of Philadelphia to handle the monument type exterior lighting,” says Gilman. “We had to get permission to hang huge light brackets and run power from the interstate to them. We didn’t know if we would ever get that kind of cooperation, but it was approved. Surprisingly, getting all of the big bureaucracies melded and functioning together worked out. It ran fairly smoothly, particularly as a transportation facility with specific requirements. But it did take time. We made contacts, built up trust, and we were able to work through it. At first, it was a daunting effort.”

Neighborhood Renaissance 

For many years, Main Street Station was an unwanted element in Richmond’s deteriorating Shockoe Bottom historic district. But after its massive restoration, the building is now having a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

“Since its opening on December 17, 2003, the building has stimulated a ton of activity; not only daytime, but nighttime as well. There is a life around the building, and it continues to grow,” says Schlair.

For those who believed in the project from the start, this restoration is a major step toward the long-term vision and goal set by Badger and the City of Richmond. Schlair continues, “In addition to having transformed the building’s splendid interiors, it’s very gratifying to see that we successfully reached outside the walls with this project. The whole neighborhood has received an enlivened dimension as a result of the restoration. It has energized the area and has generated a lot of life.”

In addition to reviving the neighborhood, the station has gradually experienced an increase in ridership. As for business, the city is in the process of finalizing a deal with a major tenant for the upper three floors of the station, adding to the activity in and around the building.

Now a popular site for weddings and other events, the building also attracts its fair share of railroad buffs. “They just walk around and look at everything,” Gilman says. It’s easy to understand why so many people can appreciate Main Street Station.

This article was based on interviews with Badger, Gilman, Piotrowski, and Schlair. For more information on this project, contact Bruce Ross at [email protected]



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