Virginia Union University may get to keep the illuminated “VUU” signs it illegally placed on its campus bell tower – but at a cost.
A nearly finalized agreement with the state Board of Historic Resources to allow the signage to remain in place includes an annual payment of $35,000 that VUU would be required to pay every year that the signs remain up, among other provisions.
The agreement is aimed at mitigating the signs’ placement and preserving the 1930s-era tower and informing the public about its history. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources holds a preservation easement it established with VUU that includes the tower structure and adjoining Belgian Building.
Julie Langan, the DHR director whose signature would make the agreement official, said funds from the annual payments would be put toward preservation projects in Richmond and contribute to a legal defense fund for the Virginia Historic Preservation Easement Program, which DHR said was violated when the signs were erected in 2019.
The signs were also placed without required approvals from the city, which is looking at how to permit the signs after the fact.
Langan said the state agreement, which has been two years in the making, has been vetted by the attorney general’s office and approved by the governor. She said she expected the agreement to be fully executed in the next few days.
While a verbal agreement between VUU and the state had been reached a year ago, finalizing the document has been further delayed by a separate issue playing out with the city, which requires its own approvals for the signs to remain.
Among them, a certificate of appropriateness is required from Richmond’s Commission of Architectural Review, which has determined that the signs violate the city’s historic preservation guidelines and earlier this year refused to consider a third request from VUU after previous denials.
VUU appealed CAR’s action to the City Council, which can override the commission to award a certificate. A resolution to that effect was introduced in July by Councilmember Ann-Frances Lambert, whose Third District includes the university.
At the council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee meeting this week, Lambert said the signs’ importance to the university and community warrants an exception to any local rules that were broken when they were put up.
“The VUU sign is already up and lit,” Lambert said, adding that travelers on the highway can “see illumination of one of the oldest historically black universities here in the city.”
Addressing her council colleagues on the committee, Lambert added, “This is an exception to the rule. This item is something that we need in the city. I think this measure is in accordance of the rights and powers that we have as council to reverse some of the decisions that are recommended, and this is for the greater of the public good here in the city of Richmond.”
Committee members Andreas Addison, Michael Jones and Ellen Robertson agreed and recommended approval to the full council, which is scheduled to consider the resolution at its meeting this Monday.
The certificate is one of three city approvals needed for the signs to remain, said Kevin Vonck, Richmond’s Planning and Development Review director. Also required is a special-use permit to allow the sign’s size, which exceeds what’s allowed in institutionally zoned districts, as well as sign and electrical permits that hinge on the certificate’s award.
“There’s a number of things that need to be corrected in order for that sign to stay,” Vonck told the committee.
The committee also heard from Dale Mullen, an attorney with Whiteford Taylor Preston representing VUU. He said the commission had failed to consider that one corner of the tower had been electrified when the Belgian Building complex was awarded to VUU out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
The structure was originally a pavilion designed by a noted Belgian architect for Belgium’s entry into the fair. Belgium offered it due to the Nazi invasion of the country during World War II, and VUU was awarded it over other competing U.S. universities. A fundraising effort at the time led by VUU produced the $500,000 needed to relocate the complex.
“The Vann Tower, lest anyone make any mistake about this, does not look the way it looked when it came from the world’s fair in 1939,” Mullen said. “In fact, we have graphic representations of that tower as it existed of the time, and an entire corner, the northeast corner, was lit with electric lights. In 1939, that was a big deal at the world’s fair, to have that tower lit down one corner by electric lights.”
Arguing that VUU has “long lacked any prominent signage” while Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond have enjoyed signage across the city, Mullen said, “We are here on appeal because the (VUU community) believe it is appropriate that they should have their time, their place and their signs just like everybody else.”
Felicia Cosby, VUU’s director of government and community relations, joined Mullen in describing the illuminated signs as a “beacon of hope” for the university and community.
“This sign and the lighting illuminates the hope, the aspirations, the history of a people and institutions that society has long tried to bury or overlook, both in this city, nationally and globally,” Cosby said.
In a statement after the meeting, Mullen said VUU is pleased that the committee recommended the certificate’s approval. He also noted that Addison, Jones and Robertson each asked to be added to the resolution as co-patrons.
Langan, who described the city’s process as separate from the state’s, said after the meeting that she is pleased the agreement has been reached.
“I’m just glad that we reached a mutual conclusion,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.”