Brick by brick, board by board. In the summer of 2003 a dozen Richmond Technical Center students disassembled the Tucker Cottage, a rare and diminutive dwelling built in 1795. Then located in Jackson Ward adjacent to Third Street Bethel AME Church, the house was replanted by the budding craftspeople farther west on Chamberlayne Parkway to make room for a multipurpose church building.
The students were directed in the reconstruction by a seasoned, third-generation brick mason, Powhatan-based Norman “Chubby” Garrett. The overall operation was guided by T. Tyler Potterfield, an architectural historian with the city. He envisioned the students’ participation as a paradigm and catalyst for establishing a Lost Trades School here. He knew that experienced craftspeople were a rare breed. “The young ones are in their forties,” he told a newspaper reporter. “There’s not a young up-and-coming crop to convey the skills.”
Twenty years later the Tucker Cottage is a privately owned home. And the late Potterfield is honored with a popular pedestrian bridge spanning the James River that bears his name. But despite well-intentioned and often enthusiastic discussions among contractors, trade organizations, educators and historic preservationists, a specialized building trades school in Richmond has not been realized.
Such a training ground is but one of a number of initiatives that could energize future architecture, development and construction here.
The years since George Floyd’s death have been marked by the dissolution of Confederate veneration and imagery here, and in the after effects of the COVID pandemic, and considerable ham-handed local leadership, I, along with many others, have been asking: What comes next? How can Richmond be proactive in drafting and initiating a fresh, imaginative and practical narrative for respecting and building upon the past (literally and figuratively) while developing the most inclusive ideas for the future?
Establishing a Lost Trades School (actually a Re-discovered Trades School) is one of three ideas that I’ve been mulling as the holidays and new year approach.
First, there is a great need for such a school. Our region is blessed with distinctive and widely different residential neighborhoods but a dearth of knowledgeable craftspeople to meet the maintenance and restoration needs of old housing stock. Since many properties are wooden, extra care is required. Real estate is essential to our tax base. Rather than send folks to the gambling tables, let’s offer interested residents the opportunity to aspire to time-proven, lifetime careers that will enhance our neighborhoods.
With a crying need for affordable housing, old building stock could be made contemporary faster with the talents from such a school. Our region is capable of nurturing programs that enhance the lives and minds of our young people. Richmond’s Community High School and Open High, each propelled into existence by forward-thinking and generous citizens, have been bright academic lights within the Richmond Public School system. And the Maggie Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies (full disclosure: I once taught there) is proof positive that a multiregional school system – like the lost trades school might be – can support a unique, nationally recognized school. The city and counties have worked together on such projects as The Diamond and the GRTC system. Let’s join forces once again.
Here’s a second suggestion. Considering the recent shifting of historic tectonic plates here, let metropolitan Richmond’s thought leaders go off on a series of retreats to huddle and devise an agenda and blueprint for how our community might view, express and promote itself culturally, historically, architecturally and environmentally. Such a summit meeting of minds from the fields of business, social welfare, communications, the arts, tourism, education and religion could produce a menu of ideas for a new age for the region. Yes, the Richmond 300 Plan is an admirable and potentially powerful grassroots-generated plan. Why not augment this with a gentle but articulated top-down budge (which may not be fashionable now) from some of our best minds, young and old?
And thirdly, it may be time for the Commonwealth of Virginia to establish a college of architecture, planning and landscape architecture in the capital city. Richmond boasts an extraordinary physical location along the James River. It has excellent bones in the form of a tight street grid system. There are good highway and rail connections and a rich architectural tradition. But while there are many architects here, daily we hear groans about how new buildings – especially apartment and condo complexes – are too conservative, stale or downright ugly. Few public amenities accompany this construction spurt. There’s constant moaning and groaning about how Richmond “is becoming like Northern Virginia.”
Since we award higher educational degrees here in health and medicine, business, economics, fine arts and education locally, why not an architecture program? I know. Virginia Tech in Blacksburg boasts a nationally recognized architecture program. And Hampton University and the University of Virginia have worthy schools. But if the General Assembly could see fit, a Richmond-based school of architecture could be charged with specifically addressing urban and suburban design issues. Didn’t Virginia Commonwealth University blossom forth in 1968 from the melding of Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia? VCU has largely delivered on its mission to similarly deliver on urban and suburban issues.
A VCU school of architecture could similarly build on that tradition. The university already offers engineering, urban planning, interior design, communication design, architectural history and environmental science. It could partner with the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the community colleges in programming and attracting young talent.
Solutions to Richmond’s multiple design opportunities and challenges aren’t necessarily being met from distant and rural Blacksburg, sylvan Charlottesville or waterfront Hampton. Our region needs the focus, imagination and energy that a strong urban-centric school of architecture could contribute to problem-solving in a new era for our region.
Editor’s note: Edwin Slipek suggested the three ideas discussed above in impromptu remarks he made Nov. 9 at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design on the occasion of being awarded the Branch Medallion for patronage of the design community in Virginia.