Tuesday, July 22, 2014
A 2012 book tells the story of the infamous fire
in which 72 people died.
This is a many-splendored love story. It’s about the commitment between two people and devotion to a beloved place that arose from tragedy.

It’s about one of the most historic sites in Richmond that more residents and visitors should know about, but perhaps, they didn’t see a way in.

Now, there’s a metaphorical ladder made of quite real granite.

We’re talking about Monumental Church, built to offer perpetual commemoration on the site of where on Dec. 26, 1811, more than 72 people — white, black, free and slave, wealthy and working class, and 54 of them women – died in the Richmond Theater Fire. Richmond, by 1811 the capital of Virginia for 31 years, counted a population of 9,735, which today would mean a capacity crowd at The Diamond. Thus, the fire’s immediate effects and the aftermath shook almost the entire citizenry. The event was discussed across the country. 

Theater was banned in Richmond for eight years. Public performances were fined $6.66. As if using the Number of the Beast didn’t make the point that theatergoing was a bad practice, preachers used the event as a means to encourage parishioners toward being more mindful of how they spent their time. They often referred to Luke 13:1-5, wherein Jesus responds to questions about the lives taken by bloody Roman reprisals and the accidental collapse of a tower in Siloam that killed 18. Judgment may fall at any time, on the wicked and the righteous, thus it is best to make yourself right with God sooner rather than later.

A few of the more righteous inveighed against the evils of the playhouse and blamed the victims. Not preached against, however, was poor building construction, which at the theater included one main entrance/exit and doors that opened inward. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, a Richmond resident deeply involved with civic matters, set to work organizing a fundraising committee to establish a memorial to the victims — including those who days later died of their injuries — who were buried in a mass grave on the site. Monumental Episcopal Church opened for services 200 years ago in May 1814.

Satisfying the goal of building a church and monument on the site honoring those who died fell to South Carolinian Robert Mills, Thomas Jefferson’s only architecture student, who designed the church and the nearby first city hall, both domed and columned neo-Classical structures. But Monumental remains, whereas administrative short-sightedness (and poor attempts at interior remodeling that caused cracks to form in the dome) led to Old Old City Hall's 1874 demolition. Mills went on to design the National Monument in Washington.

The vagaries of ownership and occupation of the church are now etched in stone. The Historic Richmond Foundation embraced Monumental in 1983. HRF rehabilitated the old — like the roof — and added some modern conveniences such as heating and air-conditioning and restrooms. The group moved to storage the damaged original marble funerary memorial urn, incised by names of the dead, and created an exact replica.

The recently completed Dr. Waverly M. Cole and Dr. John R. Cook Memorial
Terrace at Monumental Church. Photos courtesy WestView Companies
The latest improvement is the Dr. Waverly M. Cole and Dr. John R. Cook Memorial Terrace, completed last week. The men were life partners for a half-century. An epigram in the terrace sums up their meaning for each other and their philanthropies, “Together for 50 years, a lifetime of healing, teaching, loving and giving. ‘By working, we make a living; by giving we make a life.’ ”

Mary Jane Hogue, executive director of HRF, explains that Cole, an anesthesiologist at the Richmond Eye and Ear Hospital, and collector of Bohemian glass and Meissen porcelain, died in 2009 after a long bout with cancer. 

Cook, a decorated World War II veteran who went ashore at Normandy on Omaha Beach, headed the guidance and counseling services in the Virginia Department of Education. Cook survived Cole until this past Christmas

“They were totally in love,” Hogue says. “ I could go on and on about these two gentlemen who loved each other and loved this city.” Being gay partners, they weren’t first accepted by their peers, but they gave millions of dollars to universities and charitable groups throughout Central Virginia. The Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences at Longwood University is named in their honor. Cole’s 500-piece collection of glass and ceramics is in the Cole Gallery there. 

Hogue and Cook engaged in long conversations about a dual commiseration of the Cole-Cook relationship and Monumental’s story. HRF preservation paralegal Joanne McDonald suggested a timeline for visitors to use when approaching the site. She saw the project through and retired the day of its completion. 

Jeff Daly, head of sales for the Oilville-based WestView Companies, hadn’t ever really visited Monumental. “I was one of those people who’d gone by and looked at it, but that was about all.” WestView did a project last summer at the St. Philip Hospital gateway of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System. When Daly got close then, for the first time he went to the portico and read about the fire and the entombment of people who’d perished there. 

A year ago, HRF board member Bob Mills of Commonwealth Architects initiated a partnership with WestView to begin a process of creating an in-ground timeline. Daly says, “The design of the timeline presents itself as a ladder or staircase into the property and pulls you in rather than gazing from the sidewalk.” He’s seen it work. While the granite pieces of the timeline were getting installed, passersby stopped and read. “Before, they might’ve said, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting building,’ and kept going,” Daly says. 

The timeline is made of gray granite quarried form Elberton, Georgia.

Besides the contributions of Cole and Cook, the terrace received additional funding form the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, Garland and Agnes Gray Foundation, Windsor Foundation, Robins Foundation, Peachtree Foundation and the Council of Historic Richmond.

Some blank granite will allow others to add memoriam and honors.

“We’re hoping this terrace will create more opportunities for gatherings,” Hogue says. “[Monumental's] right on the VCU campus, they can utilize it, and we can see senior baccalaureates, classroom speeches, an auditorium.” Monumental is busy these days hosting weddings, a few funerals and special events. 

Hogue is already planning for an Oct. 2 event with Altria as lead sponsor of 17 corporate contributors. John Marshall and Robert Mills will greet visitors and interpret their roles in the history of Monumental, Mattias Hägglund of Heritage restaurant is creating a Monumental cocktail, and nearby Hardywood Park Craft Brewery will provide libations in concert with Barboursville Vineyards. Former political opponent James Barbour succeeded Gov. William Smith, who died in the fire. “Barbour then became the first governor to reside in the Virginia Executive Mansion,” Hogue says. Barbour’s Orange County estate was one of three designed by Thomas Jefferson, though an 1884 fire destroyed it. The vineyards were established on the location in the national bicentennial year of 1976

A chapter in the formative history of the country occurred approximately on this site; the deliberations of Virginia delegates who ultimately ratified the U.S. Constitution took place in the summer of 1788

HRF’s work on Monumental isn’t done, though. The church needs an exterior cleaning, “We’ll be using a product called Kiln that’s a sealant and has a base color that matches what’s there.” The material isn’t the greatest expense — scaffolding for the installation costs around $200,000. Restoring the wrought iron fencing is next. “We have a long punch list for maintaining a 200-year-old building,” she says.

Meredith Henne Baker in 2012 published the long-needed The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster. I recommend the book and a stroll along the timeline.
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Jake and Elwood Blues are coming to Chimborazo. No, it’s not some High On The Hog variant but The Blues Brothers are one of the features to be shown during the summer outdoor film series inaugurated some five years ago by Church Hill resident John Chapman. The Blues Brothers will show, somehow appropriately, on the Summer Equinox, the longest day of the year, June 21.

How Chimborazo Hill received the name of an Ecuadoran Andean volcano isn’t quite clear, but it became one of the city’s first “promontory parks” in 1874 through the good offices of city engineer Wilfred Emory Cutshaw. Today, it is one of Richmond’s most public of green spaces and layered with history and possessing grand vistas of the river and city below

“About eight years ago, I moved to Church Hill after a divorce,” Chapman says.  “As could be expected, I was floundering a bit and, quickly found my footing in the comforting friendship of my neighbors, the great people of Church Hill. I think the seeds of the park group grew from neighborhood cookouts and afternoons spent playing croquet and bocce.” As the gatherings grew, Chapman considered a way to repay neighbors “for their overwhelming generosity and to spread this community spirit even further.”

He partnered with the City Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, and Enrichmond to create Friends of Chimborazo Park to focus preservation and phased improvements. 

“We recently discovered that Chimborazo Park was the first park locally to remove the Do Not Walk on the Grass signs and the first park in Richmond to screen outdoor movies,” Chapman says. ”Over the years, Friends of Chimborazo has expanded its goals to include fostering a better sense of community through the holding of events like the Chimbolympics [a day of park games followed by a cookout] and our Free Movie Nights.”

In the past year, FOC partnered with Richmond Rotary Clubs to landscape the around the pavilion where the movies are shown. Using private funds and volunteer labor, the group planted 25 cherry trees in the park along with about 80 roses and some 1000 spring bulbs.  “We hope to transform this portion into a garden oasis in the middle of the much larger park,” Chapman says.

People, at present, bring their own refreshments to the events. However, Chapman wants to increase the movies this year and expand the audience by bringing in food trucks. Future plans also include creating a  three-day film festival that can both highlight locally produced shorts and expose the audience to classic films they might not have seen on a movie screen before.

But you can’t just take a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark and show it in the public.  It takes planning and, well, money to pay for rights.

The group originally partnered with the Yellow House theater company (FOC was introduced to them by community member Melissa Gropman) for the screen, projector and sound system. When Yellow House moved, the Chimborazans purchased their equipment. They’ve shown Raiders of the Lost Ark,  Goonies, Breaking Away and Casablanca.   

Chapman explains, “Now all we have to do is reserve the park and fundraise to pay the movie licensing fees, which run between $150 and $250 for older movies and up to $400 or more for new ones. These fees are raised through donations of neighbors and local businesses.   While the city supports our efforts in other ways, they do not contribute financially.”

Thus, there is a search for sponsorships. Dates aren’t yet secured, but there is sponorship for a July showing of the Hitchcock classic North By Northwest and for August, To Catch A Thief.

This is summer in Richmond, so there may be insect issues. But it is hoped, nothing quite as pesky as what confronts Cary in this scene from North By Northwest.

 “The idea behind this is to create a family friendly outdoor experience,” Chapman says. “Many of the films we show haven’t been on a local movie screen for years. Others are just campy flashbacks to childhood. But there is something special about seeing a film under the stars.”

And no sticky floors.

Friends Of Chimborazo don’t yet have a web presence, but anyone with questions can contact Chapman at: friendsofchimborazo@gmail.com.  
There is no indication of divine intercession, nor will there be as wanton a destruction of property as shown here. And probably no one will "Shoosh" you if you repeat the lines. (Viewer discretion advised)

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Maybe you've heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And though the kinetic activity in this clip may hurt your eyes, listen to the soundtrack. 

Your indulgence, please. Another one, pushing a running shoe that uses the original artist and is coincidentally set in New Orleans, where this tune came from. The song is “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey “Piano” Smith. You may never have heard of him, but you for certain have somewhere along the line heard his music. His best known and much-covered piece is “The Rocking Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu,” followed by “Sea Cruise” and “High Blood Pressure.” These are deceptively simple songs created by a man who viewed his entire band as an instrument and didn’t write music but described what he wanted, much as a painter might select colors. His playing style, distinctly his own and New Orleanian, is often imitated.

The first comprehensive record of Smith’s life and times is in book stores now and its author is John Wirt, a native Richmonder, musician and a long time reporter and critic for The Advocate of Baton Rouge (Louisiana). In Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues (Louisiana State University Press, Wirt well describes Smith’s rollicking days during the transmutation of rhythm and blues to rock 'n' roll (that latter term Smith disdains) and details the byzantine legal battles that occurred over the rights to his music. 

Wirt accompanied his book for signings and discussion for both weekends of the most recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He recalls, “One lady became quite emotional and put her hand on her heart, [saying] 'Next time you see Huey, you be sure to tell him that the people of New Orleans have never forgotten about him.' ” 

The “Piano” Smith saga came Wirt’s way gradually, then all of a sudden. As a music reviewer, he often receives promotional and demo recordings, and on R&B and New Orleans compilations, Wirt noticed Smith’s name. “Rocking Pneumonia,” (with the final “g,” as Smith wrote it), in 1957 became a top five R&B hit, and the songwriter went to New York City’s Apollo Theatre to perform it. Johnny Rivers rode the song into the 1972 pop charts.

Wirt in 1998 received a disc, This Is … Huey “Piano” Smith, from Music Club, a British label, about which he wrote a review. “Huey’s wife, Margrette, told me she’d seen my stories. He lives here in Baton Rouge. I figured then that I’d write about him and his surviving peers. Margrette told me he read the review and off-handed said to me, ‘Oh, by the way, he didn’t get paid like he should’ve,’ and appreciated that I took the time to mention him.”  

The Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award was bestowed upon Smith in a 2000 New York City gala. Wirt saw this news and contacted Margrette about arranging interviews. “I went to Huey’s house and talked to the mysterious legend of New Orleans music, an enigma to many people who thought he was already dead.” Smith, at this writing, at age 80, is still living in Baton Rouge.

As happens with seminal artists, his influence is better known than his actual achievements. There are complicating reasons for this that Wirt details, some of them legal, some spiritual and some the fickle nature of public taste. That sweaty, New Orleans sound that bloomed in places like the Dew Drop Inn and the Club Tijuana, were among the ingredients of the  exotic matter that powered the engines of rock 'n' roll: from Elvis and thence to The Beatles, and then Smith converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and essentially stopped performing. He spent years fighting for licensing rights in courts.

Wirt’s story is peopled by characters of New Orleans in the post-World War II period who sound straight out of  A Confederacy of Dunces, from the musicians to the public officials and lawyers. Here is Victor Augustine, who runs a record and voodoo shop at 2019 Dryades St,, and termed himself, “Doc the Mighty,” who read palms and sold dream books supposedly with keys to playing illegal lottery games. Augustine installed a beat-up piano into the back of his shop, and the place was renowned enough that musicians gathered there in part because record companies sent scouts there. Smith played that piano for auditions and rehearsals.
This is the earlierst known photo of Eddie
"Guitar Slim" Jones. (Photo courtesy of
the Tad Jones Collection, Hogan Jazz Archive,
Tulane University, New Orleans)

Some of these people become famous and all are interesting: influential pianist Professor Longhair (Harry Roeland Byrd), Doctor Daddy-o (Dillard university art professor Vernon Winslow, Jax beer pitchman, and in 1949, New Orleans’ first black disc jockey), Antoine “Fats” Domino, jump blues stylist Joe “Google Eyes” August, Henry “Duke” Thiele as Poppa Stoppa, a white disc jockey who played black music, drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams, a frequent Smith collaborator who backs “Rocking Pneumonia,” Eddie Lee Jones who entered history as the wild Guitar Slim, with whom Smith performed, Issacher “Izzycoo” Gordon who sang on Smith’s rendition of the traditional “Little Liza Jane,”  and John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr. aka Doctor  John, proto-shock rocker “Screamin’” Jay Hawkins, Richard Wayne Penniman aka “Little Richard,” and one Judge Edwin Babylon. This last couldn’t have been better contrived than by John Kennedy Toole or Walker Percy. New Orleans municipal judge Babylon enters Wirt’s tale reprimanding Dew Drop Inn impresario Frank Painia and white actor Zachary Scott in 1952 for “disturbing the peace by congregating in a Negro saloon.” Scott’s defense was talent scouting for USO tours and Babylon admonished him that when going into black gathering places, he shouldn’t drink, just observe. “His quotes come right out of the newspaper,” Wirt says. “I’m not making anything up.”  

Then there is the exuberant, flamboyant singer Bobby Marchan, openly gay, who sang in Smith’s band The Clowns, though near his 1999 death underwent a conversion and renounced his prior lifestyle.

The same eye for detail that Wirt applied to Smith’s rise and, if not fall, then shift in life course, he commits to what one observer termed the “Kafka-esque” nature of his legal battles stemming from bad contracts. “The history of music in New Orleans during the second half of the 20th century can be read as almost a crime novel,” observed Bill Bentley of Bentley's Bandstand in The Morton Report online, about Wirt’s book, which he describes as “required reading.” Bentley continues, “What is so fascinating is how all those incredible recordings came to be, the endless line of colorful characters who made it happen, and then the blatant thievery by those who were supposed to be looking out for the musicians. Very few in New Orleans escaped those pitfalls, and it's a shameful history of how it happened.”
Huey "Piano" Smith, right, and Gerri Hall, a member
of his singing group, the Clowns, in September 2001.
(Photo by John Wirt)

These sections about the judicial proceedings were part Wirt’s examination of original material and part seeking to do justice by Smith. “He was obviously treated unfairly, and perhaps he made some poor decisions,  but the deck was stacked against him.” There are many what-ifs in Smith’s  career, including a compelling short film concept — a music video 20 years before it existed — he called “Epitaph of Uncle Tom,” that Wirt describes as a “blistering sociopolitical minidrama featuring gospel-style female singers and bass vocalist Roosevelt Wright.” But an uncomprehending producer refused to take part.

Judge Richard Linn, today a federal judge serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, enters the drama as an attorney involved in the legal wrangling about Smith’s music rights. He gave testimony in a 1992 Baton Rouge trial that could be interpreted as conflicting with his previous written statements, according to Wirt's account. “The long and short of it is,” Wirt says, “after this decision in Baton Rouge, Huey lost the earnings to his music in North America.”

For those of you fascinated with this period of music and those who made it, Wirt’s Huey “Piano” Smith is an excursion into another world, beautiful and awful. It is fully indexed, right down to song titles. 

And now, here’s Doctor John, giving his all to Huey’s best. 

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Laughter will freshly slather the walls of the recently re-fitteBroadberry, a venue fond in the memories of club goers of yore – the Cellar Door and Much More. Taking the stage for a good cause on Thursday will be a trio of Richmonders who are all doing Important Things In The Entertainment Business Of Comedy Today. They are Sara Schaefer (subject of a 2013 Richmond magazine profile by Chad Anderson), Eliza Skinner whose acclaimed Eliza Skinner Is: SHAMELESS ran more than a year at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles and New York City, and “The Checkout Girl” her very own self, Jennifer Lemons

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Show starts just after 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here, All proceeds will go to support Hilliard House, a nonprofit that finds housing for families experiencing homelessness in Richmond. 
Sara Schaefer

The Emmy-winning Schaefer, the co-host of MTV's Nikki and Sara Live, has bona fide Richmond recollections that include seeing “The Real” Santa Claus at Miller & Rhoads and helping out with her mother’s charitable Pennies From Heaven thrift shop on Broad Street. Our Kate Andrews interviewed her first in 2011 and in the 2013 profile, Schaefer said that one day she’d like to host a fundraiser for Hilliard House, which assists homeless women and children, administrated by her sister, Ross Altenbaugh. And now she is. But she’s returning home for other reasons, too.

“I'm coming to town to do the commencement speech for Maggie Walker Governor's School (my alma mater), and we were able to squeeze in this benefit show as well,” she says. “ I'm so glad it worked out. The work Hilliard House does is so important, and I've seen first-hand how it's made a real difference in people's lives. The fact that we can make a tiny impact on the world by getting up and telling dumb jokes is so cool. I don't think Ross will be getting on stage, but I'll probably call her out and make sure she's properly embarrassed.”
Eliza Skinner

Schaefer and Skinner are nationally acclaimed comedians who have appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Conan O'Brien Show. Skinner, also, has made it publicly known that she wants to be in a show about a vampire dancer, which makes sense, as she’s from a town whose lore includes accountant by day William Wortham Pool — who, according to legend, is undead everafter, lurking in Hollywood Cemetery. I queried her about any disappointment from not getting hired to be part of the crowd in True Blood’s Fangtasia club.

“Well, I think everyone should offer me a job, so sure. I actually work on the lot where they shoot True Blood, and frequently walk past bits of the Fangtasia set, so it's maddeningly close. I also just shot a sketch with Jurnee Smollet (one of the few humans on True Blood) so this question is just the most recent link between me and True Blood. My mom swears she watches it for the opening credits, which is the TV equivalent of reading Playboy for the opening credits.”
Lemons (aka @thecheckoutgirl) is a performer with the Richmond Comedy Coalition and also writes for RVANews and several other publications. And she plays the ukulele. But she’s also on the bill for the laugh-a-thon is down with it. She’s previously opened for Schaefer and professes admiration for her colleagues.
Jennifer Lemons

“I was thrilled when Sara asked me to perform. Double thrilled when I found out that Eliza would be coming, as well. I've admired both of them for years. Not only thinking that they are funny, which is a given, but also the way in which they were going about their careers. You can stick around and be the funniest person in Richmond, which, if that's your thing, more power to you, or you can get out and see the world and really test your mettle.”

Lemons transplated from San Diego to Richmond eight years ago. The California town is more transient and less cohesive than Richmond, Lemons observes. Richmond engenders a fierce loyalty. "I am in love with this city," she affirms." I'm just starting to feel like a Richmonder, which means my conversations are now peppered with complaints about Short Pump traffic, parking in the Fan, and road closures during the marathon. And don't get me started about how put out I am when somebody expects me to cross the river for something."

She brought the ukulele into her act, though she admits to little musical skill. Enthusiasm, and the willingness to be silly, is of greater significance. She’s for years admired the uke’s “folksy simplicity.” She started on a whim and taught herself to play from YouTube videos.
She says, “I'm just good enough that you can recognize the songs I play but not so good that people who see my shows don't say ‘If she can do that, any schlub can.’ I can't tell you the number of people who say they bought a ukulele after seeing me play because I made it look fun and easy. And it is both of those things. That said, I'm sure I'll have a little something musical up my sleeve for our night at The Broadberry. I find it loosens people up to sing along with cheesy pop tunes, played poorly on a tiny four-stringed instrument. Especially if there is also alcohol being served.”

I was curious about the language of comedy, how if a standup doesn’t do well she bombs, or dies, but should a set exceed the sometimes fatalistic expectations, she “kills.” Schaefer philosophically explained that while she didn’t choose those words, she understands why they are used. 

“Getting up on stage and telling jokes — especially if they are personal stories from your life — puts you in a very vulnerable place. And when you're not doing well, it's brutal. It feels like an emotional death. I did some shows recently at a casino in the middle of nowhere and the shows were so bad, my face got really hot and my glasses started to fog up. My body was reacting as if I was being attacked by a grizzly. And as for "killing" — I like to think that when you have the audience in the palm of your hands, making them laugh uncontrollably with your words — you're killing whatever bad feelings they have inside, even if just for a moment.”

Skinner cut right through circumspection. She says, “By the time you hire a babysitter, brave the traffic, find parking, and get to your seat, we owe you nothing less than blood sport. We do it all for you.”

Schaefer adds, “My hope for any show is simple: no hecklers, no creeps, and lots of laughs! And of course I hope everyone feels great about the fact that they got to see a great show for a great cause.”

They are serious about their capacity to amuse, and they are from us, and their cause is noble. Thus, if you are able, you should go. Joining the festivities as emcee is writer, blogger and radio personality Jack Lauterback.

Lemons hopes you'll see the show. She at first thought it would include a group of comedians. 
“A cavalcade of comedy, if you will. I was like ‘Yeah, I can go do some funny stuff with some funny people.’ But when Sara said it was just the three of us, I was a little like ‘Holy cow, I'd better figure out a way to fill at least one-third of the awkward silence.’  Hopefully, I'll do that by Thursday night.”
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Officials and contributors try splatter painting at the ICA site. Photo courtesy VCU
As part of the groundbreaking ceremonies at Belvidere and Broad streets for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art, significant contributors and officials donned white Tyvek suits, resembling the founding members of Devo, and upon high-rise lifters attempted a splatter action painting demonstration. While colors matching those of the ICA’s logo splashed and squirted onto a mural medallion on the asphalt, a lone trumpeter, leaning out of a white SUV paused at the stoplight, played a spontaneous jazz overture.

On this late spring, Richmond hair-frizzing, moist towlette of an evening came an important benchmark for an idea first proposed 15 years ago, when VCUArts dean Richard Toscan began working on this concept alongside people such as gallerist Bev Reynolds. VCU President Michael Rao acknowledged Reynolds’ involvement, saying, “Five years ago at the first event, she made a beeline to me and said to me, ‘You are going to have an ICA.' ”

The proof of its imminent arrival came when current VCUArts dean Joe Seipel slipped on a blaze yellow vest and operated the controls of a backhoe to cut out a chunk of asphalt. Seipel isn’t unfamiliar with heavy machinery. During the mid-1960s in Wisconsin, he worked with his older brother, Don, who drove a backhoe for pipeline construction. “I was his grade man,” Seipel recalled. "But it's been a while," he added with a chuckle.

VCUArts dean Joe Seipel operates a backhoe to cut out a chunk of asphalt.

He swung around the cabin and the large arm of the machine and took up more of a chunk from the black top than was done in an earlier practice. What did NOT happen after that was the rumbling emergence of a GWAR-like creature growling, “I am awakened from a slumber of 10,000 years!” Nor, I should add, did the ICA shoot out of the creative crème brulee of asphalt with an ear-popping SPROINNGGG!! gleaming and glistening in the late day sun, which would’ve allowed ICA director Lisa D. Freiman to say to the confounded crowd of about 350 assembled for the event, “Think that’s something? Wait’ll you see what’s inside!”

The ICA is slated to rise from this plot of parking lot in two years. You can even watch the progress on a real-time camera from across the street. (Scroll down)

Indeed, today the earth boring started for the geo-thermal wells, according to Dimitra Tsachrelia, project supervisor for Steven Holl Architects which is designing the building. “This is going to be a LEED platinum building,” she enthusiastically related, referring to the high environmental efficiency of its design. “People don’t yet realize how incredible it’s going to be.”

This corner of town, cluttered by gas stations, a pizza delivery joint and VCU buildings, has some interesting history. Prior to the 1960s when it was an automobile dealership, it was the site of Elba Station, a busy rail and electric trolley transit stop (1879 to 1918) with a foundation shaped like a bent arm and nicknamed “Elbow Station.” Holl’s design was influenced by the site's history and follows that footprint. On nearby Grace and Belvidere streets, at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, stood a dilapidated mansion house owned by Maj. James Dooley. His niece, Nora Houston, and associate Adéle Clark, both educated and well-traveled artists, taught formative classes at the Richmond Art Club  to Theresa Pollak, who would later in life founded what has become VCUArts.

The center, when completed, will look ready for a gala exhibition opening, wearing a pre-weathered, satin-finish zinc. The sun will shine through clear and translucent glass walls. The center is to feature a 250-seat auditorium, a sculpture garden, a café and a courtyard. Here, the community will see modern visual art, theater, music, dance and film. It should be a major conduit from the outside world to Richmond and allowing us to upgrade the power of our own broadcast.

The 43,000-square-foot building with interdisciplinary exhibition and presentation galleries and spaces comes with a $37 million price tag; some $31 million has been obtained, with a $20 million endowment campaign ongoing, according to spokeswoman Carrie Culpepper. While most of the funding comes from private sources, the VCU Board of Visitors last month voted on a $27 million loan that allowed yesterday's groundbreaking to go on. The loan provides a revolving line of credit for repayments as gifts and pledges are received.

However, Freiman was able to announce “more magic” under the humid tent, with the Martin Agency passing along $100,000 and an anonymous donor's contribution of $400,000. Perhaps the combination of lofty expectations and the cool jazz of the Trey Sorrells Quartet playing under the hot tent made those gifts more possible.

Trey Sorrells Quartet
The ICA building will be named the Markel Center, due to a contribution in May by the Markel Corp. “Most people think we’re just a boring, old insurance company,” joked Steve Markel, the company's vice chairman. But he cited how the ICA mission connects with the “Markel style” that embraces a disdain for bureaucracy in favor of resiliency, creativity and individual achievement. He and his wife, Kathie, are co-chairs of the fundraising campaign. 

Ed Trask was delighted when he was approached to create a design to mark the spot of the ICA’s appearance. He teamed with Kevin Orlosky of Art On Wheels to turn tricycles into art-making devices for the art medallion. “It’s a game changer for Richmond,” Trask says of the ICA. “We can’t imagine the impact of a place like this.”

That’s starting before the ICA’s physical existence. A current exhibition at the Virginia Center for Architecture featuring buildings voted by the public as Virginia’s Favorite Architecture includes the ICA, between the 1818 James Brockenbrough house by Robert Mills (aka White House of the Confederacy) and 1815’s “Point of Honor” in Lynchburg.

The proof will arise during the next two years.

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