Eye candy: Staunton cures visual blues

One of the guilty pleasures of architecture is simply looking at it. Recent projects like Norman Foster's Hearst Tower in New York City or Bernard Kohn's Meteor subway line in Paris are marvels of engineering and purpose, but first they make us wide-eyed like children opening a new toy.

Unfortunately, it's hard to find that kind of pure visual pleasure here in Charlottesville. We may be one of America's favorite places to live, but it's not because of our architecture. Once you've seen Monticello and The Lawn, you've done it.

Granted, they are spectacular examples of classic architecture, but they seem to have permanently pinned the rest of the town to Jefferson's drafting table. Almost 180 years after his death, projects like the new John Paul Jones Arena are still aping his designs.

And while the Downtown Mall may be an urban success story, it's not exactly an architectural mecca. Certainly, there are exceptions. The Live Arts building is interesting, and the new Pavilion catches the eye, but by and large the architecture in Charlottesville doesn't thrill the senses or even break the monotony of our daily commutes. (Kudos to projects like Art in Place for attempting to distract our eyes momentarily from the bumper of the car in front of us.)

Even our institutional buildings– City Hall, the Albemarle County Office Building in old Lane High School, and the Federal Courthouse– evoke at best a yawn. Add to them the relentlessly monotonous Walker Square apartments-to-condos along West Main, the bungalow fields of Belmont, and the endless house farms pock-marking what seems like every acre of the county, and you find yourself deep in the design doldrums.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

Central Virginia's growth is exponential, and we all know that architecture yielded to science and economics years ago. We want our buildings to serve a purpose, to invite us in and keep us warm and comfortable, to contain the things we want and the people we want to see. That's why after 2000 years of human evolution, the icons of modern architecture have become strips malls, franchise restaurants, Wal-Marts, car dealerships, gas stations, and automatic doors. Still, without interesting architecture, our lives run the risk of becoming one long shopping trip.

Fortunately, we have Staunton, an architectural jewel in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the relief from visual monotony begins on I-64 west. A gradual rise becomes a steep incline, quickly reaching the peak of Afton Mountain so high that snow surrounds the view of the wide valleys on either side. In sharp contrast to the road to Richmond, which is about as visually dynamic as running on a treadmill in the basement, the road to Staunton is a feast for the eyes. The rolling valleys go on forever, the sky stretches away to West Virginia, and farmhouses, cattle, horses, and odd and interesting billboards dot the landscape. It literally feels like another country.

While Charlottesville's sprawl allows for no real dynamic focal point, Staunton introduces itself in dramatic fashion. Once past the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, Lowe's, the Sheetz on old Route 250, a Queen Anne clock tower, Gothic-style cathedral spires, domes, and what look like castles mark the skyline like a Tuscan hill town.

On the left, a beautiful complex of abandoned buildings looks like a cross between a luxury resort and a prison. In a way, it was designed to be both. The old Western Lunatic Asylum, later Western State Hospital, is a complex of Greek revival style buildings originally constructed in 1828 with the help of some of Jefferson's builders.

Architect Thomas Blackburn, who also worked with Jefferson as he designed UVA, worked closely with the asylum's doctors to create a design that would aid in the healing process. There were terraced gardens and walking paths, a roof walk to provide views– even the bars on the windows were carefully aligned with the mullions so that patients were unaware of them.

From the mid-1970s until it closed in 2003, the facility served as a medium security prison. Now plans are under way to turn the spectacular grounds into condominiums and commercial spaces.

Staunton is no stranger to the architectural limelight. As a year-ago Hook cover story pointed out, both the New York Times and Virginia Living have run features on Staunton's historic treasures. In addition, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Staunton to its list of 12 "Distinctive Destinations" in 2001, and the following year the National Trust awarded the city the coveted "Great American Main Street" award, which annually goes to just five exemplary U.S. communities.

Even Staunton's newest parking garage, which looks more like a turn-of-the-century railway station, has received special attention, a 2002 Palladio Award for the way it solved both a practical problem and blended seamlessly into the historic background.

Staunton's admirable architectural character is largely the result of another TJ: T.J. Collins. From 1891 to 1911, Collins designed and remodeled over 200 buildings in Staunton, integrating a variety of architectural styles of the time. For example, the Dixie 4 Theater on East Beverley Street is an Italian Renaissance Revival design with arched windows inlaid with terra cotta mosaic tiles, while the Minuteman Press building down the street features an intricate false balcony in the Venetian Romanesque style.

Less than a block away, the National Valley Bank goes for something a little more ambitious– a kind of Beaux Arts design that seems to incorporate all of Collins' influences, including a Romanesque arch, Corinthian columns, and a spectacular Tiffany skylight. As if that weren't enough for a small city block, Collins designed the extraordinary Marquis Building; a turreted brick structure rivaling anything on the end of Haussmann's Paris boulevards.

Believe it or not, that's only a small sampling of Staunton's downtown architecture. And that's not to mention the beautiful private residences in the Gypsy Hill and Newtown historic districts, or some of the planned projects under way like the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theater to accompany the already impressive Blackfriars Playhouse, a new Woodrow Wilson presidential library, and the new Staunton Center for the Performing Arts.

Did I mention the recent renovation of the old Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the Visulite Theater?

This is a first in a series of columns on Staunton architecture.

Home to Duke & Fitzpenn's antiques, T.J. Collin's Marquis Building on East Beverly Street is one of Staunton's architectural treasures.