Sleeping with the Past


 I worked in the same building twice, each time for a different company.  Now that I think about it, it was pretty awesome working in such a famous and historic building.
The building used to be part of Reynolds Metals Company’s corporate headquarters.  The complex took up a small part of a 120 acre parcel that used to be a horse farm. In fact, before the restaurant facing Broad Street was built,  you could still see the concrete steps that led up to the farmhouse.
Gordon Bunshaft, a world renowned corporate architect, designed the main building, formerly called the EXO (Executive Office Building).   Completed in 1958, architectural historian Richard Wilson said it “exemplifie[d] the genius and promise of post World War II American modernism.”   According to the application for listing on the National Register of Historic Places filed in 2000 (from which all these facts were derived), the EXO is “a monumental testament to architectural excellence  . . .  classically elegant and subtly innovative.”  The EXO was indeed named to the National Register of Historic Places, one of the rare late 20thcentury buildings on the list.
Because Reynolds Metals was first and foremost an aluminum company (it also owned gold mines in Australia) the EXO was designed to be a showcase for aluminum products.   Everything that could be made of aluminum was made of aluminum, for a total of 1.2 million pounds.  From the cladding on the columns, walls, millwork and doors, to the file cabinets, desks and chairs, to the paper trays, pencil holders, planters and wastebaskets, down to the aluminum threads in the drapes and carpets, it was all aluminum as far as the eye could see. There was no wood anywhere to be found when Reynolds owned the building, at least as far as I could see.
Among the most innovative features was the 14-foot high aluminum solar louvers on the east and west sides of the building.  These louvers, painted a bright blue (Reynolds’ signature color) were supposed to shift throughout the day based on the calculations of an astronomical clock.  On overcast days, an electric eye was supposed to override the clock and keep the louvers open to allow maximum natural light.  During both my tenures in the building, however, they never worked properly.   Although I was supposed to have a view of the courtyard from my office, mostly I had a view of the blue louvers.  I always hated those louvers.
Nevertheless, the building was majestic.  There is a large reflecting pool in front bordered by huge willow oak trees.  The building sits on a podium with a cantilevered projection that made for an impressive entrance when people were allowed to drive up to it.
When I worked there before, there were only three main buildings on the property.   The rest was woods, intersected by walking paths.  The National Register application described the setting as “unspoiled” and “pastoral.”  Charles Gillette, a well-known Richmond landscape architect, designed the landscaping, which was beautiful.  Indeed, the entire property was gorgeous, mainly because most of it was covered with trees.
When Alcoa bought Reynolds, the EXO was sold to the University of Richmond, which in turn leased it to the current occupant.  They renovated the inside of the EXO, replacing some of the aluminum with much needed wood finishes.  I have to say, it looks much better now.
Meanwhile, the Reynolds family kept the rest of the property, renamed it “Reynolds Crossing,” (they kept the signature blue color) and started to market it as an “award winning mixed use development.”  Reydev.com/Reynolds_Crossing.   The website touts the “Class A” office buildings and describes the property as “a prime destination retail location,” which they optimistically call “The Shoppes at Reynolds Crossing.” The only “shoppe” on the property so far, however, is a Walmart under construction.
The area looks so different now.   Most of the trees are gone.   You can see clear through to the interstate.  The speed bumps on Forest are long gone and the traffic grows every day.
I’m not one to pine for the past.  The future marches on whether we like it or not.  I don’t mind change, either.  Change keeps us moving and growing.   And I would have enjoyed having a Walmart so conveniently located.
But there’s something about it that makes me sad.  I think about how it used to be an oasis of green surrounded by a sea of concrete and traffic.  I think about the horse farm that used to be there.  I think about a picture I once saw of the aluminum desks lined up in rows just like in Mad Men.  I think about how those willow oaks have grown from saplings to huge trees with large green canopies.
No more sleeping with the past.  Time to move on to new adventures.

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