AKA Altria Headquarters
6601 West Broad Street
Architects, Gordon Bunshaft (building) of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Charles F. Gillette (landscape)
Richmond’s showplace for aluminum.
Conceived as the joint vision of company founder, Richard Samuel Reynolds, Sr. and the world’s premier corporate architect, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the headquarters is a monumental testament to architectural excellence. Classically elegant and subtly innovative, the International Style Executive Office Building is an archetype of suburban corporate headquarters: a medium-height office building in a park-like setting. The four-story courtyard building, like a palazzo, has a clearly defined base supporting the piano nobile, the upper stories, and the cornice. Architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson said of the headquarters that it “exemplifies the genius and promise of post World War II American modernism utilizing modern materials such as glass, steel, and especially aluminum, the Reynolds also makes use of time tested forms such as the palazzo type of format, and the courtyard”.
The Reynolds family rose to prominence in the transitional period that gave birth to the New South. Sons of Hardin W. Reynolds, a prosperous farmer of Patrick County, Virginia, A. D. and R. J. Reynolds saw that the agricultural economy of their childhood must be supplanted by a more diverse and inventive model. Both brothers started tobacco companies, R. J. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and A. D. in Bristol, Tennessee. Over the next decades, the tobacco industry emerged as one of the largest sectors of the nation’s economy, principally through the creative marketing and packaging ideas practiced by companies like R. J. Reynolds Tobacco.
In 1903 while A. D. Reynolds’ son Richard was a law student at the University of Virginia, his uncle R. J. induced him to apply his talents at the elder Reynolds’ business in Winston-Salem. In the ten years he worked for his uncle, R. S. applied innovative ideas and marketing skills that elevated the company to a major force in the industry. With “Prince Albert in a Can” R. S. Reynolds introduced one of many industry-wide innovations, replacing cheesecloth bags with moisture-proof tin containers. Camel cigarettes were also introduced under the younger Reynolds’ aegis, packaged in metal foil for freshness.
R .S. Reynolds left the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1913 and with his brothers founded a soap-making company in Bristol, Tennessee. As World War I came to a close R. S. Reynolds realized that there was a need for more and more specialized containers. When R. J. Reynolds Tobacco and British-American Tobacco faced a war-induced shortage of tin foil for cigarette packaging, Reynolds Corporation stepped in to produce lead and tin foils. In 1919 the three companies launched a partnership called the U.S. Foil Company, located in Louisville, Kentucky.
By 1924 the success of single-level assembly-line production methods enabled U.S. Foil to buy out its partners and also acquire its first subsidiary, the Eskimo Pie Company, which produced a frozen confection requiring metal foil packaging. With major clients dependant on foil production, Reynolds began to explore the possibilities of aluminum: it was lighter in weight than tin, and the yield per pound was greater. In 1926 U.S. Foil began production of aluminum foil. The next decade witnessed a great expansion of the company, now called Reynolds Metals, and more uses and greater facilities for production of aluminum were found.
Executive offices relocated to New York City, a foil-rolling plant was acquired in Richmond, Virginia, another plant opened in Havana, Cuba. Soon an array of new products entered the market: high-speed gravure-printed foil, aluminum bottle labels, heat-sealed foil bags for foods, and foil-laminated building insulation paper. Reynolds Metals did not wait for industries to seek out its packaging. Rather, the company developed products that fostered new industries and markets.
In 1938 the executive offices of the company were moved to Richmond, Virginia, and the untiring company president, now assisted by his sons, continued the research into new uses for aluminum. It was due in large part to Reynolds Metals relocation to the city that Richmond enjoyed relative prosperity and an increasing volume of industrial sales during the late 1930s. Reynolds employees worked in three continuous shifts to meet wartime demand in the early 1940s. In 1947 Richmond became the first test market for Reynold’s Wrap, which was introduced to local housewives by Reynolds saleswomen stationed in Miller & Rhoads’ lingerie department. A subsequent string of aluminum automotive, packaging and building products transformed modem life. As buildings used more aluminum components, the savings of transporting this light weight, energy efficient material made more resources available for other enterprise.
Richard S. Reynolds, Jr. succeeded his father as president of Reynolds Metals in 1948, continuing the exploration of new uses for aluminum, and the expansion of production here and abroad. It was during his stewardship that the 300,000 square-foot headquarters building was built, showcasing aluminum as a building material. Richard S. Reynolds, Jr. welcomed employees to the new company headquarters with a brochure that described the comforts of the building’s air-conditioning, its sun-louvers, and perpetual “Music by Muzak” in glowing terms. The glass-and-aluminum curtain walls of the Executive Office Building represented state-of-the-art design: the use of aluminum was transforming building practices in ways exemplified in the new building. The cantilevered aluminum entrance canopy pushed the limits of the metal’s structural capacities. Aluminum threads in carpets and draperies heralded new possibilities. These advances in the building industry were no overnight occurrence but had been signaled earlier with aluminum-backed building papers and in 1945 when Reynolds introduced aluminum siding.
Architect Gordon Bunshaft attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was recruited to join Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1937. Bunshaft’s genius lay in an aesthetic reductivism. He could pare a building’s elements to refined elegance. This propensity is embodied in the Reynolds’ headquarters and at the landmark Philip Moms Cigarette Manufacturing Plant just south of Richmond.
Like Bunshaft’s earlier masterpiece, Lever House in New York, the Executive Office Building hovers above its podium on slender columns and with a ground level loggia connects interior and exterior spaces. The Reynolds headquarters building is a cube with an off-center peristyle courtyard surrounded by aluminum-clad columns. On the east and west elevations enormous, bright blue, vertical louvers filter the sun. On the north and south, the building’s horizontality is asserted by broad overhangs at each floor. The glass curtain wall is articulated with narrow aluminum mullions. The entire building sits on a podium that, at its south side, opens a full story below the main entry level to a generous ground-level terrace for the employees’ cafeteria.
On the north side, the forecourt leads to a centered canopy whose cantilevered projection announces entry. From a covered loggia, one enters either the auditorium, the lobby, or the courtyard. On the left, inside the freestanding auditorium is a curving, sawtooth, aluminum ceiling. Opposite, the red brick walk, laid in running bond, continues into the interior of the long glass-fronted lobby. A long suite of executive offices and the board room extend across the south side of the ground floor. Extruded aluminum forms the window frames, the linear diffusers, the column cladding, and even provides the base for glazed bathroom tile. Improbable combinations of aluminum, cherry panels, brick, plastic laminate, and striated black and white book-matched marble create an interior of undeniable elegance and sophistication.
The design and construction of the Executive Office Building intentionally demonstrate the multiple uses for aluminum in the building industry. The total weight of aluminum products found throughout the structure is 1,235,800 pounds. The largest single amount, almost 400,000 pounds is found in the cladding of the major exterior architectural elements. Even carpets and draperies were woven with aluminum fibers. Among the most innovative features of the building me the fourteen-foot-high solar louvers on the east and west sides of the building, which shifts, based on the calculations of an astronomical clock, throughout the day.
On overcast days, an electric eye overrides the clock and the louvers stay open to allow maximum natural light. In 1958 this installation of solar louvers was the largest in the world. The building’s interior partitions and openings were modular so that changes in the size or function of a space might be easily accommodated. SOM designed or specified virtually all of the original finishes and furnishings, many of which remain in the building. Original furniture included now classic desks, casework, and chairs designed by such eminent designers as Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen, and Hans Wegner.
Charles F. Gillette, Richmond’s preeminent landscape architect was retained as consultant to select plantings for the new headquarters’ grounds. Gillette was in his late 60’s when he accepted the contract to design the landscaped setting of Gordon Bunshaft’s Reynolds Metals headquarters building. His budget for the project’s landscape materials ($130,000) was the largest budget Gillette had ever worked with. Even with this largesse, the scale of the project was so huge that Gillette was forced to reduce the size of the plant materials so that the budget would not be exceeded and his concepts could be realized.
The Reynolds site plantings are used variously to screen parking, to control and frame views to the headquarters building, to create a formal entry, to enhance the courtyard, and to provide a landscaped park at the building’s south side. The most dramatic landscape feature is the 250-foot long reflecting pool flanked by willow oaks. The reflecting pool continues to supply the water for the sprinkler system that waters the primary grounds. Within the building’s courtyard Gillette specified and selected a forty-foot tall magnolia tree, the largest transplant ever achieved at that time. A water fountain fills another square within this gridded parterre.
Gillette’s placement of plant materials and landscape features within the grid, an articulation of the building’s structural bays, was deliberately asymmetrical yet perfectly balanced. Hedges of sculpted yaupon hollies screen the symmetrically disposed employee parking. The uninterrupted hedges also delay a full view of the headquarters building until the visitor arrives at the formal forecourt. Along West Broad Street grouped plantings in a broad meadow frame glimpses of the building. Although the raised courtyard is the focal point of the building’s main level, smaller perimeter plantings of holly and other shrubs fit within the podium’s ordered grid. Rectangular pools, once planted with lilies, enhance a relatively secluded terrace outside the suite of senior executive offices.
At the rear of the site, the South Lawn, a once-lush garden included flowering shrubs and weeping willows. Gillette unsuccessfully argued for placement of a pond in this low, moist area, which would have been a lovely foil for the reflecting pond at the other side of the property. The owner and architect imposed other undoubtedly frustrating constraints on Gillette, yet his landscape design for the Reynolds headquarters won the annual American Association of Nurserymen’s Industrial Landscaping Competition in 1959.
The first decades following relocation to the West Broad Street headquarters coincided with the period of Reynolds Metals’ greatest expansion. “It was a very exciting time for the company. Reynolds was the leader in the industry during this period,” recalled Gilbert R. Shockley, general director of Product Development in the 1960s and early 1970s. Different roofing materials were developed for farm, industry, and residential use. A variety of aluminum-combination panels had decorative as well as structural applications. Heavy-duty aluminum pipe began to be used for drilling oil.
The Aluminaut, the world’s first aluminum submarine, the deepest diving submarine of its time, was launched in 1964. In collaboration with the armed services, river hovercraft were developed in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970 Reynolds and General Motors collaborated to produce the first all-aluminum engine, a technology today used by Porsche. By the time Richard Reynolds, Jr. became CEO and chairman of the board in 1963, company assets totaled over $1 billion. Joseph H. McConnell was the company president and chief administrative officer. (VDHR)
But the good times did not last. Reynolds’ Metals was acquired by Alcoa in 2000, and the 35-acre former headquarters campus and buildings were picked up by the University of Richmond in 2001 for a mere $8 million. It was in turn leased to Philip Morris USA in 2003 and later joined by parent company Altria in 2008. Altria then purchased the whole kit and caboodle outright in 2017 for $20.8 million. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Sadly, while Altria is being a great steward to this historic property, it’s hard to see very much of it, protected as it is behind gated fences. It’s understandable that Altria wants to protect its corporate privacy, but one wishes there was a way to make some part of this hidden gem available to the public view.
(Reynolds Metals Company International Headquarters is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)
- [COC] A Century of Commerce, 1867-1967. James K. Sanford. 1967.
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