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Must-See RVA! — John Marshall Courts Building

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.

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May 2020
  • 800 East Marshall Street
  • Built, 1978
  • Renovated, 1994
  • Architects, C. F. Murphy & Associates; Helmut Jahn, project architect (1978). Hening-Vest-Covey (1994)

Straight out of Alphaville.

[ADR] — building in 1981 downtown survey

[ADR] — building in 1981 downtown survey

Designed by a nationally known Chicago-based architectural firm, the John Marshall Courts Building was intended to provide a neutral background to the John Marshall House. In this it succeeds. it is a slickly detailed glass box with rounded edges. The building is the best example of the “glass box” genre in Richmond.

(Montage) — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, undated

(Montage) — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, undated

C. F. Murphy & Associates are among the more skillful followers of Mies van der Rohe, who was the most influential architect of the 20th century. Their Richmond building has been controversial on both functional and aesthetic grounds. [ADR]

Designed to respect the Marshall House next door, the sleek, black glass box of the John Marshall Courts Building sets off the house, emphasizing its iconic, welcoming facade. This is perhaps its only success, because the court building has been plagued with criticism for its dysfunction. Recent alterations have attempted to correct traffic and security issues. (SAH Archipedia)

May 2020

May 2020

When your lead architect likes to wear capes as normal outerwear, and his detractors call him “Flash Gordon”, there’s a chance you might not get what you were expecting. Before you know it, you might be throwing around emotional terms like controversial and dysfunction and find yourself spending money to correct gaps in the original design.

(The Architect’s Newspaper) — McCormick Place, 1969-1971

(The Architect’s Newspaper) — McCormick Place, 1969-1971

After graduating from the Technische Hochschule in Munich in 1965, (Helmut) Jahn moved to Chicago to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a school long associated with the Modernist aesthetic of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his followers. On the basis of this solid design background, Jahn was hired by Chicago architectural firm C.F. Murphy Associates to work on the Miesian design for McCormick Place in Chicago.

(YouTube) — screencap from Helmut Jahn, FAIA Lifetime Achievement Award

(YouTube) — screencap from Helmut Jahn, FAIA Lifetime Achievement Award

In the late 1970s and ’80s Jahn made his mark, designing extravagant buildings that combined historical and contextual references—the central tenets of postmodern architecture—with high-tech engineering solutions. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

May 2020

May 2020

Jahn certainly has his admirers and adherents. He has completed over 90 building projects during his long career and has been widely recognized for his efforts, earning a Ten Most Influential Living American Architects award from the American Institute of Architects in 1991.

(Newspapers.com) — Helmut Jahn’s MetroWest building in Naperville, Illinois —Chicago Tribune Sunday, March 2, 1986

(Newspapers.com) — Helmut Jahn’s MetroWest building in Naperville, Illinois —Chicago Tribune Sunday, March 2, 1986

However, in the early days, his critics considered him “that postmodern enfant terrible who rocketed to stardom on the supercharged fireworks of the State of Illinois Building in 1985.” (Architecture Week)

A 1986 Chicago Tribune article about his MetroWest design in Naperville, Illinois called him a “flamboyant postmodernist, who adorns himself in capes and Porches.” It went on to observe that the building produced nausea in a nearby office worker, and concluded with relief that “at least nobody has dubbed it the Starship Naperville.” [CHIT]

May 2020

May 2020

With context like that, perhaps it’s not surprising that issues were found with the courts building. Not everyone digs the glass box thing, that’s easy to grok, but the functional issues are something else. The building opened in 1978 and just four short years Robert Winthrop was calling it controversial, so whatever problems existed must have quickly found a voice.

May 2020

May 2020

The precise nature of the complaints is obscure, but the building does not appear to respect the available space. Together with the John Marshall House, the courts building complex consumes the entire block, yet there is a large, empty plaza along Ninth Street.

May 2020

May 2020

It certainly looks nice, but by 1994 the City would find itself coughing up $2 million dollars for a renovation to create additional office space and another courtroom. [RTD1] At such cost, there probably weren’t a lot of plaza enthusiasts still hanging around.

(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards) — John Marshall High School

(Rocket Werks RVA Postcards) — John Marshall High School

Adding to the sense of injury, the new courts building came at the price of the beautiful old John Marshall High School. It too sat quietly behind the John Marshall House at the corner of 9th and Marshall and was considered a state-of-the-art facility when it opened in 1909, with large classrooms, elevators, and science labs, as well as modern plumbing, heating, and ventilation. [RTD2]

Alas, this sacrificial lamb was razed, and the school had to scoot to a new location in North Side.

(John Marshall Courts Building is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


Note

  • A shout-out to Ray Bonis & Harry Kollatz for their tips and input on the courts building!

Print Sources

  • [ADR] Architecture in Downtown Richmond. Robert P. Winthrop. 1982.
  • [CHIT] Chicago Tribune. Sunday, March 2, 1986.
  • [RTD1] Richmond Times-Dispatch. December 8, 1994.
  • [RTD2] Richmond Times-Dispatch. August 16, 1909.

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