History of Charlottesville's Downtown Mall the Subject of Two Exhibits

March 31, 2010

March 31, 2010 — Take a stroll on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall, and it's evident that residents consider it a community living room. The brick-paved pedestrian area is a stage set for musicians, outdoor dining and promenading as residents visit banks, stores, theaters and music venues.

The mall is an important part of the city's identity, but when city officials conducted a renovation project last year to replace the brick paving and repair other wear and tear that occurred since the mall was put in place in the 1970s, it became clear that very few people knew or remembered the history of its development, said Elizabeth K. Meyer, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia.

That discovery led to a collaboration between faculty and graduate students from the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Preservation Piedmont and the Charlottesville Community Design Center to better document the mall's history and development.

During Preservation Week, April 9-17, public lectures, panel discussions and two exhibitions will focus on the history of the Downtown Mall, backed by funding from
the National Endowment for the Arts Design Excellence/Stewardship program.

"More Than Just Bricks: A Social and Design History of the Charlottesville Mall/Lawrence Halprin Associates 1973-1976" will be on display weekdays from April 2 through May 28, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Charlottesville Community Design Center. This exhibit focuses on the design and process of community participation that shaped landscape architect Lawrence Halprin's vision for the Downtown Mall.

Meyer and Lydia Brandt, an art and architectural history graduate student in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, will give a gallery talk at the exhibit's First Friday Opening on April 2, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The companion exhibit, "More Than Just Bricks: Repairing Community/Halprin Associates' Vision for Downtown Charlottesville," will be on view in the Elmaleh Gallery in U.Va.'s Campbell Hall on weekdays from April 5 to 30, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit will focus on unrealized plans for the downtown area that stretched from Belmont to Vinegar Hill and from High Street to Monticello Avenue, including documents and drawings that have not been exhibited in Charlottesville for more than 40 years.

"Halprin's idea was to tie the downtown area back to the city and repair the clearing of urban renewal" that had leveled much of the nearby African-American community of Vinegar Hill, Meyer said. The plan included housing on Vinegar Hill and housing and light industry on Garrett Street.

The plan called for "a network of intensely programmed streets and landscape connections, so that the mall would reach out in all directions," she said.

The seeds of the mall did not begin with Halprin.

"The idea for the mall preceded Halprin's firm by almost 15 years," Meyer said. An engineering firm from Atlanta had been advising the city on urban renewal efforts because the city did not have a professional planning staff at the time.

"It was fascinating to find out that the idea of a pedestrian street was there for a while, but the location was not a given," Meyer said.
 
Meyer and graduate students sifted through the archives of Lawrence Halprin and Associates at the University of Pennsylvania to bring to light not only the plans for the mall, but also the urban design plan.

To develop these, Halprin created a process he called "Take Part Workshops" to encourage citizen participation. The workshops involved a series of "scores" or choreographed activities, a community participation technique Halprin had developed with his wife, Anna, who was a dancer.

"It was akin to a musical or choreographed score," said Nathan Foley, a landscape architecture and urban and environmental planning graduate student who is the design historian on the project.

These were guided actions that the 32 participants, who included members of the community and representatives of numerous interest groups, would perform at each of the stops on prescribed walking and driving tours. The driving tour had 13 stops from Belmont to Barracks Road. On the downtown walking tour there were 10 stops, including Court Square, a long walk down Main Street, Lee Park, the corner of Main and McIntire streets, Water Street, Garrett Street and Second Street Southeast — the site of the old C&O train station that was envisioned as the downtown entryway.

"The goal was to see the community in a new way and to have a common language to talk about the city and its potentials," Foley said.

At each stop, participants were prompted to jot down what they saw, note what they would like to see and at some stops were directed to sketch.

Meyer said, "The premise was that you would make a better connection about the future of a place if you experience the space."

On the last day, participants gathered to generate ideas for the design development and crafted 16 consensus items that became part of the firm's actions and recommendations document for the project.

"This was pivotal for the City of Charlottesville and the firm," Foley said. "It was a transition for the city of how they could embrace public participation, and for the firm, it was the first time they employed the whole range of their services on one project."

Meyer said, "The designers did a good job, but also benefited from the stewardship of the community leaders, and not every landscape has that."

On April 10 at 11 a.m., and again on April 17 at 2 p.m., Foley and graduate student Jana VanderGoot will lead walking tours of downtown following the "Take Part Workshop" scores.

The goal is to "make the original scores relevant to today," Foley said.

Part of the Charlottesville Community Design Center exhibit will include a 10-minute multimedia presentation built around oral histories.

Sarita Herman, a research assistant and architectural history graduate student, worked since June to collect oral histories from 1970s-era city and government leaders, including longtime city manager Cole Hendrix; Charles Barbour, Charlottesville's first African-American mayor, who was mayor at the time of the mall's groundbreaking and dedication; and others. For the multimedia presentation, Herman combined their voices with construction images found in the Halprin archives and photographs the interviewees shared.

The interviews provided new information and clarified information that was confusing in the documents, Herman said.

Collecting the oral histories is an ongoing project. "Hopefully other oral histories will come to light during the course of the exhibit," Herman said.

Afterward, the National Endowment for the Arts will archive the oral histories, and copies will be donated to Charlottesville City Hall, the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society Library and the U.Va. Library.

Research about the exhibits will be published in a field guide for the Downtown Mall that will be available through the Charlottesville Community Design Center. More detailed writings about the social and design history will be submitted to various academic and professional journals.
 
"All the research will contribute to the long-term historical record of the mall, and the hope is that in the future this record will help inform planning," Meyer said.

A complete list of events being held in conjunction with the exhibits is available here.

— By Jane Ford