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Charlottesville's Downtown Mall named to state historic register

Opened in 1976, the Charlottesville Downtown Mall has survived long enough to be named historic. Along with 10 other sites, the experiment in urbanism spanning at least eight blocks of Main Street was added Thursday to the Virginia Landmarks Register.

“People don’t realize what a rare piece of architecture the mall is,” downtown blogger and architecture columnist Dave McNair told The Daily Progress. “It was done by someone who has really been recognized as a master.”

That was landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, whose renown began in 1964 with Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. There, Halprin turned an old chocolate factory into a public amenity, widely considered the earliest and most successful adaptive reuse project.

Halprin, who died in 2009, went on to design the national memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, but much of his acclaim comes from his participatory public fountains.

“In a lot of the great Lawrence Halprin public places, water is a huge part of it,” said McNair.

McNair said that Halprin designed a large fountain to be located by Charlottesville City Hall, but that feature was stricken from the plan before construction for budgetary reasons. Today’s smaller fountain at Central Place, McNair ruefully noted, got chained off at some point to keep people out of the water.

“It’s always been squelched or turned off,” McNair said. “Or restaurants built their cafes around the fountains.”

Earlier this year, steel grates were added to the three smaller fountains due to safety concerns. But McNair said that Halprin’s design persists via other details, such as its longer-than-typical bricks and its clusters of willow oak trees which create not only shade but visual interest.

“You can walk the length of the mall and not feel like you’ve walked that far,” said McNair.

According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, of the 200 American streets converted for pedestrian space from the 1960s to the 1980s, only about 30 remain.

“It’s amazing that our mall survived when so many those other malls failed,” said McNair. “And ours came close. It was languishing for quite a while before there was a resurgence in the ‘90s.”

The city made several changes, such as adding six steel sculptures in 1981 by University of Virginia professor James Hagan. In 1985, the city subsidized the erection of the hotel and conference center now known as the Omni. In the early 1990s, in furtherance of Halprin’s expansive vision, the city fully bricked two side streets and created a small amphitheater, a predecessor to today’s larger Ting Pavilion.

“The mall for a couple of decades was tumbleweeds,” said Board of Architectural Review member Ronald Bailey at a board meeting in August. “By turning the area into a gigantic wonderful lovely food court, it attracted a lot of people.”

On Friday, the mall was teeming with buskers and panhandlers, as well as bankers, lawyers and at least two pairs of Jehovah’s Witnesses offering copies of the Watchtower.

“I see a lot of happiness down here,” said Jim Townsend, a representative for a lighting company. “It’s a happening, happy place.”

Townsend said that he’s been paying calls on mall businesses for 37 years and never tires of the diverse crowd attracted to this brick-based park.

“When I’m down here, I feel good,” said Townsend. “I appreciate everyone that’s down here, and I’m sincere about that. It’s a place for everyone.”


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