Reestablishing the Rhythm at Central National Bank

Patrick Thompson is clearly waiting for something to happen as the tiny darkened elevator car ascends the abandoned Central National Bank tower. And just before Floor 15, the car clangs against the elevator shaft. “There it is,” the project architect says with calm. It’s a jarring feeling when you’re up that high, but he’s used to it by now. Anyone else might be tempted to check out somewhere like this website to make sure that there wasn’t anything massively wrong with it that would need fixing, but not him.

After all, Thompson has ridden this car dozens of times since construction began in the fall on the 23-story tower on Broad Street and its four-story annex, which extends from Broad to Grace Street at Third Street. By the end of the year, the historic, but “highly dilapidated,” Art Deco building, which has sat dormant for more than a decade, will be home to more than 200 new apartments and a retail arcade. Sixty-two units will open in its annex by July, followed by construction of 126 units in the tower.

“This building is sort of the mother lode,” says Robert S. “Bob” Mills, a founding principal of Commonwealth Architects, which designed the project that’s being built by W.M. Jordan and owned by D.C.-based Douglas Development. “It’s the building we’ve needed to get done for the last 15 years. Once we have lights on in the building, you’re going to see an explosion of redevelopment around it. It’s going to serve as a catalyst for further revitalization in this section of the city.”

The 237,000-square-foot Central National Bank opened in 1929 and, visible from the interstate, continues to serve as a landmark for the city despite its last tenant, a Wachovia bank branch, vacating the building in 2000. Over the years the limestone-clad tower and annex’s cavernous insides and rooftops have fallen victim to vandalism and unsightly graffiti.

Yet the building has never lost its allure, beauty, or frankly insane views of Greater Richmond.

The centerpiece of Central National Bank is undoubtedly its grand bank lobby (“the best bank lobby in Richmond,” says Mills, and it’s a point that’s hard to argue). Its terrazzo floors and plaster-coffered ceilings are being repaired to attract a high-end restaurant to call the space home. Underneath the lobby rest the bank’s vaults. The elaborate doors are straight out of a bank robbery movie and the three strong rooms may be used as, say, wine cellars or VIP seating. Art Deco-style “CNB” insignias seen throughout the first floor and its elevator doors will be incorporated onto apartment door numbers, Thompson notes.

A pool will sit atop the four-story annex, along with an entertainment center, lounge areas, and a fire pit. “We’re really trying to take advantage of the roof area” on the annex, says Mills. Accent lighting at the top of the tower will likely be installed to show of the Art Deco features. And there is plenty of retail space for companies to eat up throughout the retail arcade in an effort to “reestablish the rhythm” of the building’s original use and Broad Street during its heyday, explains Mills. “It will be an incredible market space,” he says, before offering up a tip to real estate investors: “It’s probably a good time to buy in that neighborhood.”

The apartments will offer contemporary living with minimal walls, while the main areas will still feel historic–if you’ve been in the First National Bank on Main at 10th Street, this is a highly similar project, and Commonwealth Architects rehabbed that 12-story building. Units at Central National Bank will range from 500 to 900 square feet, with the majority between 600 and 700. Floors 21 and 22 will be home to three penthouses, each two stories (First National also has two-story penthouses).

Told by Commonwealth Architects in April 2013 that he’d be responsible for ensuring his company’s design of Central National Bank comes to life, Thompson said he was “giddy.”

“This is a dream job,” says the 2004 Virginia Tech graduate, who despite his frequent treks to the tower’s roof still couldn’t resist taking a few photos with his iPhone on a recent trip up. “I can truly say I love my job.”

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