Jefferson Hotel owner will be allowed to demolish century-old former church

Supporters carry signs during Saturday’s rally in front of the Second Baptist Church building along Franklin Street. The century-old building is slated for demolition. †Jonathan Spiers photos

In a reversal, the City of Richmond now says it is going to allow the owner of The Jefferson Hotel to tear down the century-old Second Baptist Church building beside it without needing to secure an additional approval that was first thought to be required from the city’s Commission of Architectural Review.

The change in position, confirmed with the city late last week, prompted outrage from historic preservationists, who held a news conference Friday in front of the former church building and gathered Saturday for a rally that drew dozens of supporters, some holding signs that read “ Historic hypocrisy” and “No more landmarks in the landfill.”

Ringing a cowbell and chanting “Save Second Baptist,” the crowd at one point marched past the five-star hotel’s Lemaire restaurant, some of them raising and pointing the signs toward the restaurant’s windows.

The scene was reminiscent of 30 years earlier, when pressure from preservationists effectively stopped The Jefferson’s owner, the Bill Goodwin-led Historic Hotels of Richmond, from going through with a demolition it initially sought in the early 1990s, when it bought the church building as part of an assembly when it purchased The Jefferson.

Citing structural deterioration and a need for more parking, the group was allowed to demolish the building by the City Council at the time, which in an appeal reversed the decision of its Commission of Architectural Review (CAR) to deny a required certificate of appropriateness — an additional approval needed for building modifications in city-designated Old and Historic Districts.

Historic Hotels, tied to Goodwin’s CCA Industries, never went through with the demolition and instead fenced off the building and has been using it for storage.

It applied last fall for a new permit, which the city initially said would require a new certificate as well, giving preservationists hope that the request would again face scrutiny from CAR.

But as of last week, that position had changed, with the city now saying the 30-year-old certificate still stands.

The rally marched past The Jefferson Hotel’s Lemaire restaurant.

Kevin Vonck, director of the city’s planning and development review department that issues demolition permits, said Friday that it will be releasing a hold it had put on this latest application, after the city attorney’s office had determined that the previous certificate remains valid.

In an email, Vonck said, “Our cursory review of the facts led us to assume that (the 1992 certificate) was invalid given the significant lapse in time. Thus came the initial conclusion that the applicant would need to apply for a new (certificate) from CAR.

“After more extensive legal analysis, however, the City Attorney’s office has concluded that the 1992 (certificate) is still valid and thus we have released the hold on the demolition permit requested by the applicant,” he said.

Filed Sept. 20, the application technically expired Dec. 30, according to the city’s online permit portal. Vonck said the application would likely still be processed, given the hold that was put on it to allow time for Historic Hotels to apply for a new certificate from CAR.

It’s not clear how soon the building could be demolished, but preservationists on Saturday said they feared it could happen as soon as this week.

Michael Phillips, who helped organize Saturday’s rally, said their concern at this point is as much about the process as about saving the building.

“It’s a beautiful historic building, it’s a beautiful historic corridor we’re trying to preserve, but it’s also a transparency issue with the city,” Phillips said. “All we’re asking is that this building go through the process that was set forth through the city’s Old and Historic District plans, because that’s what everyone else would have to do. Right now, The Jefferson and the owners are bypassing all of that straight to demolition.”

Jennie Dotts, a local preservationist and real estate agent who led the rally, said the demolition would be hypocritical for a business with “Historic” in its name.

A photo distributed by Historic Richmond shows the interior of the former church building, which The Jefferson Hotel has been using for storage.

“It’s unfortunate that this building has been allowed to deteriorate for 30-some years, because it’s owned by one of the wealthiest and most powerful people around,” Dotts said.

“It’s next to a hotel that is trading on its history and the fact that it was built in 1895. So the idea that they would consider or even be allowed to demolish a historic landmark at its front door, and then still continue to trade off the history makes no sense,” she said.

The demolition application does not specify what would be done with the quarter-acre property beyond filling the basement and landscaping over the site. Danny Workman, The Jefferson’s engineering and facilities director who filed the application, did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Attempts to reach CCA Industries for comment on the demolition have been unsuccessful.

Built in 1906, the sanctuary building was designed by William Noland of Noland and Baskervill, a predecessor of the present-day Baskervill architecture firm. Featuring a prominently columned portico, the neoclassic building’s design was based on the same Roman temple that Thomas Jefferson modeled the Virginia State Capitol building after.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Grace Street Commercial Historic District. It’s also part of Richmond’s West Franklin Street Old and Historic District.

The application puts the project cost at $350,000. Draper Aden Associates is listed as the engineer for the work.

Historic Richmond, which was involved in fighting to save the building the first go-round, has said it reached out to the hotel and was told that the demolition was sought due to structural issues with the building and “an inability to find an economically viable use.”

The nonprofit said it has offered to work with the hotel to assist with an adaptive reuse of the building, with past proposals including a fitness center, pool, offices and housing.

In a statement released after Friday’s news conference, Historic Richmond likened the scenario to “an uphill David v. Goliath battle,” describing the CAR review as the deciding slingshot.

“The City took away that slingshot. why? The shadow of Goliath was looming over City Hall,” the statement said.

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