The site on which the James Center now sits was the most important industrial center in the South before the Civil War. The river was the primary mode of transportation for manufactured goods and produce in the 18th and 19th century, and Richmond’s position at the falls made the city into the major market for the entire area.
Most of what is now the James Center was occupied by the great Turning Basin of the James River and Kanawha Canal. The Canal, which was to route James River traffic around the falls, was first envisioned by George Washington as a means to channel vigorous economic activity into the heart of Richmond. The Turning Basin was the destination and embarkation point for river packets and bateaux, where their cargoes of tobacco, grain, flour, iron ore, coal and other goods were loaded and unloaded. As a testimony to the vigorous activity of the basin, the remains of more than 30 canal boats were unearthed during excavation for the James Center.
Thus, the James Center, one of the newest and most modern office complexes in the Richmond area, sits on the site of the oldest and most important industrial transportation center in the pre-Civil War South. The James Center has built on its history, using the dramatic contrast between the Center and its past as an effective design theme for art around the complex.
The public art animates the spaces, provides a sense of physical direction through the James Center and gives both the every day user and the casual visitor a sense of cultural orientation to Richmond’s ancient landscape. They seek, in the words of the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, to release the “stored humanity” of the place.
Standing on the steps and in the plaza of One James Center, sculptor Lloyd Lillie’s abstractly rendered bronze figures, ranging from eight to eleven feet tall, strain against the lines that hoist three sails up a fifty foot mast. The figures are sculpted in flowing lines of muscle and sinew, which express a vital energy – a sense of purpose. The three figures are held in a dramatic tension as they pull against the cables. The flex and curl of their bodies is echoed in the rhythm of the sails that rotate at an angle beyond their reach. Above them, the mast, also of bronze, plunges into the smooth brick discs fashioned by sculptor Alexandra Kasuba. The abstract curves of the bricks convey the tilt of a rocking deck and the plunge of a hull cutting into the ripple of adjacent steps: an image of a boat plowing forward.
It is not often that an artist has the freedom and the forum to explore a single theme through three separate works of art. The James Center project provided this challenge and opportunity to sculptor Greg LeFevre who used the James River for his inspiration. LeFevre likes to think of himself as a landscape artist with a different and unique perspective. His interest lies in celebrating the diversity and beauty of nature, and he has done so in three separate art works in the project.
The impressive bronze sculpture in the lobby of One James Center commands immediate attention, but many people are unaware that this imposing work of art is an accurate depiction of the James River as it flows through Richmond. LeFevre transposed the contours of the river into a fifteen foot high totem-like bronze sculpture titled “James”. The polished sections of the sculpture represent the river’s contours. The earth colored, textured sides suggest the surrounding contours and elements of the river’s eroded banks and shallows. The artist has included a few small, almost hidden, surprise details as well. These include things one might find along the edges of the river: small fish, twigs, crayfish and the like.
The companion piece to the freestanding sculpture in the lobby is situated in the lobby. Six bronze panels feature the same stretch of the river but in a very different format with different textures, lines, patinas and surfaces. The panels represent six different sections of the James, all taken from the area of the river which borders downtown Richmond. The highly polished area represents the river, the corrugated bronze depicts the islands, and the patina colors represent the land.
A bronze piece imbedded in the floor of the James Center Atrium, which connects Two James Center, the Omni Richmond Hotel and Three James Center is the third LeFevre piece relating to the James River, but in yet another way. Two James Center and the Atrium actually sit on the Turning Basin of the old Kanawha Canal. LeFevre chose an 1857 Bear’s lithograph of the site as a starting point for this work. It features the Kanawha Canal and the James River as they flow in and out of the Basin. It also relates to the Richmond street grid of 1813 which is little changed today. Again, LeFevre has included several small surprises, such as details of the Canal locks and tiny reliefs of the fountain, as well as the famous sculptures along the Capitol Square walk.
The LeFevre sculptures in the James Center project a unique historical and cultural perspective of the city. A daily user or a first-time visitor to the James Center will quickly sense the importance of the James River and the Kanawha Canal to Richmond’s development through LeFevre’s powerful and inspiring works of art.
Perhaps the most unusual art in the James Center is on the walls behind the elevators which rise from the parking decks to the James Center Atrium. Richard Haas, the artist who painted the mural, researched local museums and solicited historians to splice a sense of history into the modern business environment. His four-story mural creates an illusion of ascending and descending through a series of canal locks, a distortion in the passage of time. It is a fantasy recreation of the historical architecture that once stood on the very site that the mural now occupies.
The left panel depicts a loaded barge passing through the locks of pre-Civil War Richmond. The center shows the remains of a barge below a view of the Great Turning Basin and Richmond after the fire of 1865. And the right panel portrays the actual excavation of the James Center, where the ruins of dozens of canal-barges were salvaged. As the elevator ascends, a painted view of the Virginia Capitol Building and the Atrium fade away to reveal the real things.
In the European tradition of a gathering place in the center of town, the James Center’s largest Plaza, on the corner of 10th and Cary Street, offers downtown workers and visitors a place to meet in a tree-lined, flower embellished park with an historic backdrop. Initially opened in May of 1987 and continuously developing and being enhanced and refined, the Plaza has proved itself popular with Richmonders.
Becoming an instant landmark, the Clock Tower welcomes both the casual visitor as well as the regular office population. A public amenity that is unique in its celebration of hours, seasons, and events, the Clock Tower depicts life on the canal from 1785 – 1879. The 45-foot limestone tower houses a 25 brass bell carillon which chimes melodies on the hour and half-hour. As the bells chime, cast figures of canal bargemen rotate. The carillon was fabricated by a Dutch concern whose glockenspiels have been animating European squares for years.
Also in the Plaza, the passers-by will discover the old stones of the Kanawha Canal, now deployed in retaining walls and seating arrangements. The quality of these old stones fascinated the Virginia born sculptor, James Sanborn, who first examined the giant stone blocks where they were neatly stored under the Manchester Street Bridge, and he crafted this stone amphitheater. Others of these giant granite blocks have been arranged to suggest the outline of a typical lock on the Canal and James River. Under the careful supervision of Dale Wiley, Richmond historian, and with the cooperation of The Richmond Metropolitan Authority which lent the stones as a public service, the blocks were placed as symbols, indicating the shape, size, and workings of the old locks.