And now a news flash from Dec. 2, 1900: “Norfolk’s new federal building is finished. It is a beautiful edifice, wonderfully adapted to the purpose for which it was designed. Every detail of necessity, convenience and comfort seems to have been so thoroughly looked after that there is practically nothing to be desired.”
This imposing edifice on Plume Street, first a post office and courthouse, then Norfolk’s City Hall and, for a time the headquarters for an insurance company, takes a new bow in the coming weeks as – how would a newspaper of its day put it? – a grand, no, elegant, downtown library.
The Norfolk Main Library is scheduled to partially open on Saturday, just before demolition of the 46-year-old Kirn Memorial begins. Inside, there won’t be much to see at first, just the sprawling basement room where several dozen computers will offer the latest news of the 21st century. But as the rest of the library opens in the coming months, we’ll find ourselves in another time and place.
The building was designed in 1898 under the guidance of John Knox Taylor, the Treasury Department’s supervising architect. With the nation recovering from the Civil War, the dominant language of the building, with its United States shield on top, spoke of “the reintegration of the federal presence in state and local bureaucracy,” says ODU art historian Robert Wojtowicz (cq) “It was the most significant piece of federal construction in Norfolk after the Civil War.”
“To me, it has such a presence,” says City Historian Peggy Haile-McPhillips as we tour the building. Boxes of books wait for their destinations. The smell of fresh paint lingers. -“And fortunately it’s been preserved. Not much has changed.”
The first floor, where popular fiction, CDs, DVDs and children’s books will reside, was originally the post office. The striking thing here is that the postal windows have been preserved amidst somber oak panels. There were then “all the modern conveniences for handling the large postal business of the thriving City by the Sea,” this newspaper gushed.
But the showpiece of the building is the second-floor atrium. Inspired by ideas that go back to 15th century Florence, Italy, there’s a central courtyard surrounded by a columned arcade. Besides being the stomping ground of lawyers, judges and clerks of court, it was, with its palm garden and, two stories up, a skylight, a majestic public space. The library’s non-fiction and reference books will be in this space, inviting patrons to study amidst light-splashed ambience.
The third floor, which looks down into the atrium, will accommodate the Sargeant Memorial Room, where books, records and photographs document the region’s history, as well as the city historian’s office. It once housed the library of the Norfolk Bar Association, dormitories for the railway mail clerks, a suit of rooms for the U.S. Marshall and a jury room.
After the current federal courthouse was built in 1937, the city bought the building and turned it into City Hall. Just off the atrium is the marbled City Council chamber, and on the far side of the building a wood-paneled mayor’s office with chandelier and palladium windows. You might imagine here the debates that took place over urban renewal and –50 years ago – bitter skirmishes over the closing of public schools.
The government moved to its current City Hall in the mid-60s. The old building was almost sold to a Richmond restaurateur in 1980, but the deal fell through. Seaboard Associates, a partnership headed by George Phillips, president of Henderson-Phillips Inc., bought the building and used it for insurance offices. Now the temporarily named “Seaboard Center” enters a new era.
“The next chapter in the building’s history,” Wojtowicz predicts, “is going to be as interesting as all of its previous incarnations.”
Next week: Just after the courthouse opens, a sensational murder trial.
Photo: The Atrium at the new library, Virtinian-Pilot file photo.