Talking to John and Pat Outland about city living is like preaching to the choir. Their condo possesses part of the stairway that led to the choir loft of Hanover Avenue Christian Church in the Fan.
Both came from New York City. A financial-services job first brought John to Richmond, and Pat, a Ph. D. psychologist, soon followed. The move was something of a leap of faith for the couple. "What we saw on the Internet was a pen-and-ink sketch," John recalls of his search for a Richmond residence in early 2004. At that point, their building was in the middle of its transformation by Monument Construction from an almost-century-old house of worship into the Sydney, with seven separate living spaces at 1723 Hanover Ave.
The Outlands were accustomed to living in older urban spaces. "We can't seem to get very far from 1917," Pat says, chuckling. Hanover Christian was completed in 1913.
"Sounded neat," John says of first hearing about the building. "We didn't want a house with a yard. The space has [stained-glass] cathedral windows, 22-foot ceilings in the living room and bedroom. It's really unique."
A real-estate agent showed them suburban West End properties that didn't gel with their idea of city living. Then the idea of moving into a church appealed. They first toured the building while wearing hard hats.
Pat observes, "It really is a remarkable architectural feat. I think all the doors are original. All the outside lanterns are original. Every unit has two entrances, there are storage spaces, a gym, a meeting room. But when we came here, it was just bare space."
They didn't have a context as to the neighborhood — pictures reminded them of New York's Lower East Side. They wondered how they'd meet anybody because they didn't have children and didn't play golf or tennis. But involvement with kitchen and garden tours and other neighborhood events threaded them into the community.
"Besides, just living in this building meant people wanted to meet us," John says.
Retired now, they travel often but always enjoy coming home. When units become available, the Outlands say, they don't remain vacant long. One of the perks of living in a landmark building is its connections to the community. Former parishioners on occasion come by. But the Outlands, being one of the first residents, are also in charge of calling repairmen when the rare thing goes wrong. "The same guys who've worked on the building since before we were here still come," John says. "The roof guy told me, ‘My son and I have climbed over those gables many times.' "
Another structure that's wedded to Richmond's commercial and cultural history is the Richmond Dairy Building, at 201 W. Marshall St. Completed in 1914, it was the headquarters and distribution center for a dairy company until 1970. During a long somnolence, the Dairy became a haven for artists and musicians, most notable among them the band GWAR and Joseph Creegan, the hatmaker known as Ignatius. The building was converted into apartments in 2000.
Knowing little of this, New York City native Malik Ranger, a May 2011 graduate in crafts and materials from Virginia Commonwealth University, moved in with two friends in September. His room is on the fourth floor of the giant milk bottle facing Gallery5 on West Marshall Street.
At first, Ranger thought the big building was full of students, but there are many kinds of people there, which suits him. "That was good, unexpected. I'm a networking and talking kind of guy. I like making friends, I like to get to know people."
What sealed the deal for him was the Dairy's proximity to the arts district and the excitement of monthly gallery openings. He's figuring to stay in Richmond for at least another year and work on his art, to see what happens. Say whatever you want about Richmond, it's still cheaper than New York City for someone in the arts. Meanwhile, he's fine with living at the Dairy. "It's got a lot of history — Richmond does, too — and it's cool coming home and I live in a big milk bottle," he says.
A more recent project from adaptive-reuse firm City & Guilds is Bliley's Garage, two connected buildings at 408-412 N. Third St. The 18,000-square-foot solid brick structure at first housed the trucks for nearby Bliley's Funeral Home, but they were then abandoned for years. City & Guilds' David Gammino began work on the building at the beginning of 2010 and made an effort to get the 15 units as close to LEED certification as possible within the parameters of the Jackson Ward Historic District regulations of the National Park Service.
The building's power is augmented by a 25-kilowatt photovoltaic system (in other words, solar). The heating and air conditioning system for each apartment comes with energy-recovery units to conserve power. The green theme continues with locally milled woodwork of walnut and bamboo for the kitchens, and reclaimed heart pine forms window walls, treads and risers on stairs.
Louis Formica moved into Bliley's Garage in July, after relocating to Richmond from New York City to attend the VCU School of Dentistry. "I looked at a lot of places," he says. He was won over by exposed brick walls — Formica comes from a family of brick masons. "This baby's solid," he says. The structural I-beams and high ceilings also made him comfortable as a city dweller. "It's kind of rustic but aesthetically pleasing. The ceramic tile in the bathroom is heated, and you don't get that everywhere. It's just a great location, too."