To outsiders, and even those within the University of Richmond community, the university's campus is often called "the bubble." Sitting on 350 acres of suburban West End land, UR can appear to be a secluded country unto itself — even though it lies only a few minutes from downtown.
But with the January opening of a 5,000- square-foot space at the corner of Seventh and East Broad streets, the university is taking a step to change the bubble reputation, to become a partner in the city for which it's named. President Edward L. Ayers says the problem is largely one of perception.
"I think people have always done a good job of overcoming the geography and the distance, but they haven't had a convenient vehicle or base of operations," says Ayers. "I'm hoping this will be a way for the campus to break out of the ‘bubble.' "
One of Ayers' goals upon becoming president in 2007 was to establish a presence downtown. The idea eventually turned into a reality — although a few months later than the original goal of Sept. 1, 2008 — and the downtown facility now aims to be a permanent demonstration of the university's commitment to the city.
UR Downtown is housed on the first floor of the former Franklin Federal Savings & Loan building, which underwent a $5.2 million restoration over a span of about nine months, while retaining some historic features. The Wilton Cos. president and CEO Rich Johnson, a 1973 alumnus, donated the rental value of the property — approximately $175,000 annually for
a five-year lease — allowing the university free use of the facility. A direct bus line from the West End campus to the building helps facilitate students' transportation.
After the city approved the plan in December 2008, the downtown center became home to three programs: the Harry L. Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service, the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic and the Richmond Families Initiative, a program of UR's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, which remains on the main campus. The goal of these three programs is to address community needs by providing free legal help and assisting families with social and legal services.
"I really believe that this is our showing the community that we are here, we want to work with you, and we are opening our doors to you," says Judy Mejia, program manager of the families initiative. "We want to be a resource, and this is one way we can do this by integrating ourselves with the downtown community."
Clients and families can find the social and legal services they need under one roof. The initiative has an ongoing relationship with several community organizations, such as St. Joseph's Villa, Voices for Virginia's Children and the William Byrd Community House. These partnerships allow faculty and undergraduates to conduct research at UR Downtown, as well as the partner sites, to find ways to enhance local programs that support Richmond families.
"In terms of being able to provide family resources," Mejia says, "this is definitely a one-stop shop."
Through the Center for Pro Bono Service local attorneys mentor law students to provide legal services to clients in need — victims of domestic violence or those who are seeking
a divorce. The Family Law Clinic will pair Virginia Commonwealth University graduate students in social work and psychology with UR law students to give clients access to counseling and social-work services.
"It's unique to us because it's an unusual and creative kind of a program," says John G. Douglass, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law.
Also, Douglass says, it's a much more effective way to serve low-income clients whose legal needs are accompanied by housing, financial and personal-counseling needs.
UR Downtown's proximity to Richmond's legal district and the General Assembly has been an advantage for the law school. Melissa Goemann, director of the Juvenile Law and Policy Clinic, runs a program for second- and third-year law students who study juvenile law and the Virginia legislative process. The students spend time during the legislative session advocating for improvements in juvenile justice.
When asked about the future possibility of holding undergraduate classes at UR Downtown, Ayers says, " ‘Plans' would be too strong of a word, but I have hopes and expectations."
However, some undergraduates have already begun using the downtown facilities to volunteer and conduct research in the community. UR sophomore Chaz Barracks, a criminal-justice major, has been experiencing the benefits of combining service, classroom interests and career goals at UR Downtown.
"I'm learning about inner-city Richmond by connecting my leadership skills and becoming involved," Barracks says. "Not just in a secluded college campus but an entire city."
Connecting with the community is one of the priorities outlined in UR's strategic plan, known as the Richmond Promise. The possibilities and potential of the downtown campus are endless, Ayers says, and it's up to the faculty and students to flesh it out.
"Having the UR flag flying on Broad Street not only says we are the University of Richmond," Ayers says, "but we are the university for Richmond."
Grace Street Origins
The University of Richmond's roots are actually on Grace Street, not in the West End. Chartered in 1840 from a Baptist seminary, the all-men's Richmond College occupied Columbia, the Haxall milling family's estate, and other buildings between today's Lombardy and Ryland streets.
The Grace Street campus had an impressive architectural pedigree, with Rhode Island architect Thomas Alexander Tefft's Italian villa design for the Main Hall, built in 1855. The college added on a tower and center portion to the hall in 1873 and a southern wing in 1876. Massive mansard roofs united the old and new sections.
The Civil War disrupted the university's progress, however, as the Confederate army turned Columbia into a hospital, and Union soldiers used the grounds for Camp Casey. The military took over the school's furniture and equipment, leaving only 70 books in the library. In 1866, the Baptist General Association of Virginia revived the college with a donation
By the early 1900s, the administration sought to move and expand the college, prompting the purchase of the Westhampton property, a defunct lakefront amusement park. John D. Rockefeller's philanthropy assisted in the purchase. Little did they know how soon the move would take place.
Around 3 a.m. on Christmas Day, 1910, following a round of student parties, the north wing of Main Hall burned — possibly caused by a smoldering cigar. President Frederic Boatwright and some students saved library books and an Egyptian mummy. Blueprints for the new campus, drawn by Ralph Adams Cram, which were supposed to be in Main Hall, had been mistakenly (yet luckily) delivered to Boatwright's house.
The college moved to its current location in 1914; the colleges of Richmond and Westhampton (all women) and the T.C. Williams School of Law united in 1920 to create the University of Richmond, although law classes remained at Columbia until 1954.
Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, founded at Richmond College in 1901, placed memorial columns at the corners of Lombardy and Ryland on Grace Street, which remain there today.
—Harry Kollatz Jr.