Trani: Repair needs outweigh beauty

On the outside, West Hospital stands as an example of art deco architecture with a red brick exterior matching its older neighbor, the Nursing Education Building. A brass grill features the names and caricatures of prominent medical practitioners dating back to Hippocrates and “Hospital Medical College of Virginia 1940” is chiseled into a dedication stone.

The inside shows a building in need of repair. Immovable columns obstruct classes, water leaks endanger sensitive equipment and asbestos lining designed to stop fires, now stops any future improvements.

The outside places the hospital in a position of importance to some as an example of architecture from a by-gone era, while others think the inside necessitates the replacement of West Hospital with newer facilities, even some who view it as a beautiful building.

Aug. 12, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Board of Visitors approved a master-site plan that came down on the side of the latter group and slates West Hospital, the A.D. Williams Clinic and the Nursing Education Building for demolition. The plan is set for completion in 2020.

The fate of the Nursing Education Building is already set in stone.
Brian Ohlinger, the associate vice president for facilities management at VCU, said the general obligation bond approved two years ago included the construction of a new nursing building at another site, which is expected to cost $14.6 million and is already in full design, and $35 million for the Medical Sciences Building II, including the $350,000 cost of demolition for the Nursing Education building.

Ohlinger said securing funding for the demolition of West Hospital and the construction of a new School of Medicine building in its place will be VCU’s “number one priority for the next GOB package” expected between 2008 and 2010.

Jennie Dotts, executive director of Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, called the way the three buildings set for demolition flowed together “graceful” and compared one of VCU’s newer buildings to something on which she would park her car.

“It’s a vertical driveway. It’s gravel,” she said, adding that buildings like West Hospital, not Sanger Hall or Main Hospital, are what people associate with the MCV campus.

Dolores Clement, associate dean of the School of Allied Health Professions, said that she appreciates the architectural significance of the building, but that newer facilities are a necessity.

“I love the building. I like the architecture, but it wasn’t built for academic purposes,” she said.

Michael Fallacaro, chairman of nurse anesthesia, echoed Clement’s sentiments.

“The building has been maintained to the very best of their (VCU) ability,” but the university is “using it for a function it wasn’t designed to perform,” he said.

Fallacaro’s office was originally an operating room and there is still a panel in the ceiling where various tubes used during surgery could hang.
Another area of concern is the size of student classrooms. One classroom used by the nurse anesthesia program on the 11th floor was considered for expansion, but an area of the room formerly used for X-ray technicians and lined with lead and asbestos was considered too expensive to remove.

Asbestos is a large area of concern when considering renovations for West Hospital.

In 1940 when the hospital was constructed asbestos was widely used because of its fire retardant properties. According to the American Lung Association, asbestos is “a naturally occurring group of fibers that can only be identified under a microscope” that comes in several types of fire-resistant fibers.

Usually, the asbestos is combined with a bonding agent to prevent the fibers from becoming airborne and is generally safe when combined with strong bonding agents, according to the ALA. If asbestos particles become airborne they can lead to a disorder called asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that causes breathing problems and heart failure. Currently, the ALA states that there is no known safe exposure time to asbestos.

The hospital is considered safe as long as the walls are not disturbed and no attempt is made to go above the ceiling space, according to a report by facilities management, and the school can “continue to use the building by managing the asbestos in place.”

Inside a storage closet on the 11th floor the staff has covered holes in the wall and ceiling with duct tape to contain the asbestos, a process Fallacaro disproves of.

“Having to duct tape in the ceilings is absolutely archaic,” he said.
Ohlinger said one of the reasons the school has swung toward demolition instead of renovation is because of the cost of asbestos removal.

West Hospital consists of 17 floors, a basement and a sub basement. The removal of the asbestos would cost $500,000 a floor, he said.
Problems compounded by the presence of asbestos are the inability to fix pipes in the ceiling that leak or the old heating and ventilation systems that have collapsed.

Fallacaro said that even though the nurse anesthesia program earned its ranking as the best in the country while in the building, it is “difficult to portray this as a top-notch research facility” as it stands.

In the simulation room full of $300,000 worth of equipment water has leaked so that it runs off the observation cameras hanging from the ceiling, he said. The department lost two computer setups because of leaky pipes.

The floor-to-ceiling height is inadequate for putting in facilities such as fume hood exhaust ductwork, data and phone cabling, electric cabling or additional plumbing, the facilities management report states. The standard ceiling height today is 14 feet 6 inches, three feet higher than the hospitals ceiling.

Dotts understands the need for newer facilities, but suggests they find another place.

“They’ll never be adapted for what VCU needs. They’ll never be adapted for classrooms or offices. They just won’t,” she said. “VCU needs a new building, they just don’t need it there.”

Eugene Trani, president of VCU, said that because the MCV campus is a tightly defined geographic 52.4 acres of space the only way to move the facility would be to build it elsewhere, and splitting the research and academic cohesiveness of the campus is not an option because of the relationship between Richmond and VCU.

“We’re too important to the city and the city is too important to us,” he said.

Dotts also suggested that VCU let it go to someone who can preserve the building.

“If VCU can’t afford to renovate the building then sell it to someone who can,” she said.

Trani said the need for land is so compelling that selling the building is also not an option.

“We need the land,” he said. “We’d have to replace it with other land there’s not land for contiguous development.”

Ohlinger said there’s more land on the site than West Hospital occupies. Because of its cruciform design, from an overhead view it resembles an X. The building occupies about 65 percent of the land on which it sits, he said.

The master-site plan was shown to 51 organizations, including ACORN. Sixteen of the organizations were not affiliated with VCU. Ohlinger, who presented the plan, said there was “a lot of positive feedback from our neighbors,” and that they made four refinements to the plan per campus.

ACORN was among the last three organizations presented with the plan, and Dotts said by that time it was completed.

“So what? You showed it to us. It was a one-way conversation,” she said, “you showed it to us fait accompli.”

This is not the first time West Hospital has faced demolition. The master-site plans from 1970, 1981 and 1987 all called for its demise.

The school and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources have an agreement that VCU will maintain “professional quality, rectified photographs of each of the buildings showing main entrances and interior spaces” and architectural prints of the demolished buildings.
Even though the university didn’t have to work with DHR, doing so is beneficial for the school, Trani said.

“They’re a neutral party and their advice is always appreciated,” he said. “They’re good at what they do.”

The DHR also mandates that VCU salvage and reuse ornamental brass and bronze grills, brass exterior doors, exterior lanterns and iron fencing from the A.D. Williams Clinic and West Hospital as well as the information booth at the A.D. Williams entry, including murals, marble, trim, deco signs and clocks.

Dotts said she thinks that kind of action is disrespectful.

“That makes a mockery of this building and the new building,” she said. “A building should stand on its own two feet.”

Trani maintained that the decision to demolish the buildings was never an easy one.

“This is a tough decision and even though I’m retiring in 2007 we need to reach an agreement with what’s happening,” he said.

The fate of West Hospital is not as immediate as that of the Nursing Education Building, but with VCU’s lack of space and need for classrooms, research labs and other learning facilities immediacy may just be a matter of time.

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