By Marissa McCormick
“I like to say it looks like the Eiffel Tower on its side.” Jeannie Welliver, Project Development Manager, describes Main Street Station as she logs onto her computer in the government office adjacent to the station.
The offices are attached to the project Jeannie has spent more than half of her life on, the newly renovated and inspired Main Street Station.
The train station, which was originally built in 1901, is the first (or last) impression one gets when driving I-95 through Richmond. Jeannie calls it, “The Gateway Impression.” This station, besides the infamous Pedro’s South of the Border, is the last major historic landmark on I-95. Known to most Richmond natives as the glass box in Shockoe, this magnificent piece of architecture is so much more. It has stood the test of time, starting as an open-air train station, then a mall; it then sat for about a decade waiting for someone with a vision and a plan.
The vision began in 1991 when Vickey Badger, transportation planner for the City of Richmond, applied for a grant to restore AMTRAK service back to downtown after a 25-year hiatus. She asked Jeannie, a Senior Architect at the time, to lead the vision for the design, restoration, and development. $92 million in grants and 15 years later, it has evolved into a breath-taking space unlike any other on the East Coast.
When approaching Main Street Station, it has the familiar feel of Richmond. The brick clock tower stands tall against the other buildings on the busy streets of Shockoe Bottom. But once you walk out back into the glass-encased “train shed,” you’re transported. The City of Richmond is using the slogan, “Wait until you see where the train station takes Richmond.” One step through the original wooden doors and you’re in another world. The 500 ft. long (about two football fields) space takes your breath away. Your head plays ping-pong as you try to decide which architecturally perfect element you want to look at first. At a recent event, Jeannie stood at the entrance looking for this exact moment. “One man spent the whole night looking at the ceiling, his mouth wide open.” And for good reason. The inverted ceiling goes on for what seems like miles. Recessed lights line both the ceiling and floor, giving the vast space a sense of comfort. An elevator sits near the back, which will be attached to a full-service kitchen, making it easy for caterers to do their thing. A clear crystal glass that Jeannie compares to “a jewel box” encases the painted concrete floors. The nearly 360-degree views show you all of Richmond, and you’re in the middle of it, gawking at the sheer impressiveness.
And what’s exciting about this space is that it’s completely empty, besides a few bars and stations for televisions. There is nothing obstructing the beautifully constructed bare bones. Jeannie, whose eyes light up when talking about the project elaborates, “You have a very intimate older feel of a train station, and then you have the vast open space that’s completely up to your imagination.” It’s like a blank canvas, but the most beautiful one you’ve ever seen.
While the space empty might feel a bit intimidating, add décor and the space transforms into anything you want it to be. Unlike any other venue, Main Street’s ceiling has 181 rigging points that you can hang anything off of! Flower walls? Curtains? Cirque du Soleil performers? You got it. The Sisk wedding, the station’s first one, was picturesque. The long space was broken up into sections creating a variety of experiences, all in the same room! Forget about transportation from the ceremony to the reception, how about just a quick stroll through a pair of curtains? The ceremony took place towards the front, and just through a set of curtains, the guests found themselves in a cocktail hour in front of the installed bars. The next set of curtains held the reception area filled with long tables, a dance floor, and towards the back a full band. The guest list was about 250, and according to Jeannie, it didn’t feel like they were swimming at all. “This is truly a destination wedding,” Jeannie says as she searches her Facebook for the photo evidence we all wanted to see.
Speaking with Jeannie, one has the revelation that this is a woman who loves what she does. More than a space or even a landmark, Main Street Station is Jeannie’s passion and she’s given her life to it. The word “connection” comes up and that’s what this place means to her and the rest of Richmond. “It’s so much more than a transportation system,” Jeannie explains, “It’s a connection to our past.” She continues, “This place is the spot you dropped your son off to war or ran to pick your girlfriend up or,” she alludes to holding a wedding there, “where you started your life together.”
Folding her hands together, Jeannie says, “It’s not just changing a building, it’s changing a city.” Bigger than just events, this space has the power to influence and change the community. “I’ve given every weekend, almost every night, sleeping with one eye open because it means so much to our city.” Along with the renovated train station, the city is working to improve the 17th Street Farmers Market, a space where local vendors can showcase their work and sell their products. Jeannie throws her hands in the air, “Can you IMAGINE a wedding out on the farmer’s market, then to the train shed for the reception?!”
This spectacular venue was truly built with the people of Richmond in mind. “It gives life to everything, it touches everything, but ultimately, it’s the community’s.” The City of Richmond wants to use this space as a haven for its locals. Events, community immunizations, or the opportunity for children to get their hair braided before the first day of school. Jeannie, finally passionately explains, “This place is ours, and it makes us better.”
Main Street Station has been a landmark in Downtown Richmond since 1901. The station offers two event spaces, perfect for any size. For more information and booking inquiries please call: 804.646.1768 or 804.646.1781. www.MainStreetStationRichmond.com 1500 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219