January in Richmond was a wet month. Cold and wet. February in Richmond has also been highlighted by an abundance of H2O, but the coldness has deepened to the point where wet is impossible without the human intervention of mechanized warmth or the sowing of salt. Our air has been so cold in the last couple weeks that water drops falling from the sky crystallize into floating flakes. Two times in as many weeks 5-6 inches of these flakes have accumulated on and around my house. For us Richmonders this is a rare enough occasion that it’s hard not to be at least a little bit excited about it. Time seems to stop on the morning after a Richmond snow, and the dreary winter landscape is transformed. The grey and brown ugly duckling of the leafless forest behind my house becomes a shining, beautiful bride.
February 2015 has also been noteworthy for the deepest freeze Richmond has felt in 40 years. Even the surface of the James near my house became mostly covered in ice (I don’t have a comparable image anywhere in my memory). On a record day when the high temperature was 13 degrees, my daughters and I walked down the frozen surface of the Rattlesnake creek to its confluence with the James, and when we first leveled our eyes on the strange, crystallized landscape we encountered, Brooke said it looked like the whole world had been paused.
Yes, that’s the word that best describes a snowy, frozen day or two in Richmond. Its a strange and interesting “Pause.” On the first morning after a snow, before streets have been made passable, even the soundtrack of our life near the Huguenot Bridge is paused. There is no background swish and groan of human transportation. Audible signs of animal life are returned to pre-historic eminence. In the lowland behind my house, the solitary squawk of a blackbird becomes a trumpet blast. I hear not only the haunting question of a lonely bard owl, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for yooooooooo!” but I here the far-distant voice of the one owl responding to the question by repeating the question. In the frozen landscape my own human sounds and motions seem almost out of place. I become more acutely aware of my own pulse, my own inner warmth, and the animation of my daughters.
But life and play outdoors can be difficult in these conditions, so I thought it might be a good time to share with you a special, still cold, but at least wind-sheltered viewing place of the Richmond landscape.
One of the highest elevations within the Richmond city limits is the section of Broad street alongside the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond’s City Hall. Richmond’s City Hall is far from the tallest building in the downtown district, but owing to its perch on this plateau above the shockoe valley its upper deck is at or above the level of our loftiest skyscrapers. While in those other buildings a successful business person or client thereof may enjoy a unidirectional view of Richmond and surroundings through an office window, the observation deck of Richmond’s city hall may be one of the only places where a 360 degree panorama of our unique spot on the planet can be fully enjoyed.
Though always open during business hours to the general public, most Richmonders don’t even know of this place. I only learned of it because one of the arborists in my company used to be the Director of Urban Forestry in Richmond. He described it as a place where he could escape the often insane bureaucracy tying itself up in ineffectual knots on all the lower floors of the building.
If you prefer a hike to enjoy the achievement of altitude, you can take the stairs, but a slow elevator ride can get you there as well. Floor by floor you can watch the administrators pass from the elevator into their designated perches. When you find yourself alone, or accompanied only by one or two people holding cigarette packs with anxious hands, you’ll be near the top. The observation deck is the only smoking area in the building, but the thick glass separating observer from observation does not connect with the ceiling, so the air stays fresh, and you can hear any wind as it howls past this high place and blows strange sounds through the openings.
To the west your eyes can follow the straight line of Broad Street as it skirts by VCU and Monroe park and disappears into the Goochland forest.
To the north you can see the way the Shockoe Creek cuts a deep groove in the city as it digs its way to the James.
To the east you can look down on Church Hill and the cradle of Richmond civilization.
The most dramatic view is to the south. The concrete and glass heart of modern Richmond reaches for the sky, and flowing into our economic heart from the west and out of it to the east and south you can see the glimmering reason we are here now, and the reason humans always have been here — the James River.
So, if your fingers and toes are too cold to find much enjoyment outside, head up to the City Hall observation deck and put a thick layer of glass between you and the elements. Pick out your favorite Richmond landmarks and wander with your eyes through the past and the present of one of America’s oldest cities. Not exactly an outdoor adventure in Richmond, but a great place to get a bird’s eye view of your next one.