VUU to strike deal to keep logos illuminated atop campus steeple

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An illuminated logo sign on Virginia Union University’s Belgian Building tower. (Screenshot courtesy of WTVR)

When Virginia Union University placed neon signs atop its campus spire a year and a half ago, it did so without the required local and state approvals, making “VUU” signs technically illegal.

Now, as the university applies for a municipal permit for the signs, a deal with the state is also underway that would allow the signage to remain in place.

The State Board of Historic Resources, which is part of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) and holds a preservation easement over the 1930s tower and adjoining Belgian building, is finalizing the deal that would allow the signs but would also require that VUU take certain steps to mitigate their placement in breach of the easement.

These measures would likely include regular structural monitoring to ensure that the signs do not damage the tower, as well as other efforts to preserve the structures and inform the public of their history, such as potential road markers and a preservation plan for historically recognized sites. Campus.

Julie langan

Julie Langan, director of DHR, said the board had reached a verbal agreement with VUU but was in the process of drafting a formal document. She said the process could not be completed in time for the Sept. 20 meeting of the Richmond Planning Commission, when VUU’s special use permit application was to be considered.

“We are finalizing these negotiations and we will commemorate all of this in a written agreement, but we are not there yet,” Langan said.

“The Board of Historic Resources approved a mitigation plan that would allow the panels to remain, and this sparked a lot of discussion and a lot of concern over a period of several months,” she said. “The addition of this signage is very clearly a violation of the conservation easement, so we looked for ways to mitigate this violation. “

VUU, which established the easement with DHR in 2010, submitted its permit application to the city last December, nearly a year after DHR and city officials informed it of the violations. The planning committee was due to consider the request in May, but postponed a vote to hear DHR on the issue.

DHR argues that the signs are incompatible with the historic character of the structures and that the violation undermines the purpose of the Virginia Historic Preservation Easement Program, which is supposed to provide long-term legal protection to privately owned historic monuments. The 2010 easement was a requirement related to federal grants to VUU, according to DHR.

International in origin and style

Originally a pavilion designed by a renowned Belgian architect for Belgium’s entry to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the tower and the Belgian building were awarded to VUU compared to other American universities competing when Belgium offered it due to the Nazi invasion of the country during WWII. A fundraising effort led by VUU produced the $ 500,000 needed to relocate the complex.

The Belgian building and tower, shown before the panels were installed, were originally a pavilion designed as Belgium’s entrance to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. (Courtesy of DHR)

The architecture of the structures is considered representative of the international style, with a minimum of ornamentation and colors, modular shapes and flat surfaces, and an emphasis on volumes, indicates an urban planning report. The section of the belfry at the top of the tower is distinguished by its louvers, which the signage partially obscures.

The 165-foot tower was named after Robert Lee Vann, a VUU alumnus who founded the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper and served as special assistant to the United States Attorney General under President Franklin Roosevelt. The Courier in 1941 described the tower as “the largest memorial ever built for a black in America,” according to the permit application from VUU, a historically black university.

In addition to the importance of the Vann Memorial Tower to VUU, sculptures at its base and on the Belgian building depict scenes from the Belgian Congo relief efforts, referencing Belgium’s rule over the former African colony and to its eventual independence.

In its application to the city, VUU quotes an African-American journalist who covered the location of the tower’s cornerstone and describes the complex as “the gift of a colonial empire to a black university, the gift of a Catholic country to a Baptist school, the symbol of human understanding and goodwill and the negation of racial prejudices of hatred and violence.

“Fueled by this remarkable history,” the app continues, “and intensified by several layers of symbolic incremental change, the Belgian Vann Tower pavilion is the first location to adorn the illuminated ‘VUU’ logo at its top as a symbol of change and beacon of light. “

In 2019, VUU received a grant of $ 500,000 from the National Parks Service, as part of its African-American Civil Rights Grants program, to restore and renovate the Belgian building. This project would involve DHR to ensure compliance with the preservation easement.

The VUU signage on top of the tower of the Belgian building of Virginia Union University. (Jonathan Spiers photo)

Deletion requested

In January 2020, DHR sent a letter to VUU chairman Hakim Lucas, advising him of the easement violation and demanding the signs be removed within 30 days, according to documents obtained as part of a request in under the Freedom of Information Act.

Twenty months later, the panels remain in place.

“The university refuses to remove the signs,” Langan said last week. “We asked them to remove the signs and they refused, so we looked for ways to deal with the situation. “

A second letter sent in October suggested illuminations projected onto the tower as an eligible alternative. Spotlights illuminating the tower structure at night were added by VUU in 2016.

Langan said regular monitoring of the tower would be necessary if the existing panels were to remain in place. The signs were manufactured by Talley Sign Co., also based in Northside.

“One consideration is, how can we make sure these panels don’t damage the tower? We discussed regular monitoring by a structural engineer so that we could be sure that no damage is caused, ”Langan said.

In its application to the city, VUU maintains that the panels do not damage the tower and that their size is justified by their elevated position and their “purpose of being a beacon for a bright and unlimited future and a recognition of the rich history. Afro-American. of campus, community, city and state.

“This project for the VUU logo to remain affixed to the Belgian Vann Tower has a critical impact on VUU and on people of color who feel a sense of disillusion and lack of acceptance,” the request states. “The VUU signage on the tower will provide an enduring shining (shining) symbol of justice, hope and equality.”

VUU erected the signage about a year and a half ago. (Courtesy of the City of Richmond)

“Symbol of change”

In a presentation to the Planning Committee prepared for the May meeting, VUU argued that the appearance of the logos on the tower conforms to modern architectural styles and that their addition is a “symbol of change” in the sense of Robert E . Lee Transformation of the monument in the last year from Confederate memorial to symbol of social justice.

VUU’s permit application has the backing of neighboring Edgehill-Chamberlayne Court Civic Association, who submitted a letter to the city in support of the permit.

Attempts to reach VUU president Lucas or other university officials to comment on this story were unsuccessful. A request submitted to a spokesperson for VUU on Thursday was not met over the weekend.

Local lawyer Dale Mullen with Whiteford Taylor Preston represents VUU in its claim to the city and negotiations with DHR. He did not return a call asking for comment.

In their report to the Planning Commission, planning staff recommends denying the VUU permit application because the 17-by-17-foot signs exceed the size limits allowed by the university’s institutional zoning. Staff also note that the Commission of Architectural Review (CAR), when reviewing an application for a certificate of adequacy, determined that the panels violated the city’s historic preservation guidelines.

VUU applied for the certificate after being informed of the city’s violation. VUU appealed CAR’s denial, but its appeal request was received a day after the deadline for doing so, the staff report said.

Without DHR’s formal agreement in hand at Monday’s meeting, the committee is likely to postpone the request again for at least a month, said Richard Saunders, the town planner in charge of the case. With the deal, Saunders said, VUU could once again seek approval from the CAR instead of the special-purpose route – a scenario he said the city would prefer.

In its request, VUU said other neon signs on its campus have been authorized through special use permits. Saunders said CAR approval is preferred in this case, as these signs are located in the old and historic Belgian building district, a structure-specific city designation that requires CAR approval for any changes. of the building.

The structures are also listed in the national and national historical registers, as is the larger VUU campus. VUU was founded in 1865 as one of the first black higher education institutions in the country.

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