For a brief period in the late 1980s Norfolkians, tired of the rampant demolition that had permanently scarred their downtown, rebelled. The building they rallied to preserve in many ways could not have been a more ironic choice. Constructed at the turn of the century for Citizens Bank, the seven-story building was the city's first skyscraper and a symbol of its longsought recovery from the economic devastation of the Civil War. Moreover, it presaged the kind of large-scale redevelopment required for Norfolk's transformation from a sleepy seaport into a modern metropolis.
The restrained Renaissance Revival design by Charles E. Cassell combines handsomely detailed brickwork with elaborate terra-cotta ornamentation. The ground-level entrance on East Main Street is particularly imposing with round-arched openings framed by Corinthian pilasters and elegant, rinceau-filled spandrels. Sumptuous wreaths fill the tympana of the round-arched windows in the flanking bays. A series of attenuated pilasters links the ground level to the boldly projecting cornice that once terminated the facade; an eighth story, added in 1920, now peeks above the cornice. Because the building's western elevation serves as a backdrop to the adjacent customhouse, the articulation of the East Main Street facade is continued on this side; the east and south elevations, which were not meant to be seen from the surrounding streets, are strictly utilitarian in appearance. A respectful two-story annex was added to the east of the building in 1937. During its long history the building was occupied by a succession of banking institutions. It became fixed in the public imagination as the Wheat Building only after 1980, when Wheat First Securities became its principal tenant.
Like many other American cities, Norfolk participated enthusiastically in the real estate boom of the 1980s, a boom that accelerated the razing of the few historic buildings left standing after the urban renewal clearances of the previous two decades. A proposal to demolish the building led to a major public outcry. In the end, it was not public opposition but a faltering national economy that prevented its demolition. Careful restoration by Cedarquist Rodriguez Ripley returned the main banking hall to its former splendor. It is one of Norfolk's few preservation triumphs.