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Scope Cultural and Convention Center

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1965–1972, Williams and Tazewell and Associates with Studio Nervi. Block bounded by E. Brambleton Avenue, St. Paul's Blvd., Charlotte St., and Monticello Ave.
  • Scope Cultural and Convention Center (Jason R. Waicunas)
  • Scope Cultural and Convention Center (Richard Guy Wilson)
  • Scope Cultural and Convention Center (Richard Guy Wilson)

The Scope Cultural and Convention Center is an example of a megastructure: an architectural complex consisting of one or more aboveground buildings linked by a subterranean structure impervious to the outdoor climate. Megastructures were enormously popular during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the business district of large cities in the northern United States and Canada, where cold winters make such expensive complexes economically viable. That Norfolk, with its moderate climate and relatively small downtown, has a megastructure thus reveals more about the politics of urban renewal than it does about the exigencies of entertaining the city's residents and visitors.

Before its construction, Norfolk's only major indoor recreational facility was the Arena Municipal Auditorium, adjoining the Center Theater. The need for a new facility became apparent by the mid-1960s, and clever maneuvering by Lawrence M. Cox, then the director of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and the Virginia congressional delegation resulted in a multimillion-dollar appropriation for a new facility to combine sports, exhibits, and performing arts. Funded as part of the 1965 Housing Act, the appropriation was actually made in the form of credits to be used toward other urban renewal projects in the city, rather than a direct subsidy. Also, the new facility had to be built within an existing urban renewal zone, which was on East Brambleton Avenue. Astonishingly, these events transpired so rapidly that when the appropriation was passed the city had not yet chosen an architect for the facility, let alone a workable design.

Such a high-profile project required the services of a high-profile architect, at least in the eyes of Norfolk officials. Cox recommended that the city hire Pier Luigi Nervi, an Italian architect and world-renowned specialist in ferroconcrete (concrete reinforced with wire mesh). Nervi, who never traveled to Norfolk, submitted a design consisting of two chief components: a domed sports arena with exhibition areas beneath it, and a rectangular theater. For a variety of practical reasons, the details of the design had to be completely revamped by Williams and Tazewell and Associates, a local firm that subsequently took charge of the project, with Nervi acting as a consultant on the arena's dome. The new design retained Nervi's basic scheme while rearranging some of its elements and adding several new ones. A circular 11,500-seat arena fills the northwest corner of the site, and a rectangular 2,500-seat theater occupies the southeast corner behind a similarly shaped fountain. A 300-seat little theater occupies the lower level of the main theater building. Beneath the platform are parking for several hundred cars at the southwest corner and 75,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space, opening directly into the lower lobby of the arena, at the northeast corner. Scope, an abbreviation of kaleidoscope, was the name chosen for the entire complex; it is now chiefly used in reference to the arena. Ground was broken in 1968, and the arena was completed in 1971. Chrysler Hall, the name given to the theater in honor of Norfolk benefactor Walter P. Chrysler, opened in 1972. Initially projected at $11 million, the final cost of the complex eventually mounted to $35 million, including an aboveground parking garage across Charlotte Street, which was not part of the original plan. Recently, the south end of the garage has been demolished to permit the reopening of East Freemason Street.

The most distinguished aspect of the design is Nervi's arena, with its ring of V-shaped concrete buttresses supporting the concrete saucer dome. It is strongly reminiscent of the architect's Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, built for the 1960 Olympic Games. Inside, the swirling coffers on the underside of the dome create a delicate, soaring effect that contrasts greatly with its smooth outer shell. The arena hosts a variety of sporting events, notably minor-league hockey. Not to be overlooked is the canopy to the east of the arena along St. Paul's Boulevard, which marks a seldom-used entrance to the subterranean meeting halls. Two tapered columns support ribbed panels in an umbrella-like fashion, a motif that Nervi had previously developed at the Turin Exhibition Hall (1962).

Chrysler Hall, by comparison, is less successful visually and functionally. Similar in appearance to Max Abramovitz's Avery Fisher Hall (1962) at New York City's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Chrysler Hall is an equally dull essay in postwar neoclassicism. On the exterior, rhomboidal concrete columns surround the theater on three sides. Recessed behind the columns, the main and side facades are treated as glass curtain walls with the bilevel lobby visible behind them. Travertine panels clad the corners and the rear of the building. The interior, which was considered state of the art at the time it was designed, now seems hopelessly dated. The stage lacks a proscenium, and the continental seating plan without aisles makes the task of finding one's seat unusually arduous. Two tiers of streamlined, reinforced concrete balconies appear to swoop down upon the orchestra seats in a way that is visually unsettling as well as jarring against the darker paneled walls

Scope is a megastructure in search of a densely developed city with the kind of recreational and cultural life that would justify it. Failing to connect with its surroundings, it is a monument to misguided urban renewal and bygone federal largesse.

Writing Credits

Richard Guy Wilson et al.


What's Nearby


Richard Guy Wilson et al., "Scope Cultural and Convention Center", [Norfolk, Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 418-420.

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