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Vast midtown U-Haul complex housed the US Patent Office during WWII

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RICHMOND, Va. -- Most of us have seen the vast U-Haul facility on N. Lombardy Street in midtown Richmond.

It's visible from Interstate 95 with its water tower and smokestack.

But do you know its history? It's got a cool one - or Kool one, as it were.

And it had a special mission in World War II, for sure.

But first, the basics.

It was built in the late 1880s as tobacco curing and manufacturing facility, used until the 1940s primarily by Export Leaf Tobacco Company, maker of Kool cigarettes.

It's a massive place that was served by rail lines back when RVA was a king of Tobacco Towns.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and this nation joined the Second World War in a massive way.

A "decentralization" plan was launched to move many of our government's body parts safely out of Washington DC and to make room for our war machine.

Some of the nation's most valuable treasures from the Library of Congress, such as the Magna Carta and the original Constitution, went to Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Much of the rest of the Library's collection was stored in places like the University of Virginia, Washington & Lee and the Virginia Military Institute, according to "American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address," by Stephen Puleo.

Most of the US Patent Office was packed up and moved to 900 N. Lombardy Street in Richmond in February of 1942, despite grumbling from patent examiners and officials worried about being stuck in a tobacco warehouse, according to news reports at the time.

The Feds paid 75 cents a square foot for 180,000 square feet of the complex, which was roughly half of it.

The Patent Office's entire examination corps, the "interference division" and the board of appeals - more than 1,200 employees - were told to pack up and move to Richmond.

Tractor-trailers filled with records arrived here in February of 1942.

And on March 1 - not quite three months after Pearl Harbor - more than 1,000 transplanted Patent Office workers were warmly welcomed here during a ceremony at the Mosque (now the Landmark Theater).

They found their new workspaces nicely renovated and seemed to enjoy living in Richmond, according to reports in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and News Leader.

After the war ended, the Patent Office and its workers moved back to Washington DC, ending its 56-month and 22-day retreat in Richmond.

For a time, the building was turned over to the US Veteran's Administration.

Lance Lalonde, the general manager of that U-Haul facility, said for years veterans or their widows would show up or send letters.

"It shut down, my understanding is, in 1956, after the Korean War was over," Lalonde said. "And the building was empty for 20 years. I was told they had a security guard who walked this building, they covered this building, for 20 years. An empty building.

"We got an opportunity to buy it in 1976," Lalonde added. "And we've been here ever since."

It's a fascinating place, with much of the complex's floors, ceilings, and other structures still original.

There are tunnels and catacombs and the monstrous (and antique) power plant is frozen in time from when the workers walked away from it two generations ago.

There is a plan to turn part of the complex into lofts, Lalonde said.