Traditional Building Portfolio




'A Life with a Purpose'

Alvin Holm wins the first Clem Labine Award.
By Kim A. O’Connell

Since it was first published in 1932, a book called Architectural Graphic Standards has been as valuable in America’s drafting rooms as the T-square. Generations of architects and other designers have referred to the book’s various editions, which include copious drawings and chapters dealing with various building materials, roofing systems, framing, preservation and more. Not until the 5th edition in 1956 did the AGS contain pages of the Classical Orders. When the AIA took over updating the resource, they dropped the Orders for the 6th and 7th editions. Al Holm, AIA, pushed to have the Orders reinstated for the 8th in 1988, enlisting his own architectural practice to produce the necessary drawings. For his advocacy of Classicism, his devotion to teaching, and his exemplary built work, Holm has been named as the first ever recipient of Restore Media’s Clem Labine Award.

The Clem Labine Award is designed to honor an individual for a consistent body of work that fosters humane values in the built environment. The award, which may go to an architect or designer, artist or artisan, community leader, author or member of some other profession, will be conferred each fall as part of the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference. At this fall’s conference, to be held in Baltimore October 21-24, the award’s namesake, Clem Labine, will give one of the keynote addresses and then present the award to Holm.

"If I have contributed anything over my career, it’s been in the area of trying to build humane community values," Labine says. "I have come to believe that the humane values embodied in the ideals of Classicism hold the best set of time-tested guidelines for creating and maintaining civilized communities. The Clem Labine Award is designed to honor achievement over an extended period, and not just work for which someone got paid. The goal is to recognize a life with a purpose."

Labine is the founder of Traditional Building and Period Homes magazines (as well as Old House Journal) and a longtime advocate of Classicism as a means of encouraging beautiful, meaningful neighborhoods and communities. Tracing his interest in preservation to his purchase and restoration of an 1883 brownstone in Brooklyn, NY, four decades ago, Labine has since won numerous awards from professional organizations such as the Association for Preservation Technology and the National Trust for Historic Preservation for his work in the field. He was a founding board member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America until 2005, when he was given emeritus status.

Labine has known of Holm’s work since the 1970s – a time, he says, when most architects disdained preservation and traditionalism. "Al understood early on the cultural importance of preserving older architecture," Labine says. "In addition, he was an early supporter of Henry Hope Reed and Classical America at a time when espousing Classicism was considered literally the lunatic fringe."

Classical Conversions
Alvin Holm grew up in Oak Park, IL, where his interest in architecture was fostered by the numerous local examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius, as well as an older sister who was an artist and Bauhaus devotee. At Yale University, he took a course taught by the legendary historian Vincent Scully as he pursued his art history degree, which he followed with graduate work in Yale’s architecture school. Holm later attended the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program, where he earned his master of architecture degree under the guidance of Louis Kahn and G. Holmes Perkins. Like most other students of the time, Holm was an unapologetic Modernist.

By the 1970s, after honing his craft in a number of firms, Holm joined Vincent G. Kling & Partners in Philadelphia, which offered him more opportunities to study and understand historic buildings as well as contemporary ones in traditional styles. Among other projects, Holm worked on a proposed addition to the Federal Triangle complex in Washington, DC, and was enlightened by the study of the Classical forms of the existing 1920s buildings there.

The nation’s bicentennial in 1976 was also a period of nostalgia, of "looking back and taking stock," as Holm says, when a nascent movement toward traditionalism took hold. "One of the fundamental notions that has prevented the Classical revival is the Modernist myth that you can’t do that kind of design anymore," Holm says. "Everyone who went to school after the second World War was taught that. It was just assumed that that was then, this is now, and it’s a whole new world. One of the first things I rejected after an excellent Modernist education was this notion, and I’ve been fighting it ever since."

Holm played an important early role in fostering this movement by teaching a course on "Drawing the Classical Orders" at the National Academy of Design in New York City for 12 years. He has also taught at Temple University, Drexel University, Philadelphia College of Art, the University of Pennsylvania, the Art Institute of Philadelphia and others. Holm was president of the Philadelphia Chapter of Classical America from 1980 to 2007 and arranged much of its programming. Holm is also the author of The New American Vignola: A Textbook for Drawing the Orders to be published in 2010.

Labine recalls one important example of Holm’s influence. "One of the young founders of the Institute of Classical Architecture, Donald Rattner, was quite unfulfilled by the Modernist architectural education he’d gotten at Princeton," Labine recalls. Don was looking around for something more intellectually satisfying and came across the ‘Drawing the Orders’ course taught by Al. I actually got my first introduction to Classicism through my association with Don Rattner, who recruited me for the ICA board. So one could say my ‘conversion’ to Classicism resulted from one of the ripples flowing out of Al Holm’s courses."

Progressive Tradition
Perhaps it is not surprising that Holm founded his own practice in 1976, the year of the bicentennial. Now in its 33rd year, the office specializes in traditional design and historic preservation, with a primary focus on residential work. The firm often consults with other architects working in traditional design.

Important residential commissions include Holm's design for the R.B. Wyatt residence, a gorgeous Georgian country house in western Pennsylvania. Located at the end of an allée of oak trees, this is Holm’s vision of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, a quadrilaterally symmetrical house in which each façade is beautiful and perfectly sited. Holm’s office has also designed a Palladian house for the Henry Clay Frick family in Alpine, NJ, and restored and renovated countless others. In addition, the firm has designed multi-family dwellings in traditional styles and developed a new mixed-use resort community called Orchid Bay in Belize, in which the central pavilion is influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest retreat and the circular condominium courtyard is designed to emulate John Wood’s Circus at Bath.

"Having studied different kinds of buildings, I understood why all old buildings are graceful," Holm says. "Every country church, every mill, they all have embellishments. We embellish the buildings we love. We decorate our generals not because we want to make them pretty but because we honor them. And, if we’re restoring these buildings so beautifully, why can’t we put them together this well in the outset? The craftsmen are out there yearning to do this work."

Holm has worked on important institutional and commercial projects across the country as well. His firm designed the new Classical galleries for the 19th-century European collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which replaced a spare, Modernist gallery of angled walls and a vast ceiling laid out in a grid pattern. The New York Sun said the new spaces were likely to be the city’s "best-conceived and executed galleries for the display of paintings since the Frick Collection opened in the 1930s."

The firm also served as a design consultant for a new chapel in the Christopher Wren mode, called Saint John’s on the Lake, for an Episcopal retirement community in Milwaukee, WI. In addition, the firm has worked on the restoration and conversion of a circa-1886 bank building in Kansas City, MO, to a central public library, preserving its marble columns, coffered ceilings and other Classical elements, and restored Ivy Hall, a 1904 mansion in Overbrook, PA, for the International Institute for Culture. Holm is now invested in the restoration and upgrade of Pennsylvania Hospital – the nation’s oldest hospital, founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. The work on the hospital’s three-story, Federal-style Pine Building, built between 1755 and 1804, will include repair and replacement of cornices, windows and woodwork.

In his work and in his teaching, Holm rejects the Modernist manifesto of "form follows function." He likes to remind his students and clients that, for thousands of years, the three words that guided good architecture were Vitruvius’s call for "firmness, commodity, and delight." Holm says he is honored to receive the Clem Labine Award and credits Labine for being a fellow catalyst in the current Classical revival ("If the shoe were on the other foot," he says, "I would be giving this award to Clem.").

"I’m trying to promote the idea of progressive tradition," Holm says. "Tradition is intrinsically progressive. It’s not tradition if it’s not looking into the past, from the position of the present, to guide us into the future. It’s a legacy of at least 2,500 years of fabulous buildings – churches, cottages, bridges, mills and so on. I don’t have any doubts that we’ll link up again to tradition. I’m very hopeful."  



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