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An Enduring Contribution

Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company brings together history and people, whether on campus, in the arts or in a wide variety of settings.
By Kim A. O'Connell

On a bright spring morning in the Norfolk, VA, offices of architecture firm Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company, Gregory Rutledge, AIA, and Barbara Strickland Page, ASID, are finishing each other's sentences like a long-married couple. The topic at hand is the Virginia Executive Mansion in Richmond, for which the firm conducted a full restoration and renovation in 1999. Before the firm was hired, the mansion – the nation's oldest continuously used governor's residence – was in a desperate state of disrepair. "It was the most dismal place you'd ever seen, and here it was, in Virginia!" says Page. "Right across from Thomas Jefferson's capital," adds Rutledge. "One of the most beautiful buildings we have," says Page. "The stipulation was that it had to be done in, what, nine months?" "Six months," answers Rutledge. And so on.

Rutledge and Page's easy camaraderie is evidence of their more than 20-year collaboration at the firm, where Rutledge is a principal and historical architect and Page is an associate principal and interior designer. Unlike other architecture firms, where interior design is an afterthought (if it's thought of at all), Hanbury Evans treats architecture and interior design as integrated, indispensable disciplines. "The interior architectural components are just as character-defining as the shape of the building and the windows and doors," says Rutledge. Page nods. "He has to know what I'm thinking," she says, "and I have to know what he's thinking."

This interdisciplinary approach is evident in their work at the executive mansion, an 1813 Neoclassical masterpiece by architect Alexander Parris that was graced with a 1906 addition by Duncan Lee, a prominent Virginia architect. Over the years, the house had suffered from alterations or neglect every four years, as Virginia's governors cycled through their single, non-consecutive terms as mandated by the state constitution. The restoration required extensive research, and no detail was overlooked, from replacing lost acanthus leaves on the exterior columns to commissioning new carpeting featuring an appropriate 1800s pattern from a British mill.

After conducting color analysis on the interior, the firm repainted the unimaginative cream-colored walls and trim ("blah on blah," as Rutledge calls it) in a rich and historically accurate gray with white trim. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation even offered its sewing room to produce the mansion's hand-stitched draperies, designed in an early 19th-century style. All the while, the firm found ingenious ways to update and hide mechanical systems and add accessibility features. When the mansion opened to the public, the lines wrapped around the block.

Despite the success of the project, which garnered an award from the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects, this kind of pure restoration is actually a rarity among the firm's work. Hanbury Evans primarily engages in architectural design on college campuses, in the cultural arts and in historic preservation. Whether it is a storied house or a student hang-out, however, the firm's projects always illustrate a commitment to tradition, a creative eye and a collaborative approach.

Historic Contexts
In a forest, fire can be a destructive but ultimately regenerative force – so it was, ultimately, with Hanbury Evans. In 1985, Evans Hudson Vlattas Architects, founded in the late 1970s by S. Michael Evans, FAIA (and joined by Nicholas Vlattas, AIA, soon afterwards), experienced a devastating loss when its offices burned to the ground. At the time, the company had been considering a merger with a fellow Hampton Roads-area firm called Hanbury & Company, founded in 1980 by John Paul C. Hanbury, FAIA. Hanbury graciously invited the displaced architects to share his firm's 1891 office building in downtown Norfolk. Before long, the two practices completed their merger and began the steady growth that continues 23 years later.

Today, Hanbury Evans employs 86 people across several disciplines, including 30 architects, 25 architectural interns, four interior designers, two construction administrators, two landscape designers and four graphic designers, and has two satellite offices in Wytheville, VA, and Tampa, FL. Hanbury retired in 2005, after guiding the firm's historic preservation studio for two decades (although he still drops in on a regular basis). Evans and Vlattas serve on the firm's board of directors, along with Jane Cady Wright, FAIA, LEED, who has been with the firm since its Hanbury & Company days and is now the firm's CEO and president.

"I was attracted to the firm because of the strong culture," says Wright. "John Paul was very committed to the sense of place wherever he was working and the kinds of projects that make a difference to communities. I felt that our firm was very limitless. There was an entrepreneurial spirit here about pursuing and doing what you love, and getting good at it."

One of the firm's early projects – and its first theater renovation – was the Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk, a beautiful Beaux-Arts facility built in 1913. Like many old downtown theaters, it had devolved into a vaudeville house and an adult theater before lying vacant for several years. By the 1980s, the city had acquired the building for the Virginia Stage Company and hired the firm to bring its glorious interior back to life.

Working within a tight budget, Page and her colleagues routinely climbed up massive scaffolding rigs to mix colors, do plaster castings and prescribe application techniques for the ornate structure. "It was a very technically difficult restoration," says Rutledge. "We didn't have drawings; we didn't know how it was built. We had to rebuild the balcony and the exterior canopy." Since its reopening in 1987, the theater has been a vibrant part of Norfolk's revitalized urban core, he adds. "It's the old matron of the downtown."

Since then, Hanbury Evans has designed renovations, restorations and additions for several performing arts facilities, including the circa-1850s Thalian Hall in Wilmington, NC; the new American Theatre in Hampton, VA; the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News, VA, (with New York City-based firm Pei Cobb Freed) which features a dramatic arched colonnade and three venues; and the Prizery in South Boston, VA, (see Traditional Building, October 2007) a 1907 tobacco warehouse that has retained its gritty industrial feel while serving as a welcoming community arts center and museum.

The firm is currently working on the State Theatre in Culpeper, VA, a 1939 Art Deco building that has been closed since 1993. Hanbury Evans is now working on the restoration of the original wedding-cake façade, ticket booth and marquee, while adding a new stage, seating, fly tower (which allows for the quick change of backdrops) and back-of-house facility that will complement the historic section and maintain the current streetscape. "We're trying to open up the front and provide a lot of glass to activate the street," says William C. Hopkins, AIA, an associate principal. "There were a lot of design challenges, but it's going to be beautiful."

In addition to its theater work, Hanbury Evans provides master planning and design services for a variety of clients, including several national historic landmarks and college campuses throughout North America. Projects have ranged from the small and exacting – such as the firm's restoration of the 1893 Matthew Jones house on the grounds of Fort Eustis near Newport News, in which the structure's original 18th-century frame skeleton was intentionally left visible – to the large and high-profile, such as the firm's design of a housing system for the University of Utah, which also served as the 2002 Winter Olympic Village in Salt Lake City and was sensitively placed on the site of the Civil War-era Fort Douglas, also owned by the university.

"We want to be inspired but not bound by the contexts in which we're working," says Wright. "We would like to add to the places we serve and to make an enduring contribution." Nowhere is this goal more complicated, and therefore more rewarding, than on college campuses.

Campus Planning and Design
Although many college campuses are designed in Classical styles, their most traditional aspect may actually be their sense of hierarchy and organization. Campus plans tend to exhibit an innate logic, with buildings designed to serve their populations on a human scale. Over time, however, like modern cities, university campuses can grow haphazardly, their original intent lost in a morass of iconoclastic modern structures or even temporary dwellings.

"We have aggressively pursued campuses because they are great places to work," says Wright. "There is a quality of place about campuses and a high degree of integrity and thinking. Each campus, even if it's a new one, is graced by an element of history, because they all want to make a lasting, meaningful contribution to society." Hanbury Evans has worked on 95 campuses, developing numerous new master plans, updates to existing plans, adaptive reuse projects and sensitively designed new structures. It is important to the firm that new buildings promote student engagement in campus life and academic success; therefore, they tend to design new student activity centers, residential colleges and other gathering places.

At the Universidad de Monterrey in Mexico, for example, the firm designed a colorful and exquisitely proportioned residential community, as part of an effort to transform the university from a commuter to a residential campus. Although the design is contemporary, the firm employed traditional Mexican materials and techniques to craft a place that felt current and welcoming, while hewing to the region's rich history. New student civic spaces create a sense of community on a part of campus that previously was underserved. At Rhodes College in Memphis, TN – a stunning example of the Collegiate Gothic style – the firm developed a preservation plan and designed (along with Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott) a new library for the college, whose Gothic interpretation is impeccably faithful and whose towers reflect the Classic proportional sequence found throughout historic architecture. (The project won a 2007 Palladio Award. See Traditional Building, June 2007, page 23.)

Although designed with traditional materials, the library is a thoroughly modern-functioning building. Interior spaces can be adapted for various uses and contain state-of-the-art technology. The library includes a 24-hour coffee lounge, and the walls, ceiling and windows serve as a three-dimensional textbook, with symbols that reflect the history of the school and of the Collegiate Gothic architectural heritage.

"A lot of the time we're working in historic contexts," says Rutledge. "Almost every building we design fits into that historic context, with few exceptions. I'm really quite proud of it. These campuses have their own identities, their own sense of place, and to put something in there that looks like it should have been there at the beginning takes great skill."

At the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, for example, the firm restored the famed Superintendent Quarters, which was designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis in the Military Gothic style in 1860 but had been steadily stripped of its Gothic ornament in the intervening years. Other campus projects are either under construction or in the planning phase at Rice University in Houston, TX, Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, and many others.

Campuses tend to be repeat clients for the firm. At Rice, Hanbury Evans' residential college expansion plan has led to a $95 million construction project for which the firm is designing two new residential colleges (with Hopkins Architects of London), as well as renovations and additions to three other colleges, some of which feature the work of Ralph Adams Cram. "It's daunting dealing with the work of a very famous architect and then interpreting it," says Page. "You have to have a deep understanding of what he did before you do anything."

"Architectural integrity can make or break a campus," says Wright, quoting a study by researcher Ernest Boyer that stated that most prospective students make up their minds about a campus within 11 minutes of visiting it. "It's as much about the quality of the spaces as anything else."

Creative Exchanges
In mid-April, Robert Reis, AIA, LEED, one of the firm's principals, was busy planning an evening of unusual presentations by members of the area's creative community. Called Pecha Kucha (pronounced peh-CHAK-cha), which is Japanese for the "sound of conversation," the event usually features 10 presenters, who each present 20 slides in 20 seconds. First developed in Tokyo in 2003, the format is designed to be an exhilarating alternative for creative expression. For the inaugural Tidewater, VA, event, Reis invited 13 speakers from the worlds of art, architecture, landscape architecture and photography. Nearly 200 people attended the program, which Reis expects to continue next year as part of the AIA's Architecture Week.

Although the Pecha Kucha night is new to the firm, Hanbury Evans has fostered creative intellectual exchanges for years. The office features a central gathering space known as the "Knowledge Café," which can be transformed from a collaboration room to a large presentation space, complete with bleachers. In addition, the firm hosts an annual juried competition in which architectural students from around the world vie for the opportunity to spend the summer working with the firm.

Similarly, the firm's Virginia Design Medal is awarded each year to a faculty member who spends three weeks at the firm lecturing, critiquing and advising on projects. For 10 years, the firm has also taught a design course for executives through the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Finally, the firm hosts an annual International Design Retreat in which firm architects go abroad with faculty from Virginia Tech for professional inspiration. Past retreats have been held in Switzerland, Italy and Spain; this year, 11 architects went to Egypt. Even with its growing roster of projects across the country and the world, Hanbury Evans is making strides close to home as well. In addition to completely restoring and renovating its own 1891 headquarters, the firm recently acquired a 1912 Greek Revival building adjoined to the rear, which will allow the company to expand into the new space while rehabilitating another historic structure.

The firm has also installed the first vegetative green roof in the region, which absorbs stormwater runoff, reduces energy costs and helps cool the building's interior. The project has already garnered widespread interest from local businesses and residents, and the firm hopes it will serve as a model for other organizations in the city. Hanbury Evans considers sustainability a natural part of the design process and has several LEED-accredited professionals on staff, referring to the increasingly popular U.S. Green Building Council program.

"The common thread throughout our work is that we like to be engaged very deeply with vibrant spaces, great spaces that bring people together, and design responses that delight the senses," says Wright. "We would like to attract the best and the brightest architects out there. It would thrill me to have people here who are passionate and who would challenge what the firm is working on in the future. Our goal is for the firm to sustain itself by allowing people to feel empowered to study and pursue what they love." TB

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