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Building Traditions

A Washington, DC, firm takes an innovative approach to the vernacular architecture of the Mid-Atlantic region.
By Will Holloway

Fifteen years ago, Washington, DC-based Barnes Vanze Architects, Inc., designed a garage and breezeway connection for a home in McLean, VA. Twelve or so years later, the client called about a loose kitchen-cabinet door – adding that maybe all of the kitchen cabinets needed to be redone. If they were going to do that, she continued, she'd always wanted a bigger kitchen, so maybe the kitchen could be bumped out. And if they were going to bump out the kitchen, they should really do the same to the bedroom above it. As long as they were going to do that, the dining room had always been too small, so maybe they could add a dining room. While they were at it, she also wanted to make her daughters' rooms bigger – and maybe they should add a guest room. As long was they were doing that, her husband had always wanted a two-story library. And if they were going to do that, they'd always wanted a pool, so they would need to add some pool houses. "This became a $2-million project," says firm partner Stephen Vanze, "all from a loose cabinet door."

The Principals
Barnes Vanze partners Anthony S. (Ankie) Barnes, AIA, and Stephen J. Vanze, AIA, first began working together in the mid-1980s at the Washington, DC, office of Hartman-Cox Architects, notably collaborating on the 1985 addition to Monroe Hall at the University of Virginia (UVa). Vanze, originally from New York, had received his Master of Architecture from UVa in 1977 and worked at the Washington, DC, office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for three years before joining Hartman-Cox in 1980. Barnes had joined Hartman-Cox after receiving his Master of Architecture from Yale University in 1983. His journey there began 25 years before and 8,000 miles away.

Barnes was born in South Africa, where as a young man he was introduced to the architectural legacy of European colonialism. "From the age of eight I had a German-born stepfather who had a very Eurocentric outlook," he says. "He took us on vacations to Mozambique, for example, where it was like a little piece of Portugal in Africa – all masonry Colonial buildings. South Africa has some of that tradition too; it's a dry country with no trees, so it's all masonry construction."

After high school and a one-year stint in the army, Barnes spent a year working as a draftsman in London. Returning to South Africa, he studied at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, receiving his Bachelor of Architecture in 1979. Although trained as a Modernist architect, Barnes points to the influence of Edwin Lutyens as central to his understanding and appreciation of architectural traditions. "For the thesis for my degree in South Africa, I designed an addition to Lutyens's Johannesburg Art Gallery," he says. "I pulled some sort of Postmodernist scheme out of my hat and showed it to my thesis advisor – an old guy who had studied under one of Lutyen's classmates – and he said, 'Stop. Go away, look up Lutyens, learn all about him, then come back in a month and talk to me.' In the library they had the three big folios on Lutyens and the book that was written about his life – I consumed all of that and thought, 'this stuff is pretty neat.'"

Upon graduation, Barnes worked for a year and a half in South Africa and for eight months in Guatemala, where the Spanish Colonial architecture had been devastated by a 1976 earthquake. He then came to the U.S. for the first time and traveled around, realized it might be a better place to call home and eventually ended up at Yale. "South Africa was so politically inhospitable that I realized I would not have a safe or happy future there," he says. "It didn't matter what your politics were, because in the end your future was going to be determined by the tide of history – a sad destiny."

Vanze points to the experience of working for David Childs while at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill as crucial to his understanding of how to run large projects and of how a professional office is run. At Hartman-Cox, he was most influenced by firm partner Warren Cox. "Working at Hartman-Cox, you learned a lot about what it really means to put a building together and what the beautiful parts of a building are," he says. "We did a lot of creative, yet contextual designs – you learned to be polite to your neighbors and you learned how to do things so that when you were done, in some cases, they didn't know what you had done, which I think can be a very successful approach."

"We were at Hartman-Cox when they made the switch from being Modernist – or some type of Modernist – to being contextualist," says Barnes. "When we worked on Monroe Hall at UVa, there was some press about it – people were saying 'Hartman-Cox had finally gone retro, they're doing a straight Jeffersonian building.' A lot of what they had done was not really Postmodern, but interesting Modern work that was referential in history. I don't think anything was really Postmodern, but that was the time when they did it."

Founding the Firm
After working together for a few years at Hartman-Cox, Barnes and Vanze began moonlighting, an undertaking that did not go over well with Cox and his partner, George Hartman. "They had these Christmas parties every year, and the point of these parties was always to give a little dig to Warren and George," recalls Vanze. "One year, someone made a movie called 'What it's like to work at Hartman-Cox.' While filming, they walked up to the office where we were working and someone had put a sign on the door that said 'Barnes Vanze Architects.' They walked in and asked what we were working on and I said it was a little moonlighting job we'd been working on for a while. Then, in the course of the movie, they interviewed a couple of Hartman-Cox's clients. Every one of them said, 'We really like working with Warren and George, Hartman-Cox is a wonderful place, but we hear this firm Barnes Vanze is really something.'

"We actually told them we were going to leave, but that we didn't have the wherewithal to support ourselves. We told them that we wanted them to know that we were going to be moonlighting, but we wouldn't let it affect what we were doing for them. What finally brought it to a head was that when we were moonlighting, we would put little signs up in front of our jobs that were being built around town. George said to me one time, 'I saw one of your signs,' and I responded, 'which one?'"

It was in the late fall of 1988 when a project came along that was substantial enough for Barnes and Vanze to venture out on their own. "Although we gave them six-months notice," says Barnes, "tidied up all of the jobs we were doing and hired someone – who was later a partner – to do our jobs, they were not happy about it." (Last year, when Cox was awarded the AIA DC's highest honor, the Centennial Award, he asked Vanze to introduce him.)

That initial project was an addition to a farmhouse in McLean, the drawings for which were done on Barnes' dining-room table. "We got an office phone line and pretended we had an office," says Barnes. "I was nervous as hell. All day I lived in fear that nobody would call us – I would carry the portable phone around from seven in the morning until seven at night." Today, almost 20 years later, Barnes Vanze has completed roughly 20 new homes, 350 significant additions/remodelings and 50 commercial/institutional projects. The firm employs a staff of 28, including six associates in its Georgetown office; in 2002, a satellite office was opened in Middleburg, VA.

Along with being the firm's first project, the addition in McLean is also notable in that it illustrates a design approach that characterizes many of Barnes Vanze's later projects – the idea of creating a "narrative through time." In this case, a gable addition and a garage were added and a series of alterations were made to a 1910s rectangular stone farmhouse. While the additions and alterations were done concurrently, they were designed to appear as though they had been constructed over generations. "It's not something that we sat around and chatted about as a theory," says Barnes, "but when it came time to add to this old farmhouse, we started asking, 'How do you add on to a house like this in a respectful manner?'" A clapboard addition – a kitchen/dining room/family room with a stone fireplace, rough exposed beams and dormers – was appended. In the former kitchen, a new powder room, vestibule, coat closet and butler's pantry were introduced. The attic, which had been a storage area, was redesigned with two new bedrooms, a bathroom and new dormers to allow in light. The two-car garage was connected to the addition by a covered breezeway. A two-story, screened sleeping porch was added to the rear façade.

"In our minds, the myth that made this work is that the addition looks like it was an early building or possibly even an original building," says Barnes. "The garage, which was styled like a carriage house with engaged dormers, looks as though it had been attached later with a breezeway – yet this work was all done at one time."

New Homes
While Barnes Vanze has designed numerous houses in New England, the Rockies and Florida – one of the firm's designs was recently completed at Windsor, the Duany Plater-Zyberk master-planned New Urbanist community near Vero Beach – the majority of its work has been in the greater Washington, DC, area. As for Washington, DC, itself, Vanze says that 90 percent of the homes are center-hall Colonials. "We've done a lot of work on these," he says. "In fact, we could probably do an addition to a center-hall Colonial without looking at it, because there are only so many ways that you can add on and make it work."

Beyond Washington, DC, Barnes points out that, because of the climate, many of the vernacular buildings in two areas where the firm has done a lot work – the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia and in and around Middleburg – are classic one-room-deep houses that can be easily ventilated all the way through. "Another factor is that the entire Delmarva Peninsula [which includes Delaware and parts of eastern Maryland and Virginia] is sand, so if there are any stone houses – and there are very few – people imported the stone," he says. "Elsewhere, stone was a humble material because you could find it for free. In early East Coast settlements, brick was a more honorable material because you had to pay to have it made. For the early structures out there from the 1600s, the English would send the brick over as ballast and build their houses out of it. Rich people would show that they were rich by building brick houses, where as the poor people would live in a frame house of some kind."

In 1999, Barnes Vanze designed a 3,800-sq.ft. waterfront house near the Eastern Shore town of Easton, MD, that refers to that frame-house tradition as well as to Shingle-style cottages of the East Coast. Its long, rectangular plan with a single large gable extending its length was inspired by McKim, Mead & White's W.G. Low House (1887) in Bristol, RI. "The client wanted a comfortable summer and weekend house," says Vanze. "The idea was to make a very iconic image that could be seen from the towns across the water."

The simple, one-room-deep plan allows views of the water from every room and facilitates ventilation. Nine-ft. windows provide views from the dining room. Porches extend almost the length of each gable end. "So much of the Shingle style is composed of completely manipulated forms," says Barnes. "What was so exciting about the Low House – and this house too – was that it couldn't have been simpler. There are some slight manipulations, but it's really simple."

Thirty or so miles north on the Delmarva Peninsula in Chestertown, MD, the firm has designed two homes that refer to the town's prominent brick tradition. The first, a 2,500-sq.ft. townhouse, was designed in 1994 for an elderly widow who wanted an elegant and small house to grow old in. It presents itself to the street as a formal two-story form based on the 18th-century townhouse model; typical of expansions to urban townhouses, a one-story ell extends from the rear. "There are a few gestures that made this house, from an urban scale, historically appropriate," says Barnes. "It holds the street – it's very much at the scale of its neighbors – and then it has a tail on the back that looks like an addition. In fact, when the electrician who worked on the house walked in to the back, he said, 'This is the addition, right?'"

Breaking from traditional arrangement, the rear ell serves as the living room – a light-filled space with a high vaulted ceiling that opens upon a rear patio and garden. What would traditionally be the main parlor is a bedroom suite, which is identical to the bedroom suite on the second floor. "They are exactly the same," says Barnes, "down to the position of the light switches and the tile work in the bathrooms. When the client first moved in, she wanted to sleep on the second floor, because she was used to sleeping on the second floor. But she wanted to be able to move downstairs when she was no long able to use the stairs and still feel at home."

In 1995, the firm designed a 6,750-sq.ft. home in Chestertown for a client who had been searching for an 18th-century farmhouse on the Chesapeake Bay. "They came to us and asked if we could build them a 1700s house," says Barnes. "To make the house feel as though it had been there for ages, we backed it into the edge of the mature woods – a 120-ft. canopy – because that's something that you couldn't transplant. Then we set about building a myth of the old house and what had been added onto it." The "original" manor house is a one-room-deep central-hall brick Colonial. Following the myth that its "owners" would have been able to afford a fancy addition after a few years of good harvests, an octagonal library was appended to the rear façade. More rustic framed "additions" to the rear temper the house's formality and complete the myth of how it might have been developed over time. Such additions also succeed, according to Vanze, in mitigating the impression of a huge house.

Such was the concern with an 11,000-sq.ft. house overlooking the Potomac River in McLean. When Barnes and Vanze first visited the site, it was impossible to stand because of the slope. Five-hundred truckloads of dirt were removed in carving out space to build the house. "From the land side, you approach the house and it looks like a one-story English country Arts and Crafts house," says Vanze. "But from the front door to the other side of the house, there's a 60-ft. drop. We approached this as an upside-down house; the first floor has the master bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen, but you go down the stairs to all of the kids' rooms. You go down to that level – it was a way of making a pretty large house not appear enormous from the outside."

Additions and Renovations
Much of the firm's focus over the years had been on additions and renovations, often involving the removal of unsympathetic additions and the re-imagination of plans and elevations. The firm's work on a 1918 stucco farmhouse in The Plains, VA – to which a barn complex was recently added – was recognized with a 2005 Palladio Award (see Period Homes July 2005, page 18). The 2004 expansion and renovation of a bungalow in Alexandria, VA, is a typical example – a small 1920s bungalow with an unsympathetic 1980s addition. "We tore off the roof and kept the floor and the structure of the second floor and expanded the house," says Barnes. "In the end there was only one room that was original – everything else was changed."

The new roof includes dormers and a reworked roof line, allowing for additional bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor. On the first floor, the mudroom, guest room, butler's pantry and music room were renovated and a back porch was added. "I'd been suspicious early on that you couldn't add onto a bungalow well, that a bungalow is, by and large, a completed form," says Barnes. "But it the end, I felt that we were bungalow faithful."

"All of these projects are very different, and that is kind of the point of what we do," says Vanze. "Our interest is in doing a style correctly, but the style doesn't have anything to do with the way we approach something. It's a matter of the appropriate way to do something in a particular style – of how to best do that style for the particular problem."

"One thing I say to clients is that with most of the best pieces of music you can follow the melody or know who the soloist is," says Barnes. "If you have two or three soloists it starts to become a mess. So when a client says, 'I went to this house and they had this beautiful walnut floor and they had this tin ceiling and they had...' I always say, 'What's the big idea? What's the soloist?' If the big idea is the fireplace, work on the fireplace and make the other things quiet. It helps subvert some of the 'lets have a piece of everything.'"

"The end result is always not just a product of what was there, but also of the people who are living there," says Vanze. "Each of these houses was specifically built for the people who are living there. You form a very close bond with someone when you work on their house, which means if you do a good job for them, they develop a loyalty and familiarity" – possibly even a level of loyal and familiarity that might lead a client to call about a loose kitchen-cabinet door.  

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