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Architect's Showplace

Project: Virginia Center For Architecture, Richmond, VA

Restoration Architect: Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co., Norfolk, VA

General Contractor: W.M. Jordon Co., Newport News, VA

By Eve M. Kahn

Architects don't always make easygoing patrons for other architects. So whenever professional organizations in the field build for themselves, the designers have to expect high levels of client scrutiny and second-guessing, plenty of advice from every stylistic camp and technical specialty. A nonprofit called the Virginia Center for Architecture Foundation (VCAF) cleverly smoothed its path to a new Richmond home three years ago. The group purchased an architectural masterpiece to adapt into the Virginia Center for Architecture, encompassing a museum, galleries, shop and offices for the Virginia Society AIA (VSAIA). What hardhearted architect could grouse about the meticulous restoration of a 1919 mansion designed by John Russell Pope?

The $2-million project has made the 28,000-sq.ft. house on Monument Avenue not only watertight and dazzlingly ornamented again, but also publicly accessible for the first time. Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co. (HEWV), of Norfolk, VA, which handled the restoration pro bono, has invisibly upgraded mechanicals and ADA compliance and rejuvenated Pope's handiwork, while creating one of the largest architecture museums in America.

The structure deserved reverential treatment, notes Calder Loth, an architectural historian for Virginia's Department of Historic Resources. "It's the biggest house in Richmond," he says. "It's on the National Register, it's a major component of an avenue that's a National Historic Landmark, it's the only example of Pope's domestic work in the state, and it's the only Tudor Revival house by Pope in which all interiors are intact." (Most of the architect's six other Tudor houses have been chopped into apartments, according to architectural historian James B. Garrison's 2004 monograph about Pope's residential work, published by Acanthus Press.)

Pope's clients in Richmond, John Kerr Branch and Beulah Frances Gould Branch, always meant for the house to attract attention. The exterior bristles with crenellations, twisted chimneys and carved-stone heraldry. The four-story interior actually contains 19 different levels, if you count every balcony and gallery. "It makes a magnificent backdrop for exhibits about architecture," says John Paul C. Hanbury, FAIA, a founding partner of HEWV. "It's almost as if it were a programmatic design for a center for architecture."

John Branch, who had inherited a banking fortune, amassed yet more wealth by investing in real estate and railroads. He and Beulah collected Italian Renaissance paintings, furniture and tapestries (as well as one Italian Renaissance house: a 15th-century villa near Florence, where they spent every spring). When the couple commissioned their mansion on Monument Avenue from Pope, he had just won a competition to design a domed Neoclassical train station a few blocks away. The Branches allowed him free reign on a lot across the street from a colonnaded memorial to Jefferson Davis. The nearby houses are mostly Georgian; the Branch place, the only Tudor in sight, is three times larger than any neighbor.

Pope based the design on his usual passionate archival research and notes from extensive travels. At a celebrated 16th-century pile in Warwickshire, England, called Compton Wynyates, Pope had admired half-timbering, leaded-glass casement windows, brick diapering, oriels and linenfold paneling. But while the Warwickshire rural manse is rambling and asymmetrical, the Branch house's squared massing suits its urban site. Pope strove for "compactness and fortress-like verticality," noted Virginia architectural historian Christopher V. Novelli in a 2003 history of the house. He added that the interior's multiple levels, and occasional forays into Adamesque and Georgian décor, "create the impression of a manor house that had been constructed and remodeled over many years." The effect seems authentic, nowhere hodgepodge or pastiche: Garrison's 2004 monograph praises Pope's "ability to synthesize a coherent and believable result from an amalgam of precedents."

After Beulah's death in 1952 (John had died in 1930, shortly before Pope), the family gave away their elegant white elephant. Charities including the United Way and American Cancer Society fashioned offices out of the vaulted, coffered rooms. Sandstone doorways and window surrounds ended up coated in gray paint. Sections of iron stair rails were misplaced, and Adamesque cornices dissolved in the wake of roof leaks. Carpeting that Hanbury describes as "bilious chartreuse-y green" was glued to stone stairs and crept across random-width oak flooring. Air-conditioning equipment was jammed into linenfold paneling and casement panes.

In the 1980s, an insurance company executive named Robert E. Pogue set up offices in the house and gave the Department of Historic Resources a preservation easement in exchange for tax benefits. "No major changes can be made to the exterior or interior, in perpetuity," Loth explains. "Bob Pogue had great affection for the house, kept it in good condition, and addressed the long years of inappropriate treatments and deferred maintenance."

The VSAIA and VCAF, meanwhile, were outgrowing their longtime headquarters, an 1844 Greek Revival in downtown Richmond. "The double parlors had to serve all at once as our exhibit spaces and our board and conference rooms," recalls John Braymer, the VSAIA's executive VP as well as president/CEO for the VCAF. By the time the VCAF spent $2 million acquiring the Branch mansion in 2003, flat sections of its complicated roof were flooded and breezes were pouring in through buckled and broken lead cames on the casements.

In creating the Center for Architecture, Hanbury's firm altered almost no historic fabric. The Branches' scullery has been turned into a staff break room, next to former storage areas that now contain ADA-compliant bathrooms. The ADA ramp leads around back to a grand terrace, "so no one in a wheelchair feels like a second-class citizen," Hanbury says. Offices and conference rooms fill upstairs bedrooms and servants' quarters. An original stone doorway for the elevator had to be widened and replaced with a metal frame, which bears trompe l'oeil simulations of the original stone carvings and grain.

Museum-caliber lighting in the 2,700-sq.ft. galleries comes from track lights suspended from ceiling grids or vertically mounted along stone window frames. That is, no cans have been cut into ceiling coffers, no halogens dangle. And wherever vintage light fixtures, moldings, railings or flooring needed to be replicated or patched, Hanbury employed artisans from Virginia. "They gave unstintingly of their talents," he says. "They were in awe of the original workmanship."

The Center for Architecture, now a year old, has so far brought in shows about Frank Gehry, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, affordable housing and New York landmarks. "The galleries are large enough to be impressive, but because Pope meant for a family to live here, nothing is so overscaled that it's off-putting or overwhelming," Braymer reports. The Center has joined the International Confederation of Architectural Museums and has become a popular stop on the local cultural-tourism trail.

Within a few minutes' walk are the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Historical Society and a science museum that occupies Pope's well-preserved railroad station. Even when there's no exhibit up at the Center for Architecture, crowds come for biweekly guided tours. (See for visitor information.) "The house was in the private domain for so many years," Braymer says, "there's been a lot of pent-up curiosity." Rarely has an octogenarian white elephant proven so versatile and nimble at staying in the limelight. TB

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