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A Living Monument

The Virginia Center for Architecture opens the doors of one of Richmond's most elegant places.



The Tudor-inspired building was designed by the celebrated New York architect John Russell Pope (1874-1937) and, at 27,000 square feet, is one of the biggest houses ever built here. Its picturesque silhouette has long fascinated passersby with weathered brick, stone accents, irregular fenestration, massed chimneys and crenellation. Now the public can enjoy the interior as well.

Built in the 1910s by Richmond financier John Kerr Branch and occupied by Branches until the 1950s, it later served as headquarters for the United Way and then as a private office building. In 2003 the Virginia Center for Architecture Foundation purchased the landmark. Under the intelligent and sensitive guidance of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas+Company, a Norfolk architecture firm, the house has been readied for its next act.

No major exterior changes were made, but those who haven't visited the mansion — and those who have — are in for an exhilarating treat as they enter the courtyard, walk into the building and progress through spaces of ever-changing scale. It is also an experience for the senses of touch as well as sight. There are rugged brick textures; the weight of thick, oak doors; the varied grain of sandstone flooring; the rhythm of elaborately patterned plaster ceilings; and the volumes of well-proportioned rooms. The effect of daylight streaming through irregular panes of glass is glorious. But the biggest thrill is to simply stroll through the sequences of halls, nooks and rooms. Every space flows smoothly into the next, but surprises abound.

One enters into a lower dark hallway and ascends a staircase of shallow steps that winds through a narrow passage to the first floor. At the top of the steps, the long gallery lies straight ahead with an embankment of three bays of windows along the north wall. This room is one of the museum's two large exhibition spaces. A small doorway at the western end of the room leads to the small, tucked-away chapel gallery (this will eventually house a permanent exhibit on Monument Avenue).

Directly behind the long gallery is the baronial-sized great hall, the former living room, which now houses the center's largest exhibition space. Running on a mezzanine level along the western wall is a musician's gallery, defined by medieval-inspired carvings. A highlight of this room is the huge bay window that projects southward onto the rear terrace. From this vantage point, with spring foliage just beginning to sprout, the rear lawn and the mostly residential buildings along Park Avenue in the distance provide a handsome vista.

The wing that extends along Davis Avenue once contained the dining room. This marble-floored space will see duty for lectures, receptions and other special events.

From a hall passage, a series of low steps winds to the upper public level. Here, former bedrooms and sitting rooms have been converted to conference rooms and offices and are outfitted in a traditional mixture of furnishings.

Throughout much of the building, plaster walls have been painted various shades of warm khaki and the ceilings white.

Given the building's strong and aristocratic bones, the architect was wise not to compete against existing spaces in converting them for changing exhibitions and flexible programming purposes. In the two main exhibition rooms, track lighting has been installed on a suspended light skeletal frame. Permanent display panels have been attached to the walls so that exhibits can be installed and removed without harming historic fabric.

And while the modernist additions throughout the building are clearly discernible, nothing is intrusive. A number of contemporary architects take great delight in gutting historic interiors and then expressing their aesthetic bombastically. Here, there is great restraint and sensitivity at every turn.

One of the most interesting spaces in the house is the spectacular first-floor former library with its vaulted, decorative coffered ceiling. This room has been handsomely outfitted as the museum shop by the Richmond architecture firm of 3 North. While some might question the wisdom of using this bravura space for retail rather than exhibitions, few could argue that the room isn't done justice. The shelving and display fixtures are exquisitely detailed in dark-stained wood and indirect lighting. The colorful merchandise really pops in this setting.

Monument Avenue already tops Richmond's list of must-see destinations. But now visitors can actually visit one of its grandest houses. The Virginia Center for Architecture not only has preserved a landmark but also has established spaces that will be revisited with each new exhibit, program or event. But regardless of what is on display, the revitalized Branch House itself will ennoble visitors and heighten their sensitivity to the power and possibilities of architecture in an increasingly cluttered world. S

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