One morning some years back, staffers at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources gathered in the agency's elegant old meeting room overlooking Capitol Square. The mission: to review plans for a proposed state Forestry Department headquarters in Albemarle County, near the front gate of Monticello.
“The boxlike building was undistinguished and the project included a really large, lighted parking lot,” recalls Mimi Sadler, a Richmond architect who worked at historic resources at the time.
Calder C. Loth, Virginia's erudite senior architectural historian, “peppered this guy with questions,” Sadler recalls of the meeting: “‘What is the nature of the landscaping? How bright will the lighting be? How high are the light poles?'”
Exasperated, the architect pleaded from his increasingly hot seat: “Calder, what do you care about the height of these lights?”
Glaring at the man, Loth shot back: “Princes, potentates and senators from throughout the world will be passing this way to see the commonwealth's most significant architectural treasure — and you ask me why I care?'”
For 41 years, until he stepped down this summer from full-time status as Virginia's chief architectural historian, Loth was paid to care — and brought an unmitigated passion to the role. In the only full-time job he ever held — and as the first person to hold the position — he identified, researched and, importantly, attempted to protect the Old Dominion's trove of historic places and spaces.
The continuing challenge, Loth says, is: “How do we keep Virginia looking like Virginia and not like anywhere else?”
“It's impossible to think of preservation without Calder — he's been the mainstay for the complete 40-year span of the state's historic preservation program,” says Kathleen S. Kilpatrick, director and state historic preservation officer of the historic resources department. “His connoisseurship is unsurpassed, and combined with his depth of knowledge, good humor and cheerfulness he has given people a sense of what's important.”
After joining what was then the newly established Virginia Landmarks Commission straight out of the University of Virginia in 1968, Loth crisscrossed the commonwealth with regularity, usually behind the wheel of a state vehicle, to scope out and document architectural treasures for Virginia's official, impressive and ever-growing register of notable buildings. This information is compiled in a 601-page tome he wrote and mostly photographed: “The Virginia Landmarks Register,” in its fourth edition.
Loth has also advised — and sometimes cajoled — property owners to place easements on their lands or historic properties. “With easements owners give up their right to develop or demolish historic properties in perpetuity,” he says. “They donate those rights to the commonwealth in return for tax credits. All this is at minimum expense to the taxpayer and the state doesn't have to purchase these properties and turn them into museums.”
While tax benefits are a motivator — they vary depending on the value of an easement — what also appeals to property owners, according to Kilpatrick, “Is the satisfaction that their land and buildings will be protected beyond their lifetime.”
Among the treasures that Loth has guided to safe havens, are the architecturally spectacular Westover plantation and 1,200 surrounding acres in Charles City County. Others are less so, like modest houses in Richmond's once hard-scrabble Oregon Hill, but historically worth protecting from future development or loss.
“He's forthright and isn't pushy; he can talk property owners into easements calmly and with reason,” says Jack Zehmer, a Richmond architectural historian and close friend of Loth's who's known him since their student days at U.Va. “It's not unusual for him to become their friend and for them to continue to call on him for advice.” The Department of Historic Resources provides specialized and architectural design services.
During Loth's tenure at historic resources, two diametrically opposed forces have competed for America's landscapes, cityscapes and buildings.
In one corner, the past 40 years have seen a period of unparalleled interest and heightened appreciation for historic preservation — coupled with the public's growing focus, if not alarm, on environmental issues not just globally, but also closer to home.
In the other corner, evocative old buildings, neighborhoods and natural spaces have been threatened at a dizzyingly pace by often unbridled commercial and institutional development.
Eastern Henrico County, for example, once mostly rural, is experiencing significant residential development on and near Civil War battlefields. “These are sacred places where history was made,” Loth says. “We ought to be pretty careful with how we treat them.”
Protecting the past — and the present — while being realistic about the always-changing bigger economic picture, requires technical knowledge, command of a range of details, a deft communications touch and some degree of steeliness. Loth is the whole package. By elegantly perfecting his skills over a long career he's established himself as an official — and unofficial — arbiter of taste as historic preservation's Acminence grise both statewide and beyond.
Earlier this month AndrAcs Duany, the Miami-based architect and planner who's internationally known as the catalyst of New Urbanism, was in town working with St. Mary's Hospital on a 40-year master plan. It was Loth who Duany sought out to meet after work, dining at Acacia Mid-town.
Loth was recently on Wall Street for the opening of the refurbished 10th floor of the Florentine palazzolike Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where he'd served on a review panel to ensure that while interior spaces were remodeled and updated technologically, the architecture and details were appropriate to the magnificent landmark.
In addition to having written, co-written or contributed to a shelf full of architectural history books, including signature works ranging from the Gothic Revival style to threatened Russian architecture to in-depth studies of Virginia buildings, central to the Loth brand are courses he offers nationally that promote literacy in classical architecture.
Justin French, a Richmond developer who restores old properties, says that he'll never forget taking the class when it was offered through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “I learned a great deal,” says French, president of French Consulting Company. But he was horrified when Loth stopped, unwittingly, in front of the developer's Monument Avenue house and derided the way the base of the classical columns had been crudely replaced with solid blocks of wood — “By a previous owner,” French says with relief.
It's a long-shadowed autumn afternoon and, free from full-time public service, Loth has more time to observe, teach and reflect. He's just returned from Los Angeles where he lectured at the University of Southern California on the language of classical architecture. In his spacious townhouse, located on a quiet Fan District side street, he offers refreshment to his visitor in the handsome but spare kitchen overlooking a profusely planted and well-tended garden, then suggests repairing to the living room.
Glancing into the dining room and moving through various hallways, it's apparent that empty surfaces are rare: Where there aren't bookshelves, there are Southern antiques topped by an eclectic mix of mementos from trips to the American West, Asia and Europe. Oriental rugs blanket the buffed wooden floors. Dozens of portraits and old paintings hang on the walls. Closer scrutiny reveals a second visual tier: prints and architectural renderings of street scenes in Russia, Italy and Richmond. Everything is orderly and immaculate.
“Bo likes that spot,” Loth says, referring to his cat, as he gently chides his guest to relinquish the sofa for another seat.
Loth discusses his career as a historic resources officer — the remarkable 483 historic preservation easements he helped secure and the 2,711 landmarks he placed on the state and national registers during his tenure. He's quick to acknowledge the hard work of fellow staff members but he does mention with satisfaction an early career victory in placing on the register Westover, the ancestral Tidewater home of the Byrds, “That could very well have been developed for suburban housing.”
“Also very satisfying was Bremo,” he says, referring to a Fluvanna County estate with a unique assemblage of historic structures. “That has always been in the same family and has the original furniture,” he says. “It's all still there.”
“But it's not just the great estates,” he quickly adds, mentioning easements in Oregon Hill. “At one time those buildings were in hopeless condition, but now, nobody is going to tear them down.”
And don't think they won't — and haven't. “I've seen 18 houses demolished downtown on Franklin Street since I moved to Richmond,” he says. “All were architecturally distinguished.”
While Loth salutes Virginia Commonwealth University's expansion in recent years east of Belvidere Street — “At least there's real architecture there” — he flinches at the thought of the university's modernistic performing arts center on a corner of Park Avenue and Harrison Street in the Fan. “That blob on Howitzer Park,” as he calls it: “You don't want to know what was once there. At least there should be the responsibility of replacing what's lost with something better.”
Among those he credits with enlightened preservation leadership over the years are former state Sen. FitzGerald Bemiss, who was instrumental in establishing the historic resources department in the 1960s; Richmond lawyer George Freeman, who drafted the state's easement laws; and Tony Perrins, a Reynolds Metals Co. executive who spearheaded saving a part of the James River and Kanawha Canal downtown when most of the system was being destroyed for the Downtown Expressway.
He cites the late Floyd. D. Gottwald of the Ethyl Corporation as a visionary for restoring the Tredegar Ironworks and for possessing “a knowledge of history” despite the fact that “Some of the demolition crew got a little happy and tore down more than they should have” of the remains of the riverfront complex. He says Mary Ross Scott Reed played a pivotal role in saving old First Baptist Church on East Broad Street (designed by Thomas U. Walter, who also designed the U.S. Capitol) and praises Douglas Fleet for his restoration projects on Church Hill.
He says special praise should go to Helen Marie Taylor, a longtime resident of Monument Avenue, who famously faced down a paving crew and harangued city leaders in 1968 until they dropped plans to remove the famous street's Belgian blocks to speed traffic flow: “I give her a lot of credit because she made us see that preservation is not just individual buildings, but that the whole is the sum of its parts, even down to paving elements.”
In many ways Carter Loth was destined to become an architectural historian. A native of Waynesboro, he was born into one of the city's most prominent and enterprising families. His grandfather had served as mayor and in the 1890s founded W.J. Loth Stove Works, which built pot-bellied, wood-burning stoves and became one of the largest stove manufacturers in the South. (“They produced pot-bellied stoves right up until the 1970s,” Loth says, “and damn it, stopped right before the energy crisis.”) His father was a Waynesboro real estate developer and entrepreneur.
When Calder was 5 his mother died, and he spent summers with his maternal grandmother in Lexington, Ky. “She had a great library with many books on old houses and Virginia things” he recalls. “I still refer to some of them.” He also absorbed lessons in connoisseurship. His grandmother, who'd been widowed in her twenties, had established a well-respected antiques business with national reach. “She sold pieces to such high-powered clients as Colonial Williamsburg,” he says.
As his love of old buildings grew, however, Loth realized that the historic character of his hometown was disappearing: “It had a bad case of the '50s and '60s,” he says. “Important things were being lost and I saw gradual attrition — then you've lost critical mass.” He was especially struck when one of Waynesboro's finest houses, the Withrow House (1828) was demolished in 1955 for a J.J. Newberry's five-and-dime store. “Everybody in town thought that was the cat's whiskers.”
And in 1963 Rose Hall, another prominent house, was torn down. “Not only was it finely detailed architecturally,” he says, “it had both social and military history from the Civil War.” Union Gen. Philip Sheridan saved the building from destruction after being entertained there during the Battle of Waynesboro in 1865. But what survived the war a bland shopping center destroyed a century later. “I was afraid to like anything because who knew whether or not it was going to be demolished,” he says. “You didn't know what was going to come down next. Everything was absolutely vulnerable.” Loth maintains that if those buildings had been preserved, they'd be tourist destinations today.
“Are we really sorry if something is preserved?” he asks rhetorically. “No, there are very few instances, if any, where this has been the case.”
After graduating from boarding school at Lynchburg's Virginia Episcopal School, Loth entered the College of Arts and Sciences at U.Va. And if his hometown was pulling down things, so was Charlottesville: “Vinegar Hill was all torn down during the time I lived there,” he says, referring to an old, distinctive, mostly black neighborhood.
After arriving at U.Va., Loth heard that an architectural history program had been established — unusual for an American college at the time. “I thought, ‘I love old buildings, why not?'”
Zehmer, a fellow student in architectural history, says that a highlight of the university's social season was its annual Beaux Arts Ball. The elaborate, costumed affair was held in the Jefferson-designed Rotunda which had been considerably reworked by the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White after a major fire in 1895. One particular year Zehmer came as Prince Charming, a safe costume.
Loth was a little more out there. “Calder came as the Bower of Bliss, inspired by Edmund Spenser's ‘The Faeire Queen,'” Zehmer says. The 1590s epic poem celebrates the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the Bower is an allegorical garden signifying the pitfalls of artifice and excess. “On Calder's head was a raised bower [arbor] made of wire framing to which were attached naked dolls — they were supposed to be sprites,” Zehmer says, still obviously in awe of the creation, “Tinsel icicles were worked up through this form to create a fountain and branches were woven all around his torso.”
“Calder can be hysterically funny, zany and wildly crazy,” Zehmer says.
Architect Sadler recalls that some years later when she and another married associate, both of them pregnant, arrived at an oral surgeon's office to drive the still-medicated patient home, Loth introduced them as “My two wives,” to everyone in earshot as they wheeled him through the reception room.
In 1968 after completing the architectural history program, a former colleague, Tucker Hill, hired Loth to be a part of the newly established Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. “Calder was in the right place at the right time,” Zehmer says. “The preservation movement was just kicking off when he got out of school. It was very fortunate for him and has proven very fortunate for historic preservation in Virginia.”
Loth's career runs parallel with the still-evolving historic preservation movement nationally.
Alexandria had an early program in 1946 that protected buildings that were at least 100 years old as of 1946. But where did that leave buildings built after 1846? “It wasn't a sliding scale and that scared the beJesus out of a lot of people,” he says.
Richmond had already established an ambitious restoration project by 1957 with the founding of the Historic Richmond Foundation to revive the blocks of Church Hill immediately encircling St. John's Church.
Nationally, the alarm came in 1963 with the destruction of the McKim, Mead and White-designed Pennsylvania Station in New York City. At the time there were neither landmarks laws nor mechanisms for protecting buildings of public interest. U.S. Sen. Patrick Moynihan called the destruction of the railroad station “The greatest act of civic vandalism in New York's history.”
Three years later, in 1966 Lady Bird Johnson sponsored Beauty for America, a major White House conference that included a discussion of preservation issues. Later that year Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, which required every state to establish a preservation office. “The act was supported by our nation's mayors who were concerned about the impact of major public works and highways on inner cities,” Kilpatrick says of the Virginia Historic Resources Department.
For once, Virginia was ahead of the curve. “The origins of Virginia's historic resources department can be traced before 1966 to the administration of Gov. Albertis S. Harrison and the outdoor recreation study commission he appointed to look at the conditions of state parks,” says Margaret T. Peters, a former colleague of Loth's at the department and the author of the recently published book, “Conserving the Commonwealth: The Early Years of the Environmental Movement in Virginia.”
“This was when the environmental movement was getting under way,” Peters says. “There was a conservation-preservation ethic.”
Loth slid easily into his duties at the Virginia Landmarks Commission, excelling in all aspects of the job from scholarship to diplomacy to communications. “He lectures incredibly well and he truly has the gift for being able to teach,” Peters says. “He can communicate sophisticated and complex information in a way people can understand without speaking down to them. I credit him with having taught many of us how to open our eyes to much architecture.”
“Working with Calder was the best education I could have possibly received as a preservationist,” Sadler says. “I met Calder when I was in college and looking for an unpaid summer internship. I was interviewed in his huge office and it was readily apparent that he had no use for me and I was dismissed pretty quickly.” But a few years later, in the early 1980s Sadler applied for a position and Loth hired her as a staff historical architect to review easements on tax credit properties and renovation projects at state-owned buildings.
“It's never about Calder,” Sadler says. “There's no artifice, ego or manipulation. His convictions are all about preserving Virginia's cultural patrimony.”
Despite extensive travels and consulting projects as far away as Russia, Loth regrets never having visited Nimes, the city in the south of France where the ancient Maison CarrAce is located. This is the Roman temple that inspired Thomas Jefferson's design for the Virginia Capitol. “It's a big void,” he says. “It's one thing I need to do.”
It's ironic that Loth has never seen the Maison CarrAce because he's probably had more influence on how the exterior of the Virginia statehouse appears than anyone since the legislative wings were added in the early 1900s.
When the underground Capitol expansion was under way a number of years ago, he got involved — especially with the design of the new public entrance on Bank Street.
“I saw a couple of the preliminary sketches and they didn't look like a space anyone would want to go in,” he says. The fact that initial proposals called for a modernistic treatment at the entrance also disturbed him: “Architects are always saying that we must design things that reflect, and be of our time. No, a building must be of its place. Look at all the buildings on Capitol Square and most of them are classical.”
Loth had an idea. “I took George Skarmeas [the architect from Hiller Architecture in Philadelphia, who headed the design team] to Bremo, an 18th-century estate in Fluvanna County. “There is a Jefferson connection there, sort of,” Loth says, and a building constructed into the hillside that Loth thought might inspire a solution: the Temperance Temple. This small, classical structure sheltered passengers in the 19th century and encouraged them to drink the spring water. Loth knew that this rural building had been based on the Temple of Thrasybulus, built centuries before on the Acropolis in ancient Athens, Greece.
“Calder has an encyclopedic mind,” Zehmer says. “He can remember the finest details. You'll be talking to him and he'll say, ‘Oh, I think that's the name of a church' in some far off place, or make some obscure but pertinent reference. He takes in things most people don't take in.”
“He has the uncanny ability to make people see buildings in a different way,” historian Peters says.
Many people consider the new entrance to the Capitol entrance a master stroke while “a lot of people don't like it,” Zehmer says. “But I'm amazed they did it.”
Though he's stepping down from his job full-time, he'll be available for teaching and lecturing, says his former boss, Kathleen S. Kilpatrick. “In many ways this represents a transfer so that he can focus on his great strengths and leaves the more mundane things to us mere mortals.”
And how does Loth see the future of historic preservation? The individual landmarks aren't in danger, he says. It's the cultural landscapes that we need to worry about. “Some of that is being addressed in easement programs but we must pay attention to historic and famous views. The view from Libby Hill is vulnerable,” he says, referring to the site that reminded founder William Byrd of Richmond-Upon-Thames in London and a proposed development at the foot of the hill.
Loth reminds that the ancient Romans believed in genius loci, the effect that a place has on one's psyche. “It was the Virginia landscape that produced the geniuses that shaped our nation and changed the world,” he maintains. “We should protect that landscape.”