Amid the challenges of planning, building and landscaping, on a good day we catch glimpses of the final product, be it in our backyards or on a broader, public stage.
There are also regular occasions to celebrate current achievements in enhancing the built environment. These can take the form of house tours. In addition to raising money and feeding public interest, they’re enthusiastic victory laps that celebrate the importance of excellence in architecture, landscape and interior design, and historic preservation.
The granddaddy, or should we say grandmother (without being sexist), of all house and garden tours is Historic Garden Week in Virginia. This long-running and phenomenally successful event is the brainchild of the Garden Club of Virginia, which introduced this rite of spring in 1929 and never looked back. Colonial Williamsburg didn’t yet exist, but with the nation on the verge of an economic depression, Virginia’s historic past was on people’s minds. The sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence had recently been commemorated.
The week runs April 22-29, featuring some 200 mostly private houses and gardens in every part of the state. Proceeds have made possible the restoration of 40 historic and publically accessible gardens statewide. In the Richmond area alone, gardens at Poe Museum, Maymont, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Executive Mansion, Wilton, and the St. John’s Mews on Church Hill, as well as at Scotchtown, Patrick Henry’s Hanover County home, have benefited.
Of all the communities that have participated in Garden Week, none has enjoyed more and varied tours than Richmond. Church Hill and various West End neighborhoods are perennial favorites. This year, South Richmond joins the roster on April 26, with homes being opened in Westover Hills along Riverside Drive. The next day Windsor Farms will be the local focus.
But perhaps no Richmond destination has been as popular through the years as Monument Avenue. Six private homes and their gardens on the city’s most famous street will be open for inspection Friday, April 28.
These distinctive houses will provide glimpses of the city’s most beautiful interiors and small gardens. They’ll also familiarize visitors with three architects who designed not only along this stretch, but also helped to define the look of early-20th-century houses in many other neighborhoods.
Three of the houses were designed by William Lawrence Bottomley, a New York architect who many people believe set the gold standard for grand Richmond homes.
The Georgian revival house at 1800 Monument, built in 1931, overlooks the Lee monument. Its flanking end porches with cast iron filigree were salvaged by Bottomley in New York and reappeared here. That the original Chinese wallpaper in the dining room is intact speaks to the high quality of materials and level of detail with which the architect imbued his every project.
Bottomley’s Coleman Wortham house at 2301 Monument Ave. is one of only two houses on this famous avenue that remains in the hands of the family that built it. Its interior room layout reveals that the architect was a master at interior geometry. His rooms interlock like a finely honed, wooden puzzle.
The third Bottomley on the tour is across the street at 2320 Monument Ave. Its rooms are a lesson in proportion. The vividly painted colors of the walls — red, yellow and blue — set off the owners’ considerable collection of antique furniture and china. The interiors were designed by deVeaux Riddick and the late Robert Watkins, who were partners in the Design interiors firm.
If Bottomley was an out-of-town starchitect, his local rival and contemporary was W. Duncan Lee, an Ashland native who designed numerous houses and apartment buildings along the street between 1908 and 1930. The first house he designed here, at 1839 Monument Ave. in 1908 with his associate, Marion Dimmock, will be opened. The two architects were fresh from their renovation of the Executive Mansion, also open April 28, and visitors will be able to compare the quality of how first-floor rooms flow and meld one to the next. The central stairway at 1839 is a tour de force — a full sweep to the third floor.
Finally, visitors will be introduced to two houses designed by Claude Howell, an architect who came to Richmond in 1904 and made an immediate mark both on Monument Avenue and downtown. His theaters — the November, originally the Empire, and the National — have been restored in recent years and are architectural gems.
At 1815 Monument Ave., the owners of this 1906 manse have pulled off an intriguing flip, pulling the kitchen and dining room to the front of the house and adding living space in the south-facing rear. And at 1828 Monument Ave., a 1907 Howell-designed gem shows that in terms of flow and light, the architect could be just as dramatic with house design as he was with theaters.
Monument Avenue shows Richmond architecture, preservation and restoration at its finest. And this day-long victory lap celebrates ways in which this proud neighborhood stays on its game. S
Historic Garden Week runs April 22-29. For information, visit vagardenweek.org.