News & Features » Miscellany

Architect James M. Glave makes his mark on Richmond by designing buildings that fit the city.

Brick by Brick


It's going-home time and traffic oozes up Main Street from the financial district. At the corner of 7th and Main, 11 floors above the hubbub, James M. Glave, whom some call the dean of Richmond architects, is both kicking back and revving up. He relaxes in a decidedly beige conference room at The Glave Firm. Despite a long day his paisley bow tie remains taut, his starched, pinstripe shirt is still crisp.

Glave, 67, and his wife are just back from a breakneck trip where they saw some of Europe's newest buildings: He's reviewing slides from the tour. The crystalline new dome of Berlin's Reichstag flashes on the screen. Next up is an outside shot of Frank Gehry's titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. "It's marvelous," coos Glave. "The building changes with the light and sometimes glistens."

H. Randolph Holmes Jr., Glave's partner at the firm, enters the projector-lit room. Sometime soon the practice will announce a name change. It will reflect that Holmes, 43, has taken day-to-day charge of the 35-year-old Glave practice, a firm famous locally for pioneering the adaptive reuse of Richmond's historic and urban places. For more than a generation, the firm has also been a training ground for many young architects who've established strong careers here, thereby expanding Glave's reach in injecting human scale, historic references and refined design into once seemingly hopeless urban spaces.

At this particular moment, though, Holmes wants the conference room so that he can meet with an engineer. Slides of the European tour must wait. But unable to resist the image of Gehry's universally celebrated Guggenheim, he weighs in: "Sure, it's beautiful, but just wait. Every lesser architect will try to copy it."

Then, pausing, Holmes adds with a low groan: "Every museum wants a trophy building by a world-famous architect."

Unlike many brand-name national or international firms, the regional Glave practice shies away from flash. Instead, its projects usually mesh hints of classicism with understated contemporary flair. And rather than iconoclastic tours de force, the firm produces highly contextual work — the finished product looks at home in its setting.

Injecting old places with verve has long been James Glave's signature. In the late '60s when other planners and architects were tearing down moldy old piles to make way for modernist boxes, Glave paddled in a different direction. He envisioned Shockoe Slip as a mixed-use entertainment, residential and retail district. He reconfigured a row of Main Street ironfronts into contemporary offices. He transformed Victorian-era spaces at Maymont, the Valentine Museum, Virginia Union University and Union Theological Seminary (which was on the verge of demolishing its entire Ginter Park campus). Glave looked at warehouses, schools and even churches and envisioned distinctive living spaces when such thoughts were radical and strange.

"Our most effective impact was in adaptive re-use," says William C. Newman III, Glave's founding co-partner, who left the firm in 1992 to open William Newman Architects. "Jim could see beautiful things inside building hulls that nobody else could see."

Robert P. Winthrop, an architect, architectural historian and former Glave associate, agrees that Glave is a visionary. "If you look at what he was interested in and doing in 1965, those things, 35 years later, are our most important urban projects — pushing the restoration of the canal, the Fan living and converting former warehouse spaces."

By combining a lifelong fascination with cities (Richmond in particular), extensive European travel, plus studying with Louis Kahn, a titan of 20th-century architecture, James Glave developed a well-honed sense of what makes spaces work.

His firm's retooling of the Confederate Home for Ladies on Sheppard Street for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is but a recent example of its approach. "Their work on the Center for Education and Outreach [completed in 1998] was entirely in keeping with the building," says Katharine Lee Reid, the former director of the museum who now heads The Cleveland Museum of Art. "They put themselves in the background and really let the building shine forth as the primary presence architecturally. They have instinctive good taste and understanding about classical style."

"Architects can do a lot of gimmicky things and these can be very inappropriate things," says Richmond architect James DePasquale, who was employed by Glave in the early '70s and is now a partner with the DePasquale Gentilhomme Group. "Jim helped me understand the importance of working with the forms and patterns of the environment — that no building project stands alone. He taught me the importance of architectural solutions that fit the context, but make you look twice, that are imaginative."

In 1968, when the Glave Newman firm was three years old, its two principals added a third partner, Richmond native William "Pete" Anderson, who had been working in London as a city planner. (He now lives in Charlottesville where he holds the position of Architect of the University of Virginia.) The trio attracted and advanced the careers of dozens of young architects, including Sanford Bond, whose Bond Comet Westmoreland+Hiner recently designed Maymont's new nature center; Dick Ford of DeBerry & Davis, which designed the new Children's Museum of Richmond; and Charles Aquino, the architect of many snazzy homes here.

"They deliberately recruited the best young architects they could find and invested in their development," says William M. Scribner, who worked with Glave in the early '70s and is now a principal at Scribner Messer Brady & Wade, a firm associated with expanding downtown's convention center. "Glave originated the rebirth of this part of the city," he adds, referring to the lower financial district and Shockoe Bottom.

In attracting and training some of the best young architects to be found, the firm also seeded its own competition.

"It's one of the finest practices in the city," says Vernon Mays, the editor of Inform, a regional architectural magazine. "But at one time there was less competition in the top tier. There are now more firms in the city operating at the same level of excellence."

[image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)An architect here since 1961, James Glave contemplates a current project, the National Park Service Richmond battlefield visitor center at Tredegar. So, as Glave recharges itself for increasingly competitive times — often from talent it hatched — the firm continues to attract high-stepping clients. For Second Presbyterian Church, it is currently exploring ways for the growing downtown congregation to expand its facilities. At Jamestown, with 2007 coming down the tracks, a new visitors center is under construction.

When asked what he most likes to design, James Glave's answer is characteristically low-key. "Any project. I just enjoy designing spaces, I enjoy using light and understanding how it works."

He considers the Virginia Historical Society reading room, a 1992 addition to the existing, austere 1919 building, to be one of his most successful jobs. "I'm very pleased with how the [interior] light works."

Soon after this wing's completion, his firm also designed an extension facing Kensington Avenue to house galleries and the state's Department of Historic Resources.

These gave Glave the challenge he enjoys most: "I have a penchant for working with older buildings. You can't get a patina any other way."

Glave became synonymous with adaptive reuse in the late 1960s when the late Andrew Asch, a numbers-crunching, erudite Richmond businessman, engaged the firm to design his Shockoe Slip properties. At the time the Slip was a printing district with a stock of increasingly decaying warehouses. Glave says Asch profoundly influenced him, confirming the rule that architecture is only as good as the client. "He could talk about global things from education to preservation," says Glave. "But when it came to budget, get out of the way. He was tight! I'd whittle and ask, 'What's the budget?' and he'd reply, 'I'll tell you when we get there.'"

During the 1960s and early '70s, when many American architects were enamored of modernism, turning Asch's Columbian Building into a restaurant and offices allowed Glave to hone his skills at reviving older, urban spaces. Adaptive reuse contrasted sharply with the more popular practice of wholesale clearance for modernist construction — the norm when Glave began his practice.

"Where there'd once been a rich pattern of colors, textures and human scale, these things got lost when we were running after these new visions of stamped-out metal sheets," says Glave's former partner, Newman. "We were all excited about the potential for aluminum. We were coasting along on [architects] LeCorbusier and Mies van der Rohe. But modernism was running out of steam. These [modern buildings] looked great from a mile away, but when you got up close they were pretty bland.

"Jim recognized that before I did and led the charge with that discovery," says Newman. "He envisioned rejuvenated neighborhoods by calling out architectural assets. His vision was broad enough to see curbs, trees, street lamps, the glinting of the glass — all of these things coming together.

"Jim had the ability to see what the rest of us looked at and said we didn't see anything there."

While Glave admits that he, too, was once an advocate of modernism (he did study with Kahn, one of its greatest practitioners) he changed his tune: "We were convinced modernism was going to save the world, but it never worked. What we've come back to is that buildings must be regional. Although executives might fly around, see certain things and say, we want one of those, the glass box in Dusseldorf doesn't work in Virginia."

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2

Add a comment