For almost a century, manses designed by architect William Lawrence Bottomley have defined the gold standard here. In each project he combined classical proportions with exquisite materials to create spaces of aching sophistication. But New Yorker Bottomley (1883-1951) delivered considerably more.
While his houses -- on Monument Avenue, in Windsor Farms and dotting the Virginia countryside fit their sites like gloves, the interiors are often geometric marvels. Bottomley brilliantly configured residential building blocks front halls, living rooms, dining rooms and libraries into astonishingly original combinations that flowed seamlessly for upscale modern living. Therefore, while identifying a Bottomley work from the curb isn't difficult, each client, representing a pantheon of Richmond's elite, possessed a unique dwelling by this 20th-century master.
Twenty-two years ago, architectural historians William B. O'Neal and Christopher Weeks chronicled the architect's local output in "The Work of William Lawrence Bottomley in Richmond." While that book is prized by collectors and scholars, it is myopic, shedding little light on Bottomley's work elsewhere. If it made the case that Bottomley was tops locally, it also raised the question of whether his work would hold up on a bigger, national stage.
Answers are offered in a major new appraisal by Susan Hume Frazer, a Richmond architectural historian. In the just-published, lavishly pictorial "The Architecture of William Lawrence Bottomley" (New York, Acanthus Press, $85), Frazer devotes some space to Bottomley's Richmond designs (six of about 20 houses), but moves farther afield to capture a broader picture of his work.
Frazer examines dazzling colonial revival manses on Long Island, an eclectic multi-gabled house in New Jersey, and major renovations to town houses on some of Manhattan's most fashionable streets all done before his first Richmond commission in 1915. (That project was a house for Col. and Mrs. Jennings C. Wise, later moved across Cary Street and interwoven into the Jepson Alumni Center on the University of Richmond campus.)
The bulk of Bottomley's Richmond homes were built in the prosperous 1920s. Frazer places some of these the J. Scott Parrish House on Monument Avenue and Redesdale on River Road in context with far-flung designs, such as the Mediterranean-spiked Van Riper house in Palm Beach and the 26-story River House on the banks of the East River, Bottomley's masterwork.
Frazer is craftsmanlike in providing clients' biographies, social history and a virtual walk-through with each of the 34 projects she examines. Ultimately, the author suggests that if Bottomley's buildings seem so right, it's because he knew his historical and classical sources. The author was "grounded in scholarly inquiry," and his rigorous and tedious studies were shaped by terms at Columbia, the American Academy in Rome and eventually the école des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Bottomley's career also came at a time when America's wealthy and accomplished expressed themselves confidently, but still in European-bound architectural traditions.
Rather than being exhaustive, Frazer's crisply written study is a finely honed, selective overview of Bottomley's work. That work comes to life through black-and-white, mostly early photographs that were mined from many sources, including local collections at the Library of Virginia, the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Some of the photos are a bit blurry, as if shot through fine gauze. But rather than being maddening, this effect adds a bit of romance and even distance to these elegant buildings, some of which are as close to us as a drive down Monument Avenue. S