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Restraint and respect are key as architect and client reclaim a mid-20th-century sleeper

Modern on Monument


Casual conversation often turns to local, hot-button preservation issues. Topics can include the encroachment of suburbia on Civil War battlefields, saving Jackson Ward's glorious cast-iron-adorned houses from the burgeoning convention center, or wondering why the St. Andrew's Society bulldozed a cluster of historic row houses recently on Oregon Hill's South Linden Street.

Seldom, however, do Richmonders focus on the plight of post-World War II buildings. Although the National Parks Service generally considers buildings 50 years old or older as eligible for official landmark status, most of us haven't elevated mid-20th-century structures as cultural treasures in our own minds: These are the buildings of our own times, we rationalize. What makes them special?

Meanwhile, we're losing architectural reminders of the era of JFK, parabolic hairdos and monkeys in space. A dozen elegant, International Style, boxy glass buildings that once housed suburban branch banks for the former United Virginia, Central National and Bank of Virginia operations have been remuddled into clunky shadows of their former glory. Jefferson National Bank, a marble, modernist pile that until recently anchored the northwest corner of Second and Grace streets downtown, is down and out. The old Krispy Kreme doughnut and coffee bar on West Broad Street has been replaced by something less funky. The Best Products "Peel" catalog-showroom may be included in architectural history books, but it no longer causes whiplash on Midlothian Turnpike. And the former Woolworth's building at Fifth and Broad streets, a modernist gem by the former white-shoe Richmond architecture firm of Carneal and Johnston, is targeted for demolition.

And this just in: Add another midcentury gem to the hit list. Earlier this month, the 1960ish Lawrence Chrysler Plymouth dealership at Broad and Staples Mill Road was reduced to a heap of rubble. This exuberant, concrete and glass, scallop-domed structure was a hybrid of a flying saucer and University Hall, the basketball venue at the University of Virginia.

So while we live in the self-absorbed present — or are concerned with preserving ancient sites — we are losing physical reminders of our recent past. Is anyone taking notice of these losses, does anybody care?

The answer is yes. And, in one particular instance, it comes from an unlikely place — historic Monument Avenue.

The small, Modernist, red-brick building at 2016 Monument is easy to miss. It sits amid block after block of mostly residences, all decked out in the last gasp of over-the-top architectural classicism.

But John Homs and Jo Watson, co-owners of JHI, a marketing communications company, recently discovered the forlorn and decaying anomaly when they were searching for new office and studio space. Rather than disguise what the building was, they have completed a renovation and reinterpretation of the structure that celebrates the building's Modernist integrity while enhancing its inherent simplicity.

The one-story building is one of Richmond's earliest Modernist statements. It was built in 1954, prior to the 1957 completion of the Reynolds Metals campus on West Broad Street. (Nineteen fifty-seven was also the year of Sputnik, which triggered a space race that would directly influence American architecture.) The architect of the then-medical building was Frederick Hyland, a Richmond architect who was greatly influenced by time spent working directly under the hand and spell of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Early 20th-century modernists, such as Americans Wright and Irving Gill, or Europeans Walter Gropius and LeCorbusier, were striving toward an architecture that used new technology, reflected nature and expressed a more honest and egalitarian approach to design by stripping away the excesses of classicism.

Hyland's building is basically two rectangular boxes, one set behind the other on the deep and narrow lot. They were divided by a small courtyard. (Interestingly, the plans were drawn up by Haig Jamgochian Jr., a young draftsman in Hyland's shop who would go on to design Richmond's greatest Sputnik-era Expressionist building, the aluminum-clad Markel Building on Fitzhugh Avenue near Willow Lawn.)

In 1964, the original Hyland office was enlarged slightly with the enclosure of the courtyard, thus adding square footage to the rear block.

But when Homs and Watson discovered the 2,400-square-foot building, its front facade was hidden by trees and its pure, Modernist lines obscured.

"The exterior had been 'Tudorized,'" says Holm drolly, "Paint wouldn't quite do it."

The interior was even more off-putting — an impossible warren of medical examination rooms and closets.

But the building's new owners, already devotees of mid-20th-century design, could see the possibilities. And they found an aesthetic soul mate in Henry D. Ayon, an architect with Fairlamb & Ayon (he is now with Odell Associates here). Ayon, too, could see the building's Modernist bones awaiting rescue.

One of the changes that Modernism brought about was the possibility that supporting walls could disappear. Reinforced concrete platforms, or flooring, could be cantilevered beyond the supporting posts. This meant that building walls and corners no longer had to provide support. Free of this constraint, architects could insert glass panels at the corners of buildings, often meeting another glass plane at a 90-degree angle.

Hyland used floor-to-ceiling glass panels strategically on the exterior at 2016 Monument. Ayon picked up on this idea for reworking the interior's tight, claustrophobic spaces.

He kept the configuration of many of the interior walls, but removed masonry corners and turns, and replaced them with glass. Now the walls appear to float, creating a heightened sense of spaciousness. For individual work areas there is still a sense of privacy, but also interconnectedness. From a work area in rear of the building, it is possible to have the clear sightlines all the way back to the front room.

The ceilings are painted a stark white with a warmer shade of white applied to the walls. This would not be such a big deal, but in so small a space, this paint scheme really opens things up. But too much white can be oppressive. On a number of strategic walls, there is a bright, solid color plane to add a dash of energy. Natural brick walls, part of Hyland's original design, have been respected by Ayon.

Also and importantly, there is little hanging on the walls — none of the plaques, displays and print samples that fill the walls of many design and advertising agencies. This further enhances the Zenlike quality of the space, as if to say the process is all-important here. To walk through this building is a cleansing experience.

When was the last time you felt that way about a space?

The furnishings also show a collaboration between client and architect. Homs and Watson already had an impressive collection of midcentury furniture and clocks. Through careful editing, they have placed pieces in a few, carefully chosen places — George Nelson-designed clocks, two Harry Bertoia wire chairs — for use, not display. There is nothing witty about this space. It is strictly business, but pleasantly so.

When our grandchildren ask us what distinguished buildings in the '50s and '60s, we'll scratch our heads and reply, "Well, er, I dunno. Why don't you catch a rerun of 'The Jetsons' or 'My Favorite Martian,' kid?"

Or… if more folks like Homs, Watson and Ayon step up to the plate, we might be able to offer future generations a more satisfying

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