Preservation Spotlight – Branch House Fireproof Construction


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What began with fixing a leaking pipe turned into a forensic exploration of the bones of the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, designed as a mansion by John Russell Pope for the Branch family.  Even though the plumbing system is nearing the end of its life, the structure of the house was built to survive the fires that occurred throughout Richmond’s history. University Circle, historically the domain of UVA professors, was roofed with ordinary asphalt shingles, but the hips and overhangs were softly curved, lending the house a very distinctive appearance in this otherwise safely Jeffersonian Charlottesville neighborhood.

Glavé & Holmes’ work at the Branch House included replacement strategies for the 102-year-old plumbing lines.  It was more challenging than expected because the building’s construction consists of concrete floor slabs and Pyrobar (gypsum block) walls.  This meant that it was very difficult to trace and replace pipes, but was informative as to fireproof construction strategies in the early twentieth century.

Branch House Structural Framing Plan (December 1916).

Part of the drawing set from John Russell Pope’s office, dated 1916, included structural drawings by the Fireproof Contractors Corporation in New York City.  This showed that the house’s fireproof design was deliberate in the early design phase of the project.  It appears construction followed the design specifications to protect the building from fire, which consists of concrete slabs supported by the brick exterior and central internal bearing walls with some steel beams and columns where needed for longer spans. Walter Dotts of the Old House Authority, and a direct descendent of John Kerr and Beulah Gould Branch, suspects a massive fire at Richmond’s Jefferson Hotel in 1901 factored significantly in the decision to make the house fireproof, as well as Richmond’s rather strict fire protection building practices at the time. 

While building with concrete dates back at least to the ancient Romans, it did not become a common commercial building material until the latter part of the 19th century when engineers experimented with reinforced concrete – in which iron and, later, steel rods embedded in the concrete helped with tensile forces in spans.  The building industry was not only interested in the novelty of reinforced concrete at the start of the 20th century but in finding ways to make it affordable by reducing the cost of on-site building of formwork.  The Branch’s slab design included one of these products, a metal tile [i.e. pan] system that is a forerunner to today’s steel decking for concrete slabs.  After researching several textbooks printed between 1900 and 1915 on common construction techniques and concrete design for buildings, G&HA architectural historian Fred Esenwein was able to decipher the structural drawings and trace the manufacturer of the metal tiles to the General Fireproofing Company based in Youngstown, Ohio.

To maintain a highly protected building, the non-structural partition walls are made of a fire-resistant material called Pyrobar, first identified by the project’s contractor Daniel & Company.  It was a product made by the U.S. Gypsum Company starting in 1903 as an alternative to terra cotta tile and in production until the 1960s when drywall became a dominate material with tested fire-resistance.  The name is likely a hybrid of pyro meaning “fire” and bar shorten from “barrier.” It is a hollowed-out molded block and looks similar to concrete block except it is about twice the size as standard concrete block and the primary material is gypsum instead of cement.  The block faces have a wavy surface so that plaster can be applied directly to the blocks.  It is usually found in buildings requiring stringent fire protection, such as civic buildings such as schools and courthouses, and less commonly found in residential construction. 

As fascinating as this construction is as a history of building technology, it has posed challenges in efforts to determine the locations of pipes, because pipes have been discovered embedded in the Pyobar walls and are possibly embedded in parts of the concrete floor slabs.  Selective demolition in this construction system also poses higher risk to damaging historic finish materials such as ornamental plaster ceilings and ceramic tile walls.  The approach has been to incrementally introduce new plumbing lines concealed where cavities exist between the slab and finished ceiling or to route the pipes exposed in service areas out of public view, which has been done dating back to the 1919 construction of the house.  Having to work around the 1919 fireproof construction gives new meaning to the phrase “they don’t build ‘em like they used to.”

Underside of the concrete floors at the Branch Museum.  The ribbing comes from the steel tile formwork. 
Cross-section of a Pyrobar block with plaster applied directly to the outside face. 
The Brody Jewish Student Center was completed in 2019 with a dimensional asphalt roof simulating the bent cedar shingles.

Pyrobar from US Gypsum Company brochure, 1919.
Inside the ceiling cavity at the Branch House.  Many GF Steel Tiles remain in place (brown surfaces).  The white Pyrobar wall is visible at the lower portion of the image; note the wavy lines on the surface for plaster adhesion.  Both materials were common fireproofing assemblies in the early 20th century.


Colleges and Universities Should Invest in Outdoor Spaces


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Lake Matoaka Amphitheatre at the College of William & Mary

We think colleges and universities should invest in outdoor spaces!

We all have certainly felt the pandemic’s effects across offices and functions, and now is a great time to evaluate how campus spaces have evolved and what changes are likely to be permanent. Read more about how these outdoor spaces are worth investing in from Lori Garrett, FAIA, a senior principal at our firm.

Click the link below to learn more:

Preservation Spotlight – A Simulated Thatched Roof


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An odd feature caught our eye while rehabilitating the historic Brody Jewish Student Center in Charlottesville. This very artistic house on University Circle, historically the domain of UVA professors, was roofed with ordinary asphalt shingles, but the hips and overhangs were softly curved, lending the house a very distinctive appearance in this otherwise safely Jeffersonian Charlottesville neighborhood.

Last time, we looked at the carved helical newel post at the Brody Jewish Student Center in Charlottesville, which was restored in collaboration with Charlottesville-based contractor Martin Horn, Inc. The 1914 house, designed by accomplished local architect Eugene Bradbury, featured another unique design element: a roof type otherwise unknown to the Charlottesville area.  Interior inspection showed that the framing at the valleys and ridge was curved, as were the eaves. In fact, the house was originally covered by a shallow hipped roof that made use of a roofing system popularized by American wood shingle manufacturers in the 1910s and 20s to resemble thatch.

A 1945 photograph of the Brody Jewish Student Center shows a wood shingle roof with curving thatch-like edges.

The trend for “American Thatch” was fostered by manufacturers like the Creo-Dipt Co. of New York and the Edam Co. of Minnesota. The curved portions of the roof were often required to have a minimum radius of 20” to place the curved shingles, which were bent at the factory.
Example of steam bent shingle roofing from the early 20th century.
Example of steam bent shingle roofing from the early 20th century.
A cedar roof replaced with asphalt shingles.
The Brody Jewish Student Center was completed in 2019 with a dimensional asphalt roof simulating the bent cedar shingles.

The Brody Center’s roof had been replaced with asphalt shingles at mid-century, when the cedar shingles wore out. The roof retained some character but with a much less robust effect. While the budget didn’t permit the recreation of the wood shingle roof, G&HA made sure the radius at the hips, ridge and eaves was maintained, and that a medium grade of shingles was used which would provide a similar thickness to the cedar shingles while permitting a similar tight curve of the junctures and eaves.

The final product, with its distinctive silhouette, preserves a historic character-defining detail and is an enhancement to the neighborhood.


Preservation Spotlight – Restoring a Helical Newel Post

One recent project found us briefly stumped over a battered ornamental newel post. We did some research and found out a lot more than the building owner expected. G&HA Project Manager Linda Coile, working with our in-house preservation specialists, was able to turn it into a miniature triumph of sorts.

One of Glavé & Holmes’ recent projects illuminates the interesting quirks found in significant historic properties and the technical innovation and historic expertise needed to make them whole when they have been damaged through hard usage over time.  The Brody Jewish Center, located in the University Corner neighborhood in Charlottesville, has served as a student center for Jewish students at the University of Virginia since 1949.

Watts House in 1945, before it became the Jewish Student Center.

The compact, two-story, stuccoed brick house incorporates details derived from English Arts and Crafts country houses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The architect included some details that are associated with American Colonial Revival designs.

The historic building was originally a residence completed in 1914 for Professor Stephen H. Watts and his family. It represents architect Eugene Bradbury’s work, one of the most innovative and accomplished designers working in Charlottesville in the early twentieth century. The Brody Jewish Center engaged the team of Martin Horn and Glavé & Holmes Architecture to evaluate and rehabilitate the historic portion of the existing facility. 

The restored entry hall at the Brody Jewish Student Center

As might be expected from the exterior, the interior of the Watts-Hillel House is provided with a high degree of finish and detail. The most significant interior is the entry passage. This is treated as a fully paneled 18th-century hall with an elegantly detailed staircase. The stair features wide paneled tread ends supported by applied scrolled brackets, three turned balusters per tread, ramped and eased molded rail with helical turned “barley sugar” secondary newels, and a substantial turned bottom newel with an undercut double helix surround. This masterful example of craftsmanship had been treated roughly by generations of students and was hardly recognizable. The helical portion had broken mostly off.

GH&A architectural historian Gibson Worsham recognized the detail from past reading. With a little focused research on the kinds of books available to the architect in 1914, he identified it as being derived from an important New England house dating from 1755.  The carved newel in the Mary Lindall House in Salem, Massachusetts, has the same form, but the Charlottesville example, while incorporating the helical surround, had been much simplified.

The newel was judged to be too damaged to restore and instead a copy was made by the millwork shop at Gaston and Wyatt in Charlottesville, produced on a CNC Router. Here is the final result!  

Top Mixed-Use Project 2020 Awarded to The Westhampton on Grove Development

Congrats to the Urban Architecture Studio on the recent Greater Richmond Association for Commercial Real Estate 2020 Award for work on the Westhampton on Grove Development! The three-story building houses retail on the first floor (including Taste Unlimited gourmet market; Mango Salon and a Long & Foster location), offices on the second floor, and residential units on the third floor.

Civil Engineer and Landscape Architect: HG Design Studio

Structural Engineer: Speight Marshall & Francis

Contractor: Taylor & Parrish

Owner: Westhampton, LLC

Developers: Stefan Cametas and Jason Guillot

Read more about this year’s GRACRE award winners HERE

Glavé & Holmes Architecture Publishes Book Reflecting on Its Legacy

Firm Has Over 50 Years of Transformational Projects in Virginia and Beyond

Glavé & Holmes Architecture, a nationally recognized architecture, interior design, and planning firm, published a book reflecting on the firm’s legacy. Elevating the Human Spirit: The Architecture of Glavé & Holmes showcases many of the firm’s signature projects over the past five decades (1965-2015) and provides insight on the philosophy that great architecture can elevate the human spirit.

“We are honored that our firm has served so many communities and created a legacy that celebrates the power of architecture to elevate the human spirit,” said Randy Holmes, AIA, Senior Principal and President at Glavé & Holmes. “This book has been a labor of love for many at the firm as we seek to honor the past, salute the present, and speak to the future.”

Throughout its history, Glavé & Holmes has been at the center of many transformational projects throughout the Richmond region, Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond, including service to academia, cultural institutions, resorts and spas, residences, and urban architecture.

The 61-person firm now boasts seven studios serving a variety of markets, including higher education, cultural institutions, urban architecture, hospitality, and interior design. The firm recently announced the launch of its seventh and newest studio focused on historic preservation.

Founded in 1965, Glave & Holmes has for over five decades, created a lasting impact in Virginia and around the country. Local projects in the Richmond region include the Valentine renovation, the Robinson House at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture renovation and addition, University of Richmond Carole Weinstein International Center, Westhampton on Grove Mixed-Use Development, and Virginia War Memorial Paul & Phyllis Galanti Education Center.

The firm also has worked on a wide array of impactful projects throughout the Mid Atlantic.

In addition to showcasing signature projects and exploring the firm’s approach to architecture, the book also pays tribute to the firm’s founders, James Glavé, Pete Anderson and Bill Newman. The book is dedicated to Jim Glavé, who mentored and transitioned the firm to Holmes.

“Jim was a true visionary,” added Holmes. “His ethos continues to inform our firm’s mission to this day. He was a champion of historic preservation and a contextual approach to architecture in which we explore the specific context of time and place for every project.” Copies of Elevating the Human Spirit: The Architecture of Glavé & Holmes are available on Amazon

Design Awards for Carr’s Hill at the University of Virginia

Carr’s Hill, a project completed by Glavé & Holmes Architecture, in collaboration with Associated Architects John G Waite Associates, was awarded the first place for Historic Preservation at the IIDA Virginia & West Virginia Chapter/ASID IDEAS Awards, AIA Virginia’s Excellence in Design Historic Preservation Honor Award as well as the Historic Preservation Merit Award from AIA Richmond. Congratulations to the whole team. Well done!

Virginia Museum of History & Culture to begin $30 million renovation

Congrats to the Cultural Studio and the hard work on the VMHC for the $30 million renovation that will add a new café, theater and green space. Read more about the renovation HERE.

Richmond Hill Restoration

Glavé & Holmes performed a historic structures report in 2017 for the historic monastic complex known as Richmond Hill. This report has begun a restoration of the organization’s 42,000-square-foot building and its surrounding 2.1-acre campus in Richmond, Virginia.

Richard Adams House, Monte Maria Convent, before 1893.

45.15.267 Monte Maria Convent between 21st and 22nd - Valentine Collection

The hill-top location, first developed in the 1780s, became the site of several architecturally significant houses. These were adapted in the 1860s as a school and convent operated by the Catholic Sisters of the Visitation. After years of occupation and several building campaigns, including construction of a chapel and dormitory, the sisters moved to a new location, providing an opportunity for the ecumenical Richmond Hill community to purchase and thoroughly rehabilitate the complex and its walled garden.

Read the full article about this building’s history and restoration process HERE.


Robinson House Rehabilitation

Congrats to the Cultural Studio for their work on the VMFA Robinson House Rehabilitation.  “For 20 years it was vacant and used for storage, until we rehabilitated the building and brought it back to life.” -Steven Blashfield, Cultural Studio Director

Read the full article about this building’s rehabilitation as a gallery and tourist center in Richmond, Virginia HERE.