2501 Monument Avenue
Built, 1916 – 1919
Architects, John Russell Pope & Otto R. Eggers
And this was just their winter place…
That’s right. John Kerr Branch and his wife Mary Louise divided their time between different residences, including Elmwood in New York, and the 15th century Italian Villa Marsilio Ficino, near Florence.
Nice to have options.
The John Kerr Branch House is the work of John Russell Pope, one of America’s most prominent architects of the first half of the 20th century. Designed in 1916 and constructed 1917-19, the building is an excellent example of an urban residence planned in the Tudor Jacobean Revival style. It is the only house of this type by Pope in which the interiors have survived intact, and it is one of the earliest extant examples of this style of architecture in Virginia. Mr. Branch, a wealthy capitalist from a distinguished old Virginia family, amassed a substantial collection of Renaissance textiles, tapestries, furniture and woodwork; the house was designed to harmonize with the collection.
The interiors incorporate English Renaissance minstrel screens and an Italian Renaissance door. To provide an appropriate setting for this collection, Pope, with the assistance of his partner Otto R. Eggers, incorporated salient features from several 16th-century English country houses to form a convincingly correct assemblage of design elements, which as a whole, demonstrate his command of that articular vocabulary.
Sometime before August, 1916, John Kerr Branch. Jr. commissioned John Russell Pope to design a residence for him in Richmond. Branch, an extremely successful capitalist, was (at the time of the construction of the house) a partner in the investment firm of Thomas Branch and Company, president of the Merchants National Bank, a director of the Petersburg Savings and Insurance Company, the Continental Insurance Company, and “interested in Southern cotton mills and railroads.” In keeping with his place in commercial society, the house was expected to possess certain qualities of restrained ostentation that would reflect the Branch family’s entrepreneurial success. As did many wealthy men of the time, Branch collected art objects. The house in Richmond was intended as an exhibition space for his rather large collection of European immigrants. Compounded with these larger social and cultural issues was the need to express one’s own distinguished lineage; particularly British lineage.
Although Tudor was quite popular in the northeast, particularly around Philadelphia, it was slow to catch on in the south. Aside from Meadowbrook (destroyed) in Chesterfield County and Nydrie (destroyed) in Albemarle County, there were few contemporary examples of this style in Virginia. This style became much more popular in the mid-20s with the reconstruction of Agecroft Hall and the development of the Windsor Farms subdivision in Richmond. The Branch House would appear to be Virginia’s earliest extant example of this mode of architecture.
The Tudor mania was also manifested by the publication of several major works on the subject. The plates of these books served as modern-day pattern books for subsequent building in the style. The two most important of these were Garner and published in America in 1911, and J.A. Gotch’s Early Renaissance Architecture in England, published in 1901.
Given the social and aesthetic context, it is not surprising that in the program presented to Pope by Mr. Branch at the outset of the project, both men showed a decided inclination toward the Early English as the preferred style of building.
Branch’s choice of Pope as architect raises several questions regarding patronage which can only be answered by circumstantial evidence of Branch’s knowledge of the architect and his work. First, Branch was involved with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (RF & P) and the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) for which Pope had won the competition for the design of the station in Richmond. Second, during the period between 1912 and 1919, Pope had designed major Tudor houses for Reginald De Koven (New York), Stuart Duncan (Newport, Rhode Island), and Allan S. Lehman (Westchester County, New York). While none of these houses survive intact, all of them were derived from the same sources as the Branch House. Additionally, Pope was at work on a master plan for Yale that advocated adoption of the English Collegiate Gothic style by the university. In later years Pope continued to design in the Tudor style for domestic structures, including his own home in Newport, Rhode Island. Pope’s residence for Duncan, “Bonniecrest,” had been widely published since its completion in 1914. Given these credentials, a wealthy man with antiquarian tendencies, such as Branch, would logically look to a designer of wide renown such as Pope, with whom he undoubtedly had some personal acquaintance.
It appears, however, that Pope’s involvement in the project was rather limited. Despite the fact that he built his own house in the Tudor style, the style was not Pope’s primary interest, and by 1916, he was involved in several large public commissions designed in a Neo-Classical style. Branch family tradition notes Branch’s, chagrin at the fact that Pope never visited the building. The drawings themselves are signed by Otto R. Eggers, Pope’s partner and a consummate designer in his own right. From what is known concerning the firm’s working operation, there was probably a strong degree of collaboration between Pope and Eggers on this project, with Pope acting as the critic and Eggers as the actual designer.
According to city land records, the Branch family at the time of the house’s construction owned the entire block on either side of Monument Avenue at the present location. Given the magnitude of such a holding, it becomes evident that a conscious decision concerning the siting of the building was necessary. Monument Avenue, Richmond’s grand boulevard, was originally intended to terminate at Davis Street with the monument to Jefferson Davis. The placement of the Branch House at the corner of Davis Street and Monument Avenue guaranteed the building a location of prominence along the boulevard as the setting for the Davis Monument. The building’s long frontage along Davis also serves as a frame for the view north towards the Davis Monument and the Union Train Station, which was under construction at the same time as the Branch House. In fact the Branch House and the train station are on axis with one another and excellent views of the station may be obtained from the second floor-windows of the house. It appears, then, that the house’s potential contribution to an undeveloped cityscape was thoroughly considered. Branch’s involvement with the railroad would seem to confirm the assumption that the axial alignment between house and station was more than coincidental.
The Pope firm’s handling of the massing and the decoration of the Branch House demonstrates their skill and familiarity with the style. In addition to the printed sources already cited, Pope also traveled extensively in Britain and photographed buildings to use as aids in design and specification. Of the photographs that are known, a large number record Tudor buildings. That the design of the house is academically correct without becoming wooden is due in part to the fact that it borrows from several different sources in order to convey the impression of a completely new structure. Pope’s absorption of the style and his ability to synthesize it into a new form is thus clearly demonstrated. To maintain the illusion of age, the architect had the building materials distressed and aged to add patina to the image of power and pedigree.
An intensely urban building with tight forecourt, the Branch House currently appears somewhat out of place in relation to its low-density urban neighbors. To the building’s detriment, other property owners failed to transform Monument Avenue into the high-density urban boulevard of Branch’s vision. As a result, the house’s relationship to the street is extremely awkward. That the remainder of the block, left open by Branch for his sister, was never built upon adds to the disquieting siting of the house.
Since the house was intended as a winter residence, little attention was paid by Branch to Pope’s garden designs. These designs were further altered in the 1960s when a gate was punched through the wall along Davis Street to facilitate the site’s use by the residents of the surrounding neighborhood. The residence at 2501 Monument Avenue remained in the Branch family until it was donated to the United Givers’ Fund of Richmond in 1954. It was then converted insensitively into offices. In 1982 the house was sold to the present owners who restored the house to its previous state. It is currently used to house the offices of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. (VDHR)
Today, it’s home to the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, which is doing trojan work caring for this beautiful structure. Open to the public Tuesday to Friday, 10:00 – 5:00, and Saturday to Sunday, from 1:00 – 5:00. Admission free, so what are you waiting for?
Must-See RVA! is a regular series
appearing on rocket werks – check it out!