Richmonders have been enamoured of building on high hilltops along the James since the English landed here some 400 years ago. Almost immediately they hoodwinked Chief Powhatan out of one of his hilltop residences that enjoyed a vista of the gently curving river.
In the late 18th century, wealthy citizens showed off by perching imposing homes atop what are today Shockoe, Church, Gamble's and Oregon hills, some of them designed by B. Henry Latrobe, a talented British architect who arrived in the late 1790s to embellish emerging American cities.
A century and a half later, however, Frank Lloyd Wright sought to re-educate Americans about the relationship between a building and nature, especially hills. The Midwestern architect railed against the popular practice of planting buildings atop hills.
"I had an idea," he wrote in 1935, "that the planes parallel to the earth in buildings identify themselves with the ground and do most to make the buildings belong to the ground . I began to see a building primarily not as a cave but as a broad shelter in the open, related to vista; vista without and vista within."
Wright would be delighted with a recently completed Richmond dwelling on Riverside Drive near the Pony Pasture. It was designed by the Richmond architecture firm of Scriber Messer Brady & Wade (the firm's projects are highly visible these days the UNOS building, the re-clading of City Hall, the new convention center, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts expansion and the First Freedom Center in Shockoe Slip for which the firm is associate architect). The principal architect of the house suggests that the 3,500-square-foot dwelling makes a strong, green statement in how it was conceived and positioned on its sloping hillside.
"Green design is good, thoughtful design," says Christopher Fultz, a Scriber principal. "It is buildings that are considerate of the landscape. It is buildings that are designed with an orientation to the sun and with careful planning for storm-water runoff."
Fultz says that the initial interview for the home came "out of the blue" from a Richmond couple whose children had grown. Their 2-acre building site overlooked the river and they wanted whatever was built to take advantage of the views.
Recovering from an accident, Fultz surveyed the heavily wooded and hilly tract on crutches. "I hobbled all over the site," Fultz says. This seemed to have impressed the clients.
In designing the house, Fultz says the environment came first: "We paid a lot of attention to the contours of the land and minimized the excavation for the structure or disturbing the natural topography." It is important to work with the site, not against it, he says.
Essentially, the house, as built, is a retaining wall: Its south side is set into the hillside F.L. Wright would approve while the north front faces the James with a 14-foot glass wall. The roof of the house is pitched upward toward the river. There are supporting columns that Fultz says mimic the trees on the property.
The interior is essentially one large room with the master suite looking up the river. "Vista within, vista without," as Wright would say.
"Green design is a buzzword," Fultz says. "But clients do talk about it now there's been a pretty substantial shift within the last two years. They care. People realize the value of responsible building and if we're going to leave anything to our grandchildren."
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