Feature: Reinventing a Classic 

With a nod to the past, the owners of Douglas Southall Freeman's former home bring the gardens to life.

Justin French, a real-estate developer interested in historic areas of the city, has condo projects under way in the Manchester and Scott's Addition neighborhoods. "Everyone says to me, 'You're crazy to invest in the city — you should invest in Chesterfield,'" he says. But French has a passion for history. That's one reason he and his wife were happy to make Westbourne their home.

The Georgian Revival mansion — once home to historian Douglas Southall Freeman and, more recently, to interior designer Todd Yoggy and his partner, John Thompson — was built in 1918. It's nestled between Patterson and Grove avenues in a near West End neighborhood.

"We just totally fell in love with the house," Justin French says. He had already lived in a home designed by Duncan Lee, so he knew he liked the architect's work. But the home took on added significance.

"My father was interested in history and used to tell me the two people he admired most were Robert E. Lee and Winston Churchill," he says. So when French learned Westbourne's original owner, Douglas Southall Freeman, had written a biography of Lee and was friends with Churchill (who'd even visited the home), French fell all the more in love with the house.

The original 8-acre property had been broken up, the pieces sold off through the years. Today the house sits far from the street in a back corner of its 2-acre lot. It's a regal setting, but one that didn't have much private outdoor space. So the Frenches decided to turn what likely was once an herb or viewing garden off the solarium into a pool garden.

Just as the Georgian Revival architecture of their home introduced new elements (namely Greek and Colonial) to the Georgian style, the Frenches wanted to update the gardens in a way that would mesh with what was already there.

They turned to a landscape architect rather than a landscape company because a single architect had originally designed the gardens. Koprowski + Associates came recommended, and Justin French says he also liked that Steven Koprowski had a degree in landscape architecture, "was younger, had a lot of ideas, but listened to us and was respectful of the architecture of the house." The Frenches hired Koprowski in February to design a pool and its surrounding gardens. They gave him a six-month deadline because the family knew they had an event to throw in July.

"Basically we wanted a pool," French says, "but we wanted one that would be more of a reflecting pool that would keep in the mood of the home." The resulting black plaster pool features jets that shoot water in arches into its center, giving it the feel of a fountain. It blends into a simple bluestone patio, which echoes the pale sky-blue walls in the solarium.

Short brick accent walls sit behind the plant beds around the pool. While most of these accent walls will have climbing vines, the wall at the head of the pool arches around a semicircle of grass, a space in which the children can play. A seat cushion on the wall provides a spot for parents to rest. Bold-patterned brown-and-white cushions on wrought-iron lounge chairs give the deck a punch of tasteful modernity.

The Frenches envisioned an area in which they could play host to charitable and other social events. They felt such entertaining was something of a legacy they inherited because Freeman built the home to do just that. But while the architecture of the house, with its large center hallway and symmetrical layout, is conducive to indoor entertaining, it lacked adequate indoor-outdoor flow, one of the drawbacks of an older home.

"We wanted the outdoor space to be an extension of the indoor space," Justin French says. "What we like about modern architecture is when it blends the indoor and outdoor space. That's why we had Steve create gardens on all sides of the solarium."

Koprowski says he tried to use materials that would evoke the feeling of a classical garden, like the boxwoods that line the patio. This border gives the garden a clean, linear look, he says, "even if everything behind it is loosey-goosey."

The Frenches had lived in another historical home designed by Lee with Gillette gardens on Monument Avenue, where Justin French had spent time researching traditional Virginia plantings. So he already had an idea of what elements they wanted to include.

The garden had some mature magnolias, dogwoods and holly trees but needed some softness on a human scale. By choosing plants with large blooms — such as hydrangeas, azaleas and Camellia japonicas — Koprowski gave the space a romantic, Southern feel. But he had to choose carefully. As he points out, Richmond is on the edge of the freeze/frost zone, and a harsh winter can kill some traditional Southern plantings.

"I tried to give it a Southern charm by using some fairly standard plant materials,"als," he says. "It's just the way you use it — it's kind of like moving furniture around in your house."

The plants will flower at different times of the year, so something will be blooming at all times. Lighting was installed to mimic natural moonlight shining through the tall pine tree that stands at the back end of the garden. Four urns at each corner of the pool will offer more seasonal color and soften the blue flagstone patio. Koprowski was also conscious of including contrasting textures — for example, he placed a small, round, shiny-leafed plant next to broad, flat-leafed shrub.

Koprowski tried to capitalize on what he calls "view corridors." Each of the windows from the solarium will face a particular view.

The main French doors leading to the pool garden face the water feature and the brick wall behind it, which has a diamond-patterned iron panel that will be intertwined with English climbing roses.

Another view will look out onto a sculpture garden. Visitors will enter the first part of this garden off the motor court. Virginia sculptor Fred Chris custom-designed ornate hand-forged black-steel gates, which will make for a grand entryway. For the focus of the sculpture garden, French commissioned a 2,000-pound, 8-foot by 9-foot sculpture from another Virginia artist, Steven Bickley.

"It's a very organic form, all out of [brushed] stainless steel, which is going to be a spectacular piece in this very traditional setting," says Reynolds Gallery owner Bev Reynolds, who introduced the Frenches to Bickley.

"I think it's just wonderful they chose these Virginia artists for these collaborations on site-specific works of art," Reynolds says. "They've really researched and read and gotten to know the artists, so it's been an ongoing process." The Frenches have also had an influence on Bickley's art. As a result of this commission, he's come up with a new direction for his work.

"It's a way for me to do something of the caliber of the time when the house was built," Justin French says, referring to his use of contemporary artists to do work for the house the way craftsmen would have been used at the time the house was constructed. Since their interior and exterior designs were so in line with the architecture of the house, the Frenches saw modern art as a way to incorporate their taste and to update their home and gardens.

In July, the Frenches held their first party in the pool garden, in celebration of an article written about their house in the September issue of Traditional Home magazine. But the gardens are still a work in progress. The gates and sculpture still have to be installed. The Frenches have thought about a pool house, but they may install an arbor for shade, with a bar behind it to make outdoor entertaining easier. (The kitchen is on the other side of the house.)

Koprowski will be drawing up a design for the rest of the property, but for now, the Frenches are enjoying their new indoor/outdoor space and the privacy it affords them.

Richmond's Legacies of Lee and Gillette

Architect: W. Duncan Lee

In the early part of the last century, renowned Virginia architect W. Duncan Lee designed several of Richmond's landmark buildings, in addition to the Frenches' Westbourne. Lee specialized in Colonial Revival, a style he used to design the Evelynton and Carter's Grove plantations. His career took off after he designed interior renovations and a rear wing for the Virginia Executive Mansion, which were completed in 1908. Some of his other local buildings of note include:

Richmond Art Company, 1919

Mediterranean revival building that now houses a rug store has a tile roof, third-floor balcony, iron railings and statues at 101 E. Grace St. (at First).

3100 Block of Monument Avenue, 1922-1927

West of the Maury statue on the north side of the street is a block of Colonial Revival homes that sit prominently on wide lots across from a row of cottages. Lee designed four of the six houses: the Raab House (3100), the Schwarzschild House (3114), the Lewis House (3142) and the Anderson House (3170).

2300 Block of Monument Avenue, 1914-1927

Considered the heart of Monument, this block also contains some of its most beautiful Colonial Revival and Georgian Revival houses. The Bullock House (2017-2019), with its upstairs Palladian window, was designed to be a doctor's office and residence. The layout of Lee's Arts and Crafts-style Pollard House (2314) inspired the brick house next door, at 2320. Across the street on the south side, the Jacquelin Taylor House (2325) is an enormous Mediterranean villa on a large plot of land.

Landscape Architect: Charles Gillette

In the pre-Depression era, when wealthy landowners built palatial country homes with manicured gardens, Charles Gillette was the go-to landscape architect in Virginia. From his career span in Richmond, between 1917 and 1960, Gillette planned the gardens for hundreds of estates, predominantly Georgian-style suburban homes, creating a distinctive regional style known for its understated classicism. After the Depression, he worked on projects of a broader scope for educational, corporate and government entities. While not all of his plans are still intact, as was the case for the Frenches' gardens, the following is a short list of some notable projects:

University of Richmond, 1910-1914

UR was the commission that first brought him to the South. Gillette designed campus landscaping, favoring a wooded setting for most buildings.

Executive Mansion, 1950s

Gov. Thomas B. Stanley had Gillette redesign the gardens at the mansion in the middle of the last century.

Reynolds Metals Company and Ethyl Corporation, 1950s

Gillette designed the grounds for the Richmond headquarters of these two national companies.

Agecroft Hall, 1926, and Virginia House, 1944-1946

Gillette designed elaborate formal gardens overlooking the river for these two neighboring houses in Windsor Farms, both English manor houses reconstructed in Richmond.

— C.N.




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