Feature Story: Hidden Treasure 

Finding peace, luxury and comfort in the heart of the city.

If the 12-story, 56-unit Prestwould evokes Upper East Side apartment living, it's no surprise that it was designed by a New York architect, English-born Lord Alfred Bossom (1881-1965). In the 1910s and '20s he ran with a number of prosperous Richmond businessmen and designed the First National Bank and the Virginia Trust Company buildings, both financial district landmarks. He also designed the Monroe Terrace Apartments (now Johnson Hall, a Virginia Commonwealth University dorm).

But the Prestwould was one of Bossom's last architectural projects before he returned to England and served the rest of his life in Parliament (where he mentored a young, emerging leader, Margaret Thatcher).

The Prestwould is luxurious in concept and execution. There are three-story townhouse units that open directly onto city sidewalks. One 10-room condo runs half the length of a city block. The manicured, landscaped atrium, with a gurgling fountain and terraces, is the scene of festive parties. A penthouse unit has soaring ceilings. Fireplaces throughout the complex actually burn logs.

What one can't see are gypsum-block, inner walls that are padded with double-thickness felt: A resident can sing, play the piano or turn up the stereo without bothering the neighbors.

Politicians, writers, judges, architects, lawyers and grande dames have called the place home.

Today, a spattering of university grad students have joined the old guard, adding youth to a lively cast that resident Richard Summers compares to characters on "The Orient Express."

With the building turning 75 this year, Home Style visited three apartments whose residents share certain things: knowledge and love of architecture, collecting art, travel and, of course, life at the Prestwould.

Mary Lee Allen

With Tuscan yellow walls in the entrance hall, royal blue in the dining room, lime in the study and pink in the bedroom, Mary Lee Allen's 10th-floor apartment is a blaze of color. It's hard to imagine that the retired assistant director of Gunston Hall (the Fairfax County plantation of patriot George Mason) ever lived with neutral walls.

But she did, she says: "Thirty or 40 years ago I had all-white walls."

On a recent afternoon Allen settled into a sturdy, tapestry-upholstered chair in her red-walled living room (with dramatic views of Monroe Park and West Franklin Street). She recalled life in West End house where she reared her children: "I loved those white walls," she says. But Robert Watkins and deVeaux Riddick, partners in the interior decorating firm Design, informed her that the library needed to be red. "It took three coats of paint," she says, still marveling at the transformation.

When Allen made the Prestwould her Richmond address while she worked in Northern Virginia, she again sought Riddick and Watkins' advice.

The hues might be overwhelming were they not so invigorating, contemporary and, importantly, neutralized by the colors and textures of the eclectic array of objects Allen has placed throughout the apartment. She has family antiques, pieces by Virginia artists (many of whom are friends) and a spectacular array of Oriental rugs. Her home also has reminders of foreign travel and her informed interest in classical architecture.

Some things are highly personal: a shell collection that belonged to her mother, a delicately rendered painting by a great aunt and a pine corner cupboard that came from Amelia County (which Allen now regrets having stripped of its original paint).

While the blend of furniture and objects is mesmerizing, it is the art that makes Allen's home unique. Works by such artists as Mary Tatum Abrams, Marilyn Bevilaqua, Chuck Scalin, Tony Masullo, William Fletcher Jones, Jeanne Campbell, Jewitt Campbell and the recently deceased Anne Gray exude a powerful energy flow. Every work has a story, and Allen is almost reverent when she describes a piece.

She started collecting works from VCU student shows in the 1960s. "They were influenced by the big painters, what was going on in New York at the time," she says. Shy at first about collecting, Allen says that a good friend "just egged me on." Allen later took painting classes herself at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Throughout the apartment, there is also evidence of Allen's passion for architecture, particularly classical designs by Andrea Palladio, the Italian architect of the late Renaissance. She did graduate research on the works of Thomas U. Walter, architect of the U.S. Capitol and the old First Baptist Church here. From 1983 to 1994, when Allen worked at Gunston Hall, an architecturally distinguished 18th-century estate, she says, "I was immersed in architecture."

Allen says life at the Prestwould allows plenty of room when her family visits, close proximity to her church and the programs at VCU.

She is now living in her third apartment at the Prestwould. "You see your things afresh again when you move," she says. "People come in and always say, 'You've got a new something or another.' "

Margaret and John Peters

Two years ago Margaret and John Peters weren't that different from many couples at a certain fork in the road — retired and with children out of the house. Since travel was a priority, the lure of condominium living — just walk out and lock the door —had considerable appeal.

"We saw an ad in the paper for an apartment with 2,500 square feet of space," says John Peters, a lawyer who has segued comfortably into a second career that combines writing and architectural photography. "We thought, 'Let's go see what 2,500 square feet looks like."

Quite nice, according to his wife, who was an editor and historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. "I thought I would open the door and be in the living room," she says. "But when we walked into a large foyer, I had a huge 'wow' reaction: 'This is really neat.' "

Her husband liked what he saw, too. "As we made our way through the apartment we became impressed not only with the space, but the quality of the space," he says. "And then there were the views [from the eighth floor overlooking Monroe Park] and the quality of natural light."

Except for some kitchen updates in the 1950s or '60s, there'd been no structural changes, so there was little the Peters had to undo.

But there was one thing the Peters gave up in moving from their Tudor-styled West End house: a den. At the Prestwould they decided to convert a bedroom, which may have served as a den, into a joint office where they work on myriad projects. (They co-authored "Virginia's Historic Courthouses" and he was the photographer for "Richmond's Monument Avenue.")

"The living room became a bridge space between a formal entertaining space and where John watches television," Margaret Peters says. "It truly is a living room."

The walls are a faint shade of lemon and an impressively large late 19th-century Bidjar Persian rug covers the floor. Comfortable, upholstered chairs flank an equally inviting leather sofa. A painting of sailboats by Carmen Sherbeck hangs over the mantle and reminds the Peters of a former pastime. Nearby hang works by Bret Busang, Les Yarbrough, Eldridge Bagley and Barclay Sheaks.

In the dining room, with wallpaper in the pattern of large beige, stones, a glass-topped table surrounded by Tudor-styled chairs sits on another luxurious Persian rug — a Farahan Sarouk. Complementary curtains, with an Oriental motif in shades of reds and blues, were recycled from their former living room. A mid-19th-century corner cupboard, a gold-leaf classical framed mirror and an upright piano (Margaret plays regularly) are also in mix of objects the couple has inherited or assembled.

Although the objects are varied, there is no hint of clutter in the Peters' home. Interior designer Hugh Turner helped them settle their things calmly into the Prestwould.

In the kitchen area, the Peters combined a former servant's room and pantry to create a breakfast room. With a cheerful eastern exposure, the space is bright, inviting and informal, highlighted by an English cupboard above which hangs a tray painted by John's grandmother.

"It's a nice community," John Peters says of the Prestwould. "Not only is it a nice building, it has a group of people who are stimulating to associate with. That's one thing we did not fully appreciate when we made the decision to move here. It is a congenial, caring community, but there is also a tremendous sense of privacy. People will not come to your door."

When guests do arrive, however, they enter into the only space painted a bright color. The front hall walls are painted a Chinese red, punched up by bright white trim. It's a welcoming energy rush.

Sally Brown

Sally Brown had a clear image of how she saw herself living in the Prestwould would when she retreated happily back to urban life in 1999 after living for a few years in the West End. "I really was picturing a sophisticated, contemporary look," she says.

But she says a lucky thing happened: She couldn't do anything to her 10-room apartment for a month while the floors were refinished. As she gazed from her fifth floor windows, she had a revelation: "I'm living off the ground and in the trees" — the treetops being the ocean of oaks, maples and magnolias that populate Monroe Park.

"I'd never been an earth-tone person before," Brown says.

Who knew? Brown's living room walls and trim are painted a sage green. From the picture rail up, the walls and the ceiling are glazed a gentle golden yellow hue with faintly autumnal leaves wafting about, as if they had blown in from across the street. A solid-colored green rug all but covers the floor and a comfortable sofa is upholstered in a deep brown material. In this earth-toned setting Brown has placed things that reflect her deep love of mid-20th-century modernism — chairs by Mies van der Rohe and LeCorbusier — and work by many local artists. The amoeba-shaped coffee table, painted by Rob Womack (a partner of Coloratura) adds an organic flair to the room. Nearby are paintings by Sally Bowring and Bill Fisher. Two side tables are family pieces. The only non-original piece seems to be a handsome wooden cabinet that hides a home entertainment center.

The dining room table is a sheet of etched glass sitting atop a large Corinthian capital. It is surrounded by six modernistic bentwood chairs. Catherine Roseberry and Rob Womack painted each a different color with a whimsical design.

Brown has allowed herself a dose of over-the-top luxury with copper-colored silk curtains that slightly brush the hardwood floors.

If the adjoining living and dining rooms are green, Brown shifted gears in the front hall. Here, she used a kind of dark periwinkle, a color she saw in a "W" magazine ad for a Prada dress. She says the Benjamin Moore paint was hand-mixed by a talented paint salesman.

Brown says her interest in architecture was developed by attending progressive schools that encouraged the fine arts and during summers staying with her grandparents on their Maryland farm. "It was a beautiful house and there were beautiful things inside of it." At night, as she was nodding to sleep, Brown would "redraw the details and moldings of the house in my head."

"And I always loved house magazines," she says.

A designer and architecture writer, Brown also teaches, lectures and conducts tours about architecture and design.

"I found this apartment by chance and moved here very impulsively. It has a strange layout and is larger than the normal apartment, even for the Prestwould. I thought, 'This is very tempting.' "




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