The Visionary

Some people say he's disconnected from reality. Others think he's a creative genius.

Imagine Richmond years from now with five new buildings that appear to outline the city as points of a star, twisting, turning and defining the skyline like none you’ve seen before. Imagine, too, a church with only two elements: a foundation and a roof that opens toward heaven. Richmond’s maverick architect, Haigh Jamgochian, is dusting off plans for them all. Jamgochian (pronounced “Jam-Goshen”) is 81.

And in the twilight of a career fraught with ups and downs that has spanned half a century, Jamgochian hopes to ensure a legacy or at least a place in history.

“He does what he wants and it’s kind of crazy,” says Vincent Brooks, senior archivist for architectural records with the Library of Virginia. “But he’s never given up and he’s never compromised.”

Jamgochian’s big ideas, most of which stem from the ’60s, are preternaturally far-fetched. It’s what differentiates his designs, or as he calls them, his “gimmicks,” from more traditional forms of architecture. They’ve earned him acclaim as the designer of the “flying-saucer” Markel Building just off West Broad Street near Willow Lawn and the so-called Moon House overlooking the James River that was demolished last year. The two are the only buildings Jamgochian’s ever managed to build.

Stories about them are legendary. Jamgochian’s inspiration for the aluminum-covered Markel Building, for instance, came from an actual foil-wrapped baked potato. He conceived the Moon House — topped with a crescent shape made of Styrofoam — from popular influences such as Star Trek and, more directly, man’s race to the moon. Jamgochian ordered the aluminum for the Markel Building — parts of which today are held together by duct tape — from the nearby Reynolds plant, then dented the upper ring himself with a sledgehammer in just four hours. He outfitted the Moon House with bulletproof glass because of death threats made against its owner, the late used-car salesman known as Mad Man Dapper Dan.

But Jamgochian’s radical ideas extend beyond hometown trivia. His designs for bold, sleek skyscrapers and cantilevered towers garnered more attention on paper than actual nods from investors.

In May 1962, the former Central Richmond Association published a picture of Jamgochian’s “tree house” model of a 15-story apartment building proposed for East Franklin and Foushee streets. The accompanying article extoled it as “a completely new concept in downtown apartment living.”

While City Council eventually nixed the project, its bold, modern design created buzz overnight. “Up until I did that I was a nobody,” Jamgochian says.

Ironically, buildings Jamgochian designed that were never built appeared worldwide in trade publications, textbooks and advertisements. One ad for the now defunct Larus & Bros. tobacco, which ran in the New Yorker, depicts Jamgochian — who detests smoke — smoking a pipe in a boardroom where a group of men gaze thoughtfully at the model of his “tree-house” apartment building.

“Many of his models were used to illustrate his forward thinking,” archivist Brooks says, “but nobody wanted to build them.”

Jamgochian earned a reputation as a rebel. But his designs, or else the motivations behind them, often left him out of touch with conventional mores of the time and relegated to the margins of a Richmond community that didn’t quite share his vision for a city of the future.

“I started talking about futuristic architecture and what could make Richmond a futuristic city, but in the ’60s it was just like today,” he says. “I couldn’t get anyone to listen and the city was going nowhere.”

There is the “tree house,” an ultra-narrow, 15-story apartment building with 50-foot, cantilevered floors extending as branches from a trunklike shaft. Next is the “futuristic tree house,” a kind of double-helix, wavy version but with two 25-story apartment towers parallel to one another. There is a twin hotel complex that would rotate 360 degrees on its axis daily, which would include a marina. Next is a mushroom, podlike office and entertainment complex. Last is his spiral skyscraper.

In recent months Jamgochian has pressed historic preservationist and millionaire Ivor Massey Jr. and Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder to support his five-building design for downtown. So far, no takers.

At least, not in his hometown. In the years since Jamgochian designed them, all five have cropped up in Japan, Brazil, South Africa and most recently, Chicago.

Jamgochian works his land constantly. If he’s not building walls out of huge rocks that he hauls with a front-end loader from his quarry, he’s pouring concrete, shuffling pipes, digging tunnels or basking in his “secret” garden.

On a cold and rainy morning in early spring, Jamgochian, who likes to be called “Jam,” surveys his 8飼-acre compound on Rockfalls Drive near the James River Pony Pasture. Jamgochian’s wearing sweats, duck boots and a Marine Corps hat. He carries a miniature Yorkshire terrier, Anish, tucked inside his jacket. He holds a leash tethered to his mutt, Blondie, with one hand; he grips an umbrella with the other. Wet and pink-knuckled from the cold, his large hands are smooth and appear to have assimilated the scars from burns that nearly killed him two decades ago.

“You have plans and you’re going to do something, but outside forces come and change your life,” he says. He recalls the time when he abruptly stopped his “amoeba” house project in Westover Hills 40 years ago to purchase the Rockfalls estate. The wavy cinderblock foundation for the planned Westover house, which Jamgochian describes as his “life encircled with a line,” remains today, deep in the woods and tagged with graffiti. The Rockfalls estate had been the weekend chalet of investor W. T. Holt. Jamgochian purchased land and the buildings on it for $80,000.

Today, the art-deco house appears uninhabitable. A Civil-War-era cottage also in disrepair lies on the far side of the property near Chellowe Road. It’s where Jamgochian says he lives. The land itself is tangled and treacherous. Paths and rivulets abound. Trees that have toppled have been propped up — all by Jamgochian. Some, with low-hanging branches, have what look like rubber tires around their canopies to support them. There is a tiny, man-made island at the foot of a sharply rising cliff. From above, standing on the edge of the cliff, the island appears heart-shaped. A huge sculpted arrow made from scrap aluminum is driven through its middle. Jamgochian fashioned it as a tribute to his alma mater, Virginia Tech. A small boat rests in water but not enough to make it float. And if all this isn’t enough, a 10- to 20-foot berm of rock, earth and stray fencing encloses the compound. Jamgochian built it to keep people out and keep the curious from seeing what he says he’ll someday reveal as paradise.

For now, Jamgochian basks in his private Eden. “I come out of my front door every day and say, Thank you, God, for I’ve got everything I’ve ever dreamed of having,” he says. Mostly, it appears, what he has is solitude.

As Richmond’s iconoclastic architect, he’s managed to keep his private life shuttered. Yet in doing so, he’s been called everything from a maverick to a misanthrope.

“There’s a reason I hate kids: They’re destructive,” he says flatly. Even as a child, he says, he would build things like a new clothesline for his mother only to have other kids tear it apart. He doesn’t post “no trespassing” signs about his property but he locks the gate with a padlock and it is clear that uninvited guests aren’t welcome — unless they want to volunteer to help construct the church he says he’s building in place of his dream house.

While it’s difficult to conjure the sound of playful screams and giggles filling this quiet enclave, children once roamed the place. That was 30 years ago, when the grounds were neatly landscaped and the art-deco house that overlooks the quarry had striped awnings.

At 40, Jamgochian says, he married a woman named Revonda and they quickly had a child. His name is Haigh, and as a young boy, people called him “Hikey.” In the mid-’70s when busing in the city took effect, Jamgochian and his wife opened a small private school — the precursor to the Montessori movement in Richmond, he notes — which had at its peak about 50 students. “Hikey” is shown pictured in an old yearbook.

Jamgochian and Revonda were divorced sometime in the late ’70s, he says. He is estranged from her now and from his son, he says, and he doesn’t consider the relationship further. According to Jamgochian’s second ex-wife and close friend, Betty Cunningham, the last they’d heard, Revonda and Haigh were living somewhere in Arizona. Neither could be located for comment.

Throughout his life, personal relationships have tested Jamgochian. He is the first to admit it. When asked whether he ever entertains, he shakes his head from side to side in no. “I always say the wrong things,” he offers. Like his aversion for children, he says, his unsocial — or unconventional — manner is rooted in his childhood.

Jamgochian’s parents immigrated to the United States from Armenia during World War I amid the genocide Armenians suffered at the hands of the Turks. Young Haigh — pronounced “Hague” in English, “Hike” in Armenian — was born Aug. 29, 1924. He’s the youngest of three siblings.

His older brother, John, was a fighter pilot in World War II who is credited with designing technology that led to the black-box data retrieval system in planes. After the war, he worked for Lockheed Aircraft Corp., the precursor to Lockheed Martin, in Marietta, Ga. John Jamgochian died in 1997 when the small-engine plane he was flying went down in Cobb County, Ga. He was the only person on board. An Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution article recognizing his accomplishment in aviation history called him dashing and a maverick and full of verve that sometimes got him into trouble. Haigh Jamgochian’s older sister, Victoria, is a retired interior designer who shuns the spotlight and lives in the West End.

When Jamgochian was 8 or 9, he recalls, he excavated the basement of his Jackson Ward home, brick by brick, in order to have the space to build a miniature town around a train set. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where academics escaped him. Then he spent four years stationed in the South Pacific with the U. S. Marine Corps. “The war saved my life and was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says.

When he got out, he used the G.I. bill to go to college. Because all the Virginia schools were full, he took an opening at the only school where there was an opening for him. He’d never heard of the school that people called Dartmouth. Jamgochian played end on the college’s football team. His crowning moment there, he says, was when he caught the football for a winning touchdown against Yale.

Jamgochian transferred to Virginia Tech after his sophomore year in order to enroll in its nascent architecture program. During his senior year, he was one of 12 finalists among 2,500 entrants in a contest to study architecture at the L’Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris. While he didn’t win, the distinction caught the attention of Princeton. He was offered a full scholarship, he says, to earn his master’s degree in architecture.

After attending Princeton, he moved back to Richmond and worked for several small architecture firms, none for more than a few months. He was headstrong, eager to make a name for himself.

One of Jamgochian’s former colleagues spoke to Style on the condition that his name was withheld. The associate calls Jamgochian “extremely talented,” but also extremely erratic. He says Jamgochian, who was widely regarded as dashing, also earned a reputation as being uncomfortably chummy with female architecture students, whom he had taught at area colleges.

Meantime at work, the colleague recalls, Jamgochian showed promise and dedication, but invariably left out some crucial element of an assignment. He speculates that’s what cut Jamgochian out of serious architectural negotiations.

“He had one failing: He never could get it all together. His drawings would be beautiful but something would be missing,” he says. Jamgochian and the colleague eventually parted ways amicably, he says. Still, he calls Jamgochian the most tragic and troubled man he’s ever known. “He had the greatest of opportunities, but the realities of life were not real to him and he didn’t live on an earth with some order to it.”

Jamgochian sees it differently. He shrugs off now what must have been disappointments in the past. “Everything is happenstance,” he says. “Everything I do, it’s in my DNA.”

Since 1980, Betty Lou Cunningham has been the closest thing to an anchor Jamgochian has had. The two met at a cooking class for meatless foods held at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. They quickly became friends and realized they shared much in common — an affinity for Glen Miller and the sounds of big-band swing and dancing to go along with it.

The couple lived together for four years. They were married in 1985 and chose to reside in the Civil-War cottage. “It was our honeymoon cottage,” Cunningham says.

“He really is a genius and people don’t realize it,” says Cunningham, a retired businesswoman who started Executive Suites nearly 40 years ago. “He’s so full of life and God and country. No one’s a stranger to Haigh.” But in time, the couple drifted apart. Cunningham says she’s a social person, whereas Jamgochian isn’t. After 12 years together, they split, although they’re closer now, Cunningham says. For his part, Jamgochian today uses “Betty Lou” and “girlfriend” interchangeably. She lives in house a stone’s throw from Jamgochian. “He’s just a maverick who loves his freedom,” she says.

But Jamgochian’s freedom has had its costs. Two years before he and Cunningham were married, he nearly burned to death in a midday blaze that erupted inside the art-deco house.

The fire made front-page news in March 1983 when it caused $20,000 worth of damage to his increasingly notorious estate. From the outside, the house had deteriorated dramatically. In 1979, a special grand jury had indicted Jamgochian for maintaining a nuisance property after 100 of his South Side neighbors signed a petition stating his land had become a breeding ground for rats and snakes. The case was dropped when Jamgochian agreed to clean up his “art supplies” — the heaps of scrap metals, wood and stone that dotted the site.

The fire four years later occurred when the pilot in his gas stove misfired while he was using kerosene to rid his dogs of fleas. Without dialing 911, an article reports, Jamgochian went through half a dozen fire extinguishers fighting the blaze himself before driving four miles to a fire station on Forest Hill Avenue to ask for more.

Firefighters stared agape, Jamgochian recalls, to see an ash-covered man before them with his clothes burned off and his hands “melting.” Jamgochian suffered life-threatening burns to his face, neck and hands. He was hospitalized for three months, two of them doped up on morphine for the pain. While recuperating, he conceived his design for a spiraled skyscraper. The spirals are functional: in the event of a fire, they become fire escapes serving as slides to safety.

Jamgochian has spent a lifetime trying to prove he can do what others say can’t be done. He made headlines in the Richmond News Leader — the first of many — in 1948 when, at 24, he built a handless clock and legless furniture for a now-defunct delicatessen his parents opened in the Fan. The clock told time by two transparent discs with marks on them that moved around the clock mechanism. Booths in the deli were supported by a 33-foot-long beam in the wall that held up the booths like the span in a suspension bridge.

As an architecture student at Virginia Tech in 1951, the title of his senior thesis was, “A neighborhood for Richmond, Virginia.” It contained 101 drawings of scenarios for Richmond neighborhoods and business districts. He designed a futuristic, self-contained community similar to what Chesterfield County’s Brandermill subdivision became in the 1970s. In his thesis, Jamgochian proffers his idea of an evolving neighborhood. He includes drawings of flying-saucerlike houses floating in air above a rechargeable utility station. One drawing even depicts a kind of modular home in outer space.

Get Jamgochian on a roll about what’s considered admirable Virginia architecture and he lashes out that Thomas Jefferson’s designs of the Virginia Capitol are “dead architecture” and hardly original.

He writes of the architect’s predilection for authenticity in a 1962 essay about the evolution of the Markel Building design: “People who copy the buildings of the past are expressing their satisfaction with the past — for which they can take no credit — and admitting their fear of the future.”

To Jamgochian, good architecture — meaning compelling not necessarily completed — should challenge convention and catch people’s attention. And the gimmickry he employs is a necessary byproduct.

Last summer Jamgochian learned of a project that will put a spiral tower, similar to his design but without the fire-escape-enabling chutes, in the heart of Chicago. He learned it from Brooks at the Library of Virginia.

To hear Jamgochian speak of Brooks, a Pennsylvania native in his 30s, is to hear how a man speaks of his son. Brooks contacted Jamgochian in early 2005 when he learned of plans to tear down the Moon House. Builder and developer B. K. Katherman had recently purchased the Moon House for its prime location on the James with plans to build a huge new home there. The Moon House appeared beyond repair. It stood vacant for years, having been ransacked, vandalized and stripped before it was demolished. But Brooks recognized the building as important. And he hoped Jamgochian would have materials that would help preserve its history.

To Brooks’ surprise, Jamgochian turned over to the state library what now amounts to an entire collection of his original drawings, models, publications and notes. In it, you can see sketches of Jamgochian’s first and only sculpture — a commissioned bust of then-Gov. Albertus Harrison Jr. The likeness is indisputable. There are what appear to be hundreds of photos Jamgochian has taken over the years of various projects he’s stopped and started on his property. One shows Jamgochian in his underwear and boots whacking a 6-foot-wide pipe with a sledgehammer. In many, it’s clear from the angle that Jamgochian is taking the photo of himself. Perhaps most poignant, the collection contains a beautifully written and illustrated children’s book. It’s titled, “Little and Big: comparisons and associations.”

Brooks says the library is processing all the contents of the collection with plans for an “un-built” exhibit of Jamgochian’s work next year. It’s already spent $7,000 to clean the original model of the Markel Building. The real building, now owned by Pettus LeCompe, will be recognized in June as a Henrico County historic landmark, “because of its uniqueness as a modern building,” says Chris Gregson, supervisor for historic preservation with the county’s division of parks and recreation.

Jamgochian appears giddy by recent attention, as if drudging up the past isn’t such a bad thing. And while Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava constructs the world’s tallest building, a 115-story, 2,000-foot-tall, spiraled skyscraper called “Fordham Spire” in Chicago, Jamgochian is retracing steps.

Sure, they are steps he’s made again and again. He stops to point to the side of a makeshift barn he constructed some years ago. It masks the neighbors’ view of rotting horse stables. Like a puzzle, he fit and hammered the scraps of wood together on the ground then lifted the wall into place. The amalgamation of white, brown and grey wood, one slab with a doorknob still attached, slopes diagonally to the ground as if enclosing a triangle. The fa飼ade creates the illusion of something whole or something intended to look that way. It is, rather, unfinished, crude and mostly accidental — and why Jamgochian calls it beautiful. S


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