Reaching Back Across Time and the Atlantic

By J. Michael Welton

For a young architect, it was at once a deft and telling gesture—one that simultaneously looked back to family history while reaching forward to a future clientele.

In April 1925, Richmond’s Courtenay Sommerville Welton penned an article for The Southern Architect and Building News on “Houses of the Georgian Period.” Among the structures he surveyed were Carter’s Grove near Jamestown, Christ Church in Lancaster County, and his own ancestral home, the Nelson House on Yorktown’s Main Street.

“The bricks were brought from England and are laid in Flemish bond, the quoins and keystones being cut stone,” he wrote. “The interior is richly panelled, some running to the ceiling. A notable feature is the windows with eighteen square panes and arched top sash.”

A graduate of Hampden-Sydney College with an advanced degree from Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Welton was beginning to focus his practice on the Georgian and Tudor Revival styles in Virginia and North Carolina.

Charmian

He’d already designed and built a new home for his family on Brookside Drive on the south side of the James River, establishing his Richmond practice in the early 1920s. Homes still standing on Brookside are attributed to him and are featured in the portfolio he left behind.
By the mid-1920s, he’d bought a pair of lots in Westmoreland Place in Richmond’s West End, and built two homes there. He sold one and kept the other—at 4802 Charmian Rd.—for himself, his family, and the promotion of his practice.

 

Charmian

He opened an office at 105 E. Cary St., leasing space from landscape architect Charles Gillette, with whom he would collaborate on a number of projects, including the landscape and summerhouse at his Charmian Road property.  Gillette, of course, designed the gardens at the Nelson House.

Welton’s own work did not go unnoticed.  In the 1920s and ’30s, he designed more homes in Westmoreland Place, in neighboring Windsor Farms, on Cary Street Road, in Glenbrooke
Hills off River Road, and on the North Side. Their styles reached back across time and the Atlantic for inspiration, because, he asserted in his 1925 American Home article: “Here in Virginia, we are limited climatically, geographically, and historically to houses of Colonial, English Cottage, French, or Norman precedent.”

Architectural solutions to economic woes

Glen Brooke Hills

During the Depression, Welton turned publicly to design as a solution not only for living, but also to create jobs and alleviate substandard housing. “Federal Funds to Repair Old Houses Suggested by Richmond Architect,” read a headline at the top of page three in The Richmond News Leader on Monday, October 16, 1933. “The modernization of old houses through a federal loan to be applied for by a corporation of property owners was suggested today by Courtenay S. Welton, local architect, as a solution to both the housing and the unemployment problem,” the lead sentence read.

Glen Brooke Hills interior

He was proposing the restoration of 19th-century homes in downtown Richmond, saying:  “On Franklin Street from Fifth Street west, for instance, there are houses now vacant that are falling into decay because they cannot be rented. Where these houses adjoin it would be possible to convert two or three of them into a large apartment house, completely modernized, and they would be easily rented, for they are right in the heart of the business section”

Throughout the ’30s, Welton designed a number of structures for Hampden-Sydney, including the Watkins Bell Tower, whose bell still chimes for classes today. There, he gathered bricks from the homes of former presidents, as well as prominent alumni, faculty and trustees, to create a geometrically pleasing gem at the center of campus—a pyramid atop a perfect cube perforated by arches on four sides.  By 1937, he had designed and built Morton Hall, with a respectful nod to its most significant antecedent on campus, Cushing Hall.

Work praised from high quarters

Northside residence

When Ralph Adams Cram—designer of campuses at Princeton, Sweet Briar, and the University of Richmond—learned of the architect for Morton Hall and its cost, The Hampden-Sydney Record reported his response. The building was, he said, “in perfect accord with the best you have here … I am amazed that you could get such a building as this for the sum you have named.”

It should have come as no surprise. In The American Home in March 1930, Welton clearly laid out his philosophy on architecture, clients, and costs:

“If an architect were to be asked to name the three conditions under which he could do his best work for his clients, I think he would name these: To have his clients possess the fundamentals of good taste and judgment; to be given a site blessed by nature with an inviting outlook; and to be backed by a generous bank account.

“If the architect were then to say which of these three conditions he considered the least important, he would unhesitatingly eliminate the last—that is if he be truthful and an artist!”

The later work

Rio Vista

Toward the end of the ’30s, Welton purchased a large tract of land in far-flung Goochland County near Hylas. There he would design and build “Sunset Hill,” a Dutch Colonial home on hundreds of acres.

Rio Vista

Designs for homes and churches continued through the decade that followed. He worked on an addition for First Presbyterian Church on Cary Street Road in Richmond and designed a new sanctuary for White Memorial Presbyterian Church in suburban Raleigh, N.C.  There, on a narrow lot shaped like the sliver of a pie, he placed the structure, its slim, tall steeple a vertical and harmonic response to a challenging site.

It was a project he would never see built.  Diagnosed with cancer, he died in November 1951.

Today, the Georgian Revival sanctuary at White Memorial is crowded at every service, and to some degree, by the buildings that have been added all around it. But its Flemish bond brick, its cut stone keystones and its windows with arched top sashes stand in mute homage to the architect who drew on family antecedents to revive centuries-old styles that continue to delight admirers to this day.

J. Michael Welton, grandson of Courtenay S. Welton, writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications.  He also publishes and edits an online magazine, Architects and Artisans.  Portions of this article appeared first in the Hampton-Sydney Record in August 2006.

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4 Responses to “Reaching Back Across Time and the Atlantic”

  1. What a wonderful story about your grandfather!

  2. Nice. I didn’t realize you had architects in your family!

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