Isaac Harrell photo
Holly Lawn at 4015 Hermitage Road
Architect D. Wiley Anderson (1864-1940), originally from Scottsville, blossomed in Richmond through a fortuitous blending of gumption and talent. He designed nine houses on Monument Avenue alone for some of Richmond’s prominent “new money” families, like glass merchant Arthur Binswanger and Central National Bank founder William Schwarzschild.
Anderson apprenticed for his education and was proud of being self-taught, but sometimes he didn’t know enough to realize that he shouldn’t be trying something. He did it anyway and, to paraphrase Tim Gunn, “made it work.”
The current owners of Holly Lawn, Leslie Stack and Frank Rizzo, love Anderson’s penchant for exuberant design. And at 14,500 square feet, there’s plenty of it. Stack, a native Richmonder, says, “If it didn’t fit, he’d wing it. That’s why we have these arches and funny little windows in places.” The woodwork in the house is notable. Holly Lawn originally encompassed the entire block, making on-site millwork possible. Stack describes the attic timbering as resembling “the inverted keel of The Ark.”
Anderson’s big, bold style made him popular for the estates of wealthy Richmonders. During the early part of the 20th century, Anderson designed dozens of large houses in the North Side neighborhoods of Ginter Park, Highland Park and Barton Heights.
Thus, in 1901, Andrew Bierne Blair, a prosperous insurance agent, commissioned Anderson to design a new home. The result was a giant Queen Anne with a big wraparound porch, polygonal towers and roof finials. It’s all a bit too serious to be whimsical but isn’t without a sense of light and life.
The Blairs, however, barely enjoyed the place because in 1902, they sold it to Charles B. Cooke of St. Louis, Mo. The subsequent owners, the George Gibson family, occupied the house between 1907 and 1909. In 1913, Dr. Ennion G. and Anna Williams purchased the house and moved in with their eight children. According to tradition, Williams gave the property its name because of the surrounding holly trees. The family also planted hydrangeas by the front porch, and Stack and Rizzo have done the same.
Williams embraced the concept of preventive medicine that was beginning to make inroads into the medical community’s consciousness, and he became convinced, as a relative put it, “that it was more important to keep people from getting sick than to make them well after they got sick.”
Williams believed that although private medical practitioners should tend to personal health care, the state needed to take the lead on people’s overall wellbeing. When elected to the Richmond Common Council in 1905, he was responsible for the formation of a city health department. He wanted a public hospital unaffiliated with the almshouse; Richmond needed to provide “the indigent with a free hospital, staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses,” he wrote in 1907. Williams also campaigned for a healthy public water supply and modern sewer facilities. In 1908, Gov. Claude Swanson appointed Williams the state’s commissioner of health. He held the post under six succeeding governors until his death in 1931.
Anna Williams sold Holly Lawn in 1950 to Graham Pembroke, whose family lived there until 1966. It was then the headquarters and library of the Richmond Council of Garden Clubs from 1969 to 1993. The organization added an auditorium wing in 1973 and in 1981 placed the house on the National Register of Historic Places (Leslie Stack attended her brother’s wedding there).
Dr. Julie Samuels occupied the house for about a decade after Richmond Council of Garden Clubs moved out, until a transfer with Anthem took her out of the city. Stack and Rizzo, looking for a historic property in Richmond, knew they wanted this one. They moved in the 2004 weekend of the Gaston storm.
After debating whether to demolish the annex/auditorium, it’s now a family gathering space (with a full basement all its own), incorporating a projection room, pool table, play space for grandchildren and the cat, and a small office. But it’s a big old dwelling. Refinements continue.
“You get to know a house such as Holly Lawn like you do a good friend; over time, through good and bad patches,” Stack says. “Ultimately, it’s worth it.”