Photo by Ian Hurdle
At the foot of the main stairs of 900 Westover Road, inside a hall closet, a box is affixed for the storage of some 30 keys. Black magic marker indicates offices and names. Their uses range from "towel dispenser" to "Lantz [sic] machine," which provided cracker snacks to ward off the munchies. But one designation differs from the others. It is marked, "Patuwom." Neither Steve nor Amy Williams, both attorneys and the present stewards of the house, know the meaning.
"One reason we keep this is to show just how chopped up the place was when the Boy Scouts had their headquarters here," says Steve. But it could've been far worse. Removal of the drop ceilings and fluorescent lights revealed the main rooms' elaborate plaster moldings. Finds like this are one reason people live in older homes. Another component of the house that appealed to them: room for a second-floor library, where volumes of military history reside along with collected tales of the Brothers Grimm and Edgar Allan Poe. The gardens, divided into distinct sections, were also irresistible. The couple commissioned landscape designers Anna Aquino and Rick Bridgforth to return the gardens to their full character.
Fronting Byrd Park, the neighborhood is leafy and quiet, and the Indiana brick house is an impressive member of the street. The gardens were open during Historic Garden Week in April, and it was during such an event in the spring of 1999 that the Williamses became acquainted with the place that is now their home.
The couple moved from the Fan's Park Avenue into a bright and airy house of 20 rooms and almost 8,000 square feet. The home is Italianate on the outside and Georgian Revival on the inside, with a grand foyer and sweeping staircase designed to resemble the great halls of James River plantations. Original stained-glass windows illuminate the upper landing. The stairway is tailor made for dramatic entrances to parties.
Isaac T. Skinner — whose plans were used to build the house — isn't well known among the upper ranks of early 20th-century Richmond architects. He drafted plans for Noland and Baskervill, and worked a few years with D. Wiley Anderson, one of Richmond's most robustly creative architects.
Skinner possessed a penchant for the Georgian or Colonial Revival style preferred by the mid-1920s Richmond upper class. He designed 1808 Monument Ave. (northwest of Lee Circle), and throughout the present Fan and Museum districts. He proved as adept at making intriguing row houses as he did glamorous mansions. The Westover house arose between 1922 and 1924 for Kentuckian James E. Crass, who ran the initial Richmond office for the Coca-Cola Co. Several craftsmen worked in it for about three years just to create the wood details, molding and paneling.
Crass operated a 42-franchise Coca-Cola bottling operation in Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He and wife Emma Leimenstoll had four children. After Crass' 1930 death, the house went to his granddaughter and heir, Betty Sams Christian. She donated it in 1958 to the Boy Scouts of America.
This brought the iron gates to the front of the house with their fleur-de-lis symbols and "Be Prepared" motto. But the Boy Scouts council, then named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, had to accommodate the needs of 25 to 30 employees, the "Trading Post" equipment dispensary, offices, meeting rooms, a telephone exchange, the "Lantz" machine and the landscaping needs of three lots. The cost of heating the place alone drove the Boy Scouts in 1991 to seek another office space on Fitzhugh Avenue. (The Williamses have four gas furnaces.)
"There is no minor maintenance project on this house," Steve says. One of the curious renovations was replacing the window over the upstairs master bathroom. "We didn't want to touch the window," he explains, "but unknown to me, the city has a code regulation that if you put a bathtub in front of a window you have to put in safety glass. I've never heard of anyone falling out of a window when getting out of their bathtub, but since we had to take out the window anyway, we put in glass brick." The city is apparently concerned about potential lavatory defenestration.
A house of this size could be imposing and aloof, but instead there is a warm coziness, in large part because they've tastefully filled it with art and artifacts. The interior design and appointments came through the assistance of Susan Jamieson of Bridget Beari Designs.
When restoring windows during renovations, the Williamses learned that no two frames were the same size. Though imperfect, it is, one might say, "patuwom."