Photo by Ash Daniel
An orphaned, primarily self-taught architect created some of the city's favorite residential buildings, including, in 1926, the English Village at 3418-3450 Grove Ave., a Tudor fantasy for modern living.
Courtyard communities enjoyed a brief surge in Richmond, all designed by talented stylists. Among the earliest were Ingleside Court (1916) by Otis K. Asbury, a Tudor stage set for apartments; Charles M. Robinson's Laburnum Court (1919), with its Craftsman cottages, central heating plant and tennis court; and Carl Lindner's lovely Byrd Park Court (1922).
At this time, a Tudor fever had descended on Richmond. The 1918 construction of the fantastical John Kerr Branch house at Davis and Monument avenues and the stick-by-brick reassembling of Agecroft Hall (1926-7) and the Virginia House (1925-9) in Windsor Farms generated interest. If one couldn't live in
Agecroft, you could at least have an apartment that looked like part of it.
Richmond architectural historian Robert P. Winthrop says, "The old Vitruvian dictum that architecture depends on ‘commodity, firmness and delight' is right, but not if you skip the ‘delight' part. It's difficult living in someone else's manifesto. Some architects today deride ‘charm,' but people like charm. It gives them reason to go to the door. And in these sorts of Richmond places, where you walk into a courtyard, what could be more wonderful?"
Apartment and planned community-style living wasn't considered a preliminary way station prior to house ownership. In pre-World War II days, apartments in Richmond were a sophisticated alternative to living at home in the back room, or over the garage. "You are, for example, a young woman from Emporia, Va., and you move to the big city, and you get a place in, say, Stratford Court, and you're right across from the Branches," says Winthrop. "And your address is Monument Avenue, or the Boulevard, and these were streets known throughout the state. It meant you were making something of yourself."
The English Village was the happy result of a creative marriage between one of the city's most adventurous architects, largely self-trained native Bascom Joseph Rowlett, and Davis Brothers builders. Rowlett supplied the vision, and the Davis Brothers got it done.
Rowlett graduated from the Richmond High School among the 28 members of the class of 1906. High schools were new to Richmond, and this was one for whites. He went on to vocational training at the Virginia Mechanics Institute, located at 11th and Broad streets, where he developed his engineering skills. He entered the practice of Albert Huntt as an associate, and with him assisted in the design of Monument Avenue's columned Kenilworth and Stratford Court apartments and St. John's Church on Stuart Circle. His first solo creation was the 1921 Westhaven Apartments on the Boulevard. Afterward, he created bigger and more exotic buildings, like the 1924 Mediterranean pastiche of Rixey Court at Monument and Strawberry. Non-academic architects like Rowlett designed many of Richmond's memorable private residences.
The Davises (Charles Waddy, Oswald J. and J. Lee) claimed that in the building boom (squeezed between the financial crash of the early 1890s and the onset of World War I), they built 100 houses a year.
They installed ornamental chimneys and cast concrete, slate roofs, and board-and-batten doors.
Longtime former resident of the English Village Trudy Bryan recalls that when converting four small upstairs bedrooms into one, she found out what was in the walls. "Horsehair and wire," she says. "I loved living there. If you wanted to be alone, you could; if you wanted company, you could easily find it. It's truly a hidden gem."
English Village's 17 two-story attached cottages, each with an attic and a garage, are symmetrical but not identical. Though designed to look like Merry Olde England, these houses were built by Rowlett and the Davises, as period descriptions said, for "economy, efficiency and permanency, and a servantless lifestyle."
At that time, the concept of cooperative housing in the United States in general was taking hold in more working class communities, while in Richmond it was adapted for the upper-middle class. For Richmond, it constituted a "radical experiment," as Winthrop says. Then, just 40 cooperative living communities existed, most of them in Brooklyn, N.Y. At English Village, then and now, owners retain the title to their houses. The grounds were landscaped, and the community paid cooperatively for its upkeep, while maintaining a children's playground in the back. This has since been converted into a garden.
Rowlett went on from the English Village to the Tuscan Villas apartments on the Boulevard between Kensington and Park, built around three courtyards.
The Great Depression ended these lively approaches to residential architecture. Four apartment buildings and eight large houses were constructed in Richmond between 1933 and 1935. Rowlett died in 1947 and is buried in Orange, Va. His style adorns Richmond today.