The newly restored Lych Gate in Windsor Farms (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
According to city records, it didn’t exist.
The Lych Gate, installed in 1926 at the entrance of Windsor Farms and one of a handful known to survive on the East Coast, is the grand ancestor to the latter-day, often elaborate “arrival” entrances of far-flung suburban communities.
Though scattered throughout Great Britain, lych gates are not well known here. The architectural feature dates to the 15th century as a churchyard’s covered entranceway. The structure provided a gathering place for processions – like funerals – before parties entered church grounds. The gate thus also marks the boundary between the daily world and consecrated space. Leslie Naranjo, previously with Historic Richmond, noted that the Windsor Farms Lych Gate “certainly gives a nod to Agecroft, a Medieval-style house built with reclaimed architectural elements and fragments from a 16th century priory and a 15th-century manor house in England” and shipped stick by brick to Richmond by the scion of a tobacco fortune, Thomas C. Williams, Jr.
The neighborhood landmark suffered in recent years from the afflictions of water damage, hungry termites and overgrown holly trees. The Lych Gate marked the neighborhood’s entry, and children gathered there throughout the years to greet their arriving parents.
During a spasm of World War II-era city growth, in 1942 Windsor Farms became part of Richmond. That made the Lych Gate city property – without an address or official designation, which made filling out building permit paperwork for later preservation efforts a challenge.
Members of the Windsor Farms Garden Club, working with Preservation Virginia, began last year to rescue the structure from imminent collapse. “History doesn't live behind velvet ropes,” says Preservation Virginia’s Elizabeth Kostelny, “it is an integral part of our lives.” The statewide projects of the more than 127-year-old organization range from rescuing tobacco barns and recording the lives of tobacco workers, to maintaining Bacon’s Castle (now undergoing roof restoration) in Surry County. They also protect, and guide the public through, the John Marshall House and recently improved the interpretation of Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown. The group started, really, where the nation did: at Historic Jamestowne.
An unassuming, rustic entrance for a place of often elaborate homes (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Thomas Williams transported Agecroft Hall to Windsor Farms from Lancashire, England, where industrial expansion threatened to overtake the Tudor-era house built to overlook the Irwell River. Alexander and Virginia Weddell, he an ambassador to Spain and Argentina, similarly rescued portions of an endangered 16th-century manor house to create a Tudor/20th-century blend. This is now the Virginia Historical Society’s Virginia House, also a neighborhood landmark.
Former Richmond Public Works Director and engineer Allen J. Savile, with Cambridge, Massachusetts, planners and architects John Nolen and Phillip W. Foster, transformed the 444-acre tract that included the original Windsor Farms tract, Civil War fortifications and the two imported great houses.
Preservation Virginia’s director Elizabeth Kostelny emphasizes that Nolen and Foster stood at the forefront “of a movement about place making. They embraced the concept that by capitalizing on the natural assets of a site and incorporating new architecture and landscapes, the resulting development would promote health and happiness.”
Longtime community residents Karen Campbell, Katherine Pauley Hickok, Robin Johnson and Caroline Murello, members or the residents’ association and Windsor Farms Garden Club, sought methods for restoring the Lych Gate structure. They approached Louis Malon, director of preservation services for Preservation Virginia.
Problem was, other than a sketch in a 1928 Windsor Farms newsletter and one photograph, no other images came to light showing the gatehouse. Malon points out, “The original layout drawings of Windsor Farms don’t show the Lych Gate. We didn’t find any plans for it. Maybe Agecroft or Virginia House inspired the design. Nolen or somebody here went to the onsite carpenters and said, ‘Build me one of these.’ ”
The city in the 1950s seems to have used brick to stabilize the structure. Malon explains, “Our theory is that the posts went all the way to the ground and quickly deteriorated and the city came and whacked them off at the four-foot level and put in the brick.”
The approach was to do as little as necessary. The roof, comprised of Hendricks concrete tile (reinforced by chicken wire), required leak prevention. Expert craftsman Mike Adams, who works on Preservation Virginia properties throughout the state, examined the underside of the space for light shafts and stuck a pin flag where saw openings. He cut into pieces a 75-foot length of copper sheathing for insertion. The wooden beams received copper bands and epoxy to seal them and ward off water damage. The vertical slats between the roof and the brick had suffered the most from the elements. He rid the roof of moss growth by applying baking soda. The material dried up the moss, and Adams raked it off.
“When they redid it in the '50s, they put in threaded rods to hold the structure together,” Adams says. “Everything we did to it we copied from what was there.”
Many portions of the wood were unsalvageable. Adams found that Agecroft still had some leftover timbers from its construction and also harvested lumber that the house's staff had made from good, solid oak felled by Hurricane Isabel. “They milled it and stacked it in the barn,” Adams says. “It’s dry and good stuff.” While the Agecroft lumber matched the Lych Gate’s period, Adams discovered the timbers filled with nails that were damaging to his machines.
Adams became familiar with old-fashioned carpentry and conservation techniques through millwright Derek Ogden and a joiner, Robert Sims. “They were masters in their trade,” Adams recalls.
The cost of the renovations, in addition to adding lighting, realigning brick disturbed by tree roots and other landscaping will total about $100,000. Support comes from the Pauley Family Foundation and the Windsor Farms Garden Club
Robin Johnson, one of the people who orchestrated the renovation, says, “Now that we’ve renovated it, people are walking up and sitting in it and just taking in the view.” Katherine Hickok considers the rustic structure the neighborhood's front door. “Once people walk through it they discover a treasure chest of architecture. It’s providential that these wonderful ladies came together to make this happen.”