Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Sears Hill Neighborhood in Staunton, VA

Back in June, I was privileged to join a tour of the Sears Hill neighborhood here in Staunton, VA. The tour was organized by the Historic Staunton Foundation, and led by its director, Frank Strassler.

Sears Hill is one of a number of historic neighborhoods here in Staunton. There are five neighborhoods that have been designated as historic by the city, and they are subject to rules that guide how they evolve in order to preserve the historic fabric and heritage of each neighborhood. Full Disclosure: I currently serve on the Historic Preservation Commission for the city.

The name comes from a historic house which tops Sears Hill, one of many hills around the city. It overlooks downtown from the south side of the railroad tracks, and there is a historic pedestrian bridge across the tracks and down to the Wharf district. At one time the neighborhood had its own neighborhood stores and businesses in addition to the residences, and there has always been a pocket park at the overlook area. There are stone ruins of former outdoor firepit chimneys and other structures there.

One could see during the tour both the historic legacy that remains, and sense what has already been lost-for Sears Hill is not one of the designated historic districts. There is nothing to prevent cheap windows, roofing materials, siding and other materials from replacing historic materials. There is nothing to prevent whole structures from being torn down. Some have been torn down.

Recently there has been the beginning of a renaissance in the neighborhood, with group clean-ups of the park, visits by the city council, and of course, the tour that I took. Some folks in the neighborhood would like the city council to do more to help.

I am not opposed to helping Sears Hill, but the best way to ensure future prosperity is to petition the city to become a historic district. Some in the neighborhood oppose this on the grounds of their right to do as they will with their property. Obviously this is their right, but the real trade-off between their property rights and historic designation is all in their favor. Every one of the historic districts has prospered mightily since those districts were designated. Property values have risen. Tax incentives have become available for repairs, maintenance and renovation. It would be foolish to oppose this so that one would have the future option of installing vinyl windows. The preservation commission and the Historic District Laws do not prevent renovation, additions or other work to buildings in the district. They only require that such work be done in a sympathetic way to the existing historic fabric.

Some historic districts in other cities have somewhat onerous rules, but I don't believe this is the case for Staunton. I will discuss the idea of historic districts and other controls on property in the next post. In the meantime-go Sears Hill! Do it right before you lose more of the heritage you have left.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Organic in Florida

I grew up in Florida, in the 1960's and 1970's. I lived in Satellite Beach, which is on the east coast, and, not surprisingly, is near the Kennedy Space Center. South of Satellite beach is another beach town, Indialantic. When I was a kid, we would often drive south on the lagoon side of the barrier island on Riverside Drive. As we would approach Indialantic, I would look to see a very unusual looking house (and I thought, really cool looking). This house was a composition in colored concrete blocks. Now concrete block is not an unusual material in Florida, but this one used it in an artistic way, not just for structural strength during hurricanes.

Years later, after I graduated from college, I remembered this house, and I went to see it again. By now I knew a lot more about architecture, and I recognized that this house was related to the great textile block houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, built in Los Angeles in the 1920's. Obviously this house was much more modest, but someone clearly had been an admirer of Wright. I walked up to the house, rang the bell, and the owner answered the door. I introduced myself, and the owner gave me a quick tour. I couldn't take any photos of the interior, but I took quite a few of the exterior.

I learned that the house had been built in 1960, and that the architect was from Houston, Texas. Since that time I have lost the name of the architect. I am going to try to find that out and will post an update if I do.

As I said, the house is a composition in concrete block, and it also has pre-cast concrete beams supporting the roof. There is a nice, private pool patio with a block wall screen, and the landscaping is lush.

I recently visited the house again, but no one was home. It has suffered some neglect in the last 22 years, which is unfortunate, because this is one of the most interesting houses in Brevard County. Check out the photos. More can be seen at
the Friends of Kebyar Blog.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Passive House

I attended a workshop on Wednesday, July 29 which featured a concept called "the passive house". While this concept contains much of what those of us educated during the original energy crisis would call passive design, it goes much further in some respects. The first is that the building is super-insulated, with double or triple the typical R values required by building codes. This allows the mechanical unit and ductwork to be much smaller than in a typical house. Also the mechanical system is typically what is called an ERV, or energy recovery ventilator. An ERV supplies fresh outside air but keeps most of the heat inside the house. I will have more to say about ERV's later.

The person leading the workshop was John Semmelhack of Charlottesville, VA. The interesting thing about John is that he has built his own house according to this concept, and has had to deal with the real economics of it. His house was built for approximately $200.00/SF, which seems quite reasonable for a custom house.

For more information see:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Art Deco in Newtown

Today's post concerns a local building. Anyone from this area will be familiar with the Newtown Historic District in Staunton, Virginia. Most of the time when Newtown is mentioned in the local press or by the public in general, it is its "victorian architecture" that is mentioned. Well, Newtown actually has a lot more than victorian homes.

This is a house on West Frederick Street. This first picture came from the archives of the Historic Staunton Foundation. The house could be called Art-Deco or Art Moderne. It isn't known exactly when it was built, but I would guess around 1937. Art Moderne architecture is not directly organic, but it does contain a lot of interesting features, many of which have influenced organic architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of these features can be seen here in this old black and white photo. Note the streamlined look, the round corner with the large view windows, the eyebrows over the windows, and the porthole window above the exterior stairs on the right. Also interesting are the triple tile pipe vents.

Here is a new picture showing some of the same area:

Unfortunately the house has not been maintained well and it looks like it is split into two apartments at this time.

The side patio has been turned into a screened porch. The installation is totally incompatible with the existing house.

The rear patio.

There is a lot more to Newtown than meets the eye, and that goes for Staunton, too. I plan to document more examples of this in the future.

I was on vacation last week and had hoped to get by Frank Lloyd Wright's Cook Residence in Virginia Beach, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I didn't get it done.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What do you mean, "Organic"?

I think a definition for "organic" is a good place to start as my first real post to this blog-after all, it's right there in the title. There are a lot of definitions floating around out there so I will focus on what my understanding is of the term and of the philosophy.

The first person to really use the term was Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1939 he wrote this: "So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no traditions essential to the great TRADITION. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but instead exalting the simple laws of common sense or of super-sense if you prefer determining form by way of the nature of materials..."

Most people in the organic community also give credit to Wright's predecessors, H. H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan. But the organic tradition has continued to evolve. Wright continued it himself until his death in 1959, and there were numerous apprentices who expanded the range of the genre, such as John Lautner, and --- Then there were those who were not affiliated directly with Wright, but who carried forward their own vision, such as Bruce Goff.

Through the eighties and nineties, the torch has continued to be carried by many others-Bart Prince, Kendrick Kellog, James Fox, and my mentor for a time, Will Miller. Many of these current organic architects can be found at

So: Organic Architecture. For me, any project has a number of ingredients that go into the stew: What does the site suggest? What ideas does the client bring? Lastly, what intangible ingredients does the Architect add?

Every project has a site, and every site has a character all its own. An organic design is going to absorb that character on a macro and micro scale, and become something that belongs to that site. This may be expressed in an intangible or symbolic manner, or in a quite tangible manner, using materials directly from the site, or expressing ornament derived from features of the site.

In a similar way, every project has a client or clients who have their program to apply. An organic design is not only going to solve the nuts and bolts requirements of the program, it is going to absorb and express the personality of the clients in some manner, just as it will express the will of the site.

So it is the special art of the Organic Architect to combine all of this in a synergistic way, creating a unique vision for this Architecture.

Architect and writer Alan Hess has called Organic Architecture "the other modernism". He has a point. There are many features of modernism which have been taken up and incorporated into the organic tradition. I will comment further in the future about the differences between the two, but there are a few key differences I will note here. One is that modernism often is about dominating the site, not becoming one with the site as I have described above. Another difference is the cold and machine like qualities of pure modernism. Organic Architecture emphasizes warmth and human scale. Ornament is not a crime, but is something to be celebrated.

Another area I will comment on in more detail later is the relationship between Organic Architecture and Green Design. Organic Architecture of course long predates the current interest in Green Design, and even the energy conscious architecture of the 1970's. Though Organic Architecture is not focused solely on being "green", the focus on the site necessitates that being energy conscious, using local materials, recycling by re-using found materials, etc. simply makes Organic Architecture green by default. You can be green without being Organic, but you can't be Organic without being green.

So there is a short primer and a good start for this blog. Go Organic!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

...and so it begins...

Today is my first post to this blog. I have been considering doing this for a while, and with the current slowdown in the economy, I actually have time to devote to getting started. It's my intent to periodically post some thoughts on a number of topics-local, regional and national, with an emphasis on organic architecture and green architecture. But I might just write about anything that interests me. I'm still getting this forum set up, so bear with me. Eventually this site should be a source of a lot of interesting stuff and some cool architecture.