Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


After Monticello:

Modern Architecture in Virginia


Architecture has come a long way since Thomas Jefferson first designed Monticello in the late 18th century. More than 200 years later, in February 2006, the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects honored various projects in the commonwealth with its latest Awards of Excellence. Among the honorees are a mausoleum in Salem, praised for its meditative design; a fabric-roofed convention center in Hampton Roads that reflects the area’s nautical heritage; and an elementary school in Henrico County adapted to take full advantage of its wetlands setting.


Students of architecture often visit the Jefferson’s neoclassical Monticello and his Rotunda at the University of Virginia, based on the Pantheon in Rome, but many are not aware of more recent landmark buildings in the Old Dominion.


For example, there are three known Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Virginia. Wright, who lived from 1867 to 1959, is probably the most well-known architect of the early 20th century. The Pope Leighey House on the grounds of the Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria is one of the “Usonian” houses Wright built in the 1930s for middle class home owners. The origin of Wright’s term for these homes is not clear. Wright attributed it to the 19th-century English writer, Samuel Butler, who supposedly called Americans, “Usonians.” But, it is more likely the term derives from a 1910 visit Wright made to Europe when there was some discussion that “U.S.A.” should be changed to “U.S.O.N.A.” (United States of North America) to distinguish it from the new Union of South Africa.


Usonian homes were L-shaped, single-story dwellings. They had flat roofs and were built with natural materials. Wright emphasized architectural features such as overhangs that would increase passive solar heating and cooling, natural lighting and radiant floor heating. In some ways, he was the father of today’s “green” building movement. Such homes usually did not have garages and Wright is credited with coining the term “carport” for the protective overhangs he designed for automobiles.


Another Wright structure, the Luis Marden House on the banks of the Potomac in McLean was featured in a Washington Post article in 2005. "The Wright Way," August 21, 2005. The article chronicles the tribulations of a developer who quietly bought the house in 2000. He soon discovered that restoring a landmark building designed by an American icon was fraught with complications.


The third Wright home in Virginia, the Andrew B. and Maude Cooke House, is located in Virginia Beach. It’s listed for sale at $2.5 million on the Wright on the Market Web page maintained by The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. The Conservancy was founded in 1989 to save some 500 realized Wright homes. By that time, nearly 20 percent of the Wright-designed homes actually built had been destroyed by fire, neglect or development.


But, it is not only private homes that are considered architectural landmarks. lists the Pentagon and Dulles Airport as 20th-century examples of distinctive architecture in the Old Dominion. The Pentagon was designed by architect G. Edwin Bergstrom. Its five-sided design was meant to accommodate a site near Arlington National Cemetery. When the site was moved because of fears the building would block the view of Washington, the original design remained. The legend is that Bergstrom had to come up with basic plans and architectural drawings for a building that would accommodate 40,000 people in five days in August 1941. A House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee had told two brigadier generals they needed to come up with a solution to the temporary housing for military personnel along the Mall. The five-sided design, while not considered aesthetically distinctive, supposedly was the most efficient use of space for such a large building.


Dulles Airport was designed by prominent architect Eero Saarinen, best known for the St. Louis Gateway Arch. The challenges for the Finnish-born Saarinen in designing Dulles were its location on a 10,000-acre flat plain, as well as the need to make it a modern gateway to the nation’s capital. His ultimate design, a suspended structure that was high in the front, lower in the middle and slightly higher at the back was meant to suggest wings and flight. The terminal building was given a First Honor Award by the American Institute of Architects in 1966.


Forty years later, architectural innovation continues to thrive in the commonwealth. During the recent Virginia Architecture Week festivities, held from April 1 –9, one event featured the work of W.G. Clark, a professor of architecture at the University of Virginia. He has been listed twice in Time magazine as one of America’s best designers, and three of his designs have won National Design Awards from the American Institute of Architects.


Another event featured tours of the Solar Decathalon house designed and constructed by students at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture and Design in Blacksburg. The Solar Decathlon was an international competition among students of architecture to design, build and operate a solar-powered house. Virginia Tech was among the top five university winners. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy seems to live on in Virginia. After all, it’s not that great a leap from his energy-efficient “Usonian” homes in the 1930s to a solar-powered home in the 21st-century.


NEXT: “I’ve Got Bingo!” -- Charitable Gaming in Virginia  


-- April 17, 2006














About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.