Holla, holla, fans of Sweet Briar House!

| April 10, 2014

Each year, seniors are invited to Sweet Briar House for “Senior Toast” with the president as part of commencement activities.

Sweet Briar House has a lot of devoted fans. Enough, in fact, to propel it to the No. 1 ranking in an online poll conducted by the Virginia Center for Architecture last December to identify “Virginia’s Favorite Architecture.” It bested Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Poplar Forest and his Academical Village at UVa.

People were asked to select their favorites from a ballot of 250 significant structures and landmarks nominated by architects from across the state. Sweet Briar announced the poll on the College news site and through social media, urging support for Sweet Briar House. The electronic polling was set up to accept only one vote per nominee per IP address — meaning votes had to be cast from an off-campus Internet connection.

Thirty thousand votes were cast. The results — announced today to coincide with the opening of the exhibition “Virginia’s Favorite Architecture” at the center highlighting the top 100 structures in the survey — show that voters went with their hearts.

“Virginians chose buildings that evoke powerful emotions and memories as their favorites,” the VCA said in a news release.

“Keeping in mind that favorite doesn’t necessarily mean best, the results make it clear that we forge deep personal connections to architecture,” Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, executive director of the Virginia Center for Architecture, said in the release. “Buildings that hold sentimental value for us are just as meaningful as those that are considered to hold great architectural or historical significance.”

Sweet Briar House was redesigned in the 1850s, transforming a country home into the Italianate villa you see today.

Although an enthusiastic fan base of alumnae, students and current and former employees almost certainly helped Sweet Briar House attain the top spot, the appeal wasn’t based solely on sentiment. The house was the family home of Sweet Briar founder Indiana Fletcher Williams. Since the College was established in 1901 in accordance with Williams’ will, it has served as the president’s residence.

Its current resident, President Jo Ellen Parker, appreciates what that means.

“One of the greatest privileges of serving Sweet Briar is being the steward of this wonderful house and of all the history and relationships it represents,” she said.

The original farmhouse was built by Joseph Crews in the late 18th century and later expanded by Williams’ father Elijah Fletcher, who bought the house and plantation property in 1830. Fletcher was a prominent figure in Amherst County and Lynchburg. Now, as then, the home is central to the life of the College and the community that surrounds it — culturally, economically and socially.

In the 1850s, Williams and her sister, Elizabeth Fletcher Mosby, helped their father redesign the original house and establish the renowned gardens, says Karol Lawson, director of the Sweet Briar Museum.

“Inspired by the theories of Andrew Jackson Downing, the young women transformed a rather simple country residence into an Italianate villa — the first of its kind in the western part of the state,” Lawson said.

Lawson commends the VCA’s efforts to highlight buildings that are important to Virginia’s heritage, “as well as a vital, living part of its citizens’ everyday lives.”

“It is gratifying to the College community to know that architecture scholars and enthusiasts from far and wide appreciate this lovely home as much as we do,” she said.

Parker agrees, noting, “Sweet Briar House is decidedly not a museum. It is a living part of campus life and our educational mission. Teaching students about the economic, social and architectural history of the House and the surrounding property introduces them to issues of both local and national importance.”

The home is among the older structures that made the survey’s 100 favorites, which run the gamut of architectural styles, types and periods.

“They represent Virginia’s rich history and showcase the state’s many architectural treasures — both innovative and traditional,” the VCA release says.

Breaking down the numbers, the VCA notes that Jefferson is the architect appearing most frequently on the list with six structures; seven are places of worship; schools and universities own or operate 12 of them; one, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art, hasn’t even been built yet; and nearly all are cultural destinations such as museums, historic homes, memorials or entertainment venues.

Richmond claims the highest number with 32, followed by the Blue Ridge region with 23 — including six in the top 10. There are 18 in Northern Virginia, 16 in the Hampton region and 11 in Central Virginia.

The top 10 are:

  1. Sweet Briar House, Sweet Briar College, c. 1790
  2. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, c. 1770, Charlottesville
  3. Burruss Hall, Virginia Tech, 1936, Blacksburg
  4. Lumenhaus, Virginia Tech, 2009, Blacksburg
  5. The Academical Village, University of Virginia, 1822, Charlottesville
  6. War Memorial Chapel and pylons, Virginia Tech, 1960, Blacksburg
  7. Washington Dulles International Airport, 1962, Chantilly
  8. Moss Arts Center, Virginia Tech, 2013, Blacksburg
  9. Christ Church, 1773, Alexandria
  10. Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, 1809, Forest

“Virginia’s Favorite Architecture” opens today at the Virginia Center for Architecture in Richmond and will remain on view through Oct. 19. The exhibition is part of a yearlong observance, called Virginia Celebrates Architecture, recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects. Throughout the year, members of the American Institute of Architects in Virginia will join their neighbors and the VCA in community exercises intended to instill a greater appreciation for proper stewardship of the Commonwealth’s built and natural environment.

For more information about the exhibition and the buildings it highlights, please visit the Virginia Center for Architecture’s website.

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Sweet Briar Museum