Where Gumbo Was (#399)
The Branch Museum's home certainly fits the subject of its collections!
The museum building was constructed as a residence for Richmond financier John Kerr Branch and his family taking 3+ years to complete from 1916 to 1919. It was designed by renowned architect John Russell Pope and included 63 rooms and over 27,000 square feet. Pope designed many residences in Newport Rhode Island at the time and is best known for designing the Jefferson Memorial, National Archives, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Professor Abe was the only one to correctly identify the Branch. Congrats!
With imposing battlements and leaded glass windows, the Tudor Revival mansion gained many curious Richmond onlookers at the time. The family only resided here during the winter months, spending most of their time living "seasonally." Other residences included “Elmwood,” their farm estate at Quaker Hill, Pawling, New York and they also owned a 15th-century Italian Renaissance villa near Florence (Villa Marsilio Ficino in Fiesole) where they spent the Spring months. The mansion has a large collection of the family’s Italian Renaissance antiques and tapestries. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and on the Virginia and Richmond Landmark Registers.
John Kerr Branch was born in Danville, Virginia in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. The Richmond and Danville Railroad was an essential transportation link for the Confederacy and Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled to Danville from Richmond to set up a new government before subsequently surrendering. Growing up, Branch started as a clerk in his father’s company before prospering on Wall Street at age 31. Mrs. Branch originally had been a Quaker and was active during the early 20th century in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
The home had early advancements for its time with central vacuuming and an elevator. A secret room was also constructed behind the elevator shaft which is not viewable to the public (otherwise, I guess it wouldn’t be secret. The Chapel Gallery doors are from the 16th century, made by an Italian carver with unique mermaid handles and then shipped to Richmond. The door between the serving kitchen and the dining hall was covered in leather to muffle the sounds of working servants. A carved wooden screen is at the west end of the living room. The design and linenfold paneling was based on the screen in the great hall at Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire, England and the wood carvings were done by Italian artisans.
The Branch House’s original residents, John Kerr Branch and Beulah Gould Branch, were painted by renowned portrait artist Philip Alexius de László in the 1920s and on display in the mansion library. Artist Philip de László, following a meteoric rise to recognition in his native Hungary, settled in Britain in 1907 and became the leading portrait-painter in the country—taking over from John Singer Sargent. Marrying into the Guinness family, he painted members of almost every royal family in Europe.
In 2003, the Virginia Center for Architecture Foundation (VCAF), precursor to the Virginia Center for Architecture (VCA), purchased the landmark for $2 million and undertook a $2 million renovation. On April 1, 2005, the facility opened as a museum, incorporating galleries, shops and offices. The building is situated at the corner of Davis and Monument Avenues in Richmond.
If you had been watching the recent news about Black Lives Matter protests, Richmond’s Monument Avenue lined with Confederate statuary has become a lightening rod of activity. One of the monument pedestals was littered with graffiti just outside the walkway in front of the museum.
The backside terrace has a large bay window with stone carved words and the date when the first of the Branch family first arrived to America. The dates of 1619 and 1620 are both noted since the family was unsure of which year was correct. Portions of the mansion can be rented out for special occasions. A few rooms were made unavailable to me during my visit due to preparations for a wedding.
Outside the front entrance was a sculpture entitled “Ody the Outsider,” by Ed Pokoj, the 3rd Annual BMAD Contest Winner. It was a take on the Trojan Horse, made out of bamboo gathered in Richmond. Inside, various works of art are stationed throughout the rooms. Various statuary adorns the terrace garden which is also used for rented or special events.
Guided tours are available on Friday and Saturdays with a $10 entrance fee, but be sure to check for possible event closings before visiting.