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‘Virginia’s Favorite Architecture’ poll reveals sentimental appeal


8: Moss Center at Virginia Tech

Our sense of smell, according to psychological research, is a big trigger for memory. But I want to give a shout-out to the sense of sight as a memory trigger with the Virginia Center for Architecture’s new exhibit, “Virginia’s Favorite Architecture.”

Structural images featured in the Richmond center’s “top 10” brought a flood of specific emotions for me. Other pictures made me want to hit the road this summer to see some of the 250 buildings, bridges, monuments and memorials not yet associated with my memory—the same structures the public voted on in a poll at the end of 2013.

The selected structures on view are people’s choices in that architectural survey conducted by the center and the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects. As I went through the exhibit, I kept in mind what the center’s executive director, American Institute of Architects Fellow Helene Combs Dreiling, said: “Favorite doesn’t equal best.”

The survey, which received nearly 30,000 votes, was not scientific.

“Social media and alumni naturally can have a measurable effect on public polls like this one,” said Rhea George, the center’s director of marketing and communications. “We tried to even the playing field a bit by allowing only one set of votes per IP address.”

Alumni voting for their favorite campus buildings on the list demonstrates the powerful emotional pull architecture has.

“Buildings that hold sentimental value are just as meaningful as those that are considered to hold great architectural or historical significance,” Dreiling said.

#2: Monticello

#2: Monticello


Three of the top 10 people’s choices (six among the final list of 100) were designed by Thomas Jefferson: Monticello—his Albemarle County home, at No. 2; the Academical Village at the University of Virginia, at No. 5; and his personal retreat and retirement home, Poplar Forest, at No. 10. Certainly any listing of Virginia architecture without deference to Jefferson would lack validity: I, for one, find the planning, alterations and follow-through that he put into his retirement home while serving his second term as U.S. president to be particularly engaging. Americans turning 65 might be interested in seeing how TJ’s priorities played out at Poplar Forest.


Most of the remaining structures among the top 10 are less well-known to Virginians, with the exception of alumnae of Sweet Briar College (Sweet Briar House, No. 1) and Virginia Tech (Burruss Hall, No. 3; Lumenhaus, No. 4; War Memorial Chapel and Pylons, No. 6; and Moss Center for the Arts, No. 8). That said, some of us with fond memories of these structures aren’t alums. A photograph of Tech’s imposing Burruss Hall—designed by William Carneal and J. Ambler Johnston, AIA—reminds me of being a 13-year-old 4-H’er on the southwest Virginia campus, where I participated in assemblies at the 3,000-seat auditorium.


Likewise, my first memory associated with No. 7 on the list—Washington Dulles International Airport—dates to 1986, and my first overseas flight. The airport was just beginning to come to the fore after two decades as a white elephant that few flyers wanted to drive 26 miles from downtown D.C. to use. Having grown up on an Eastern Shore family farm with corn acreage, I was amused to learn that Eero Saarinen’s graceful 1962 terminal—looking like a bird ready to take flight—had been built in the midst of cornfields. I’ve flown out of Dulles many times since then, but that first time remains a favorite, thrilling memory.


Any picture of No. 9 on the list—Christ Church, Alexandria, built in 1773—brings back memories of visiting the Col. James Wren-designed church during a 1983 visit to Old Town Alexandria. I had taken a tourism job and felt that part of my mission in life was to heighten awareness that George Washington and Robert E. Lee had attended the English country-style church.


As an alumna of the College of William and Mary (and not among the 30,000 architecture voters), I’m unabashedly partial to No. 20 on the list: the Sir Christopher Wren Building dating to 1702 on the campus in Williamsburg. The memories that come rushing back upon sight of “the Wren” include all of the English classes I attended when that building housed the college’s English department and, in time-honored holiday tradition, throwing a sprig of holly onto the burning yule log in the Great Hall’s fireplace to signify casting away my cares for another year.

The Virginia Center for Architecture exhibit, designed by Roberto L. Ventura, will take your mind off your cares by stimulating your memory and adding to your must-see list. On view through Oct. 19, “Virginia’s Favorite Architecture” is part of a yearlong commemoration called Virginia Celebrates Architecture, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the American Institute of Architects in Virginia.

Martha Steger is a Midlothian-based freelance writer.


(Architects’ names follow structures’ dates)

1. Sweet Briar House, Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar (c. 1790), Joseph Crews

2. Monticello, Charlottesville (c. 1770), Thomas Jefferson

3. Burruss Hall, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg (1936), William Carneal and J. Ambler Johnston, AIA of Carneal, Johnston, and Wright, Architects and Engineers

4. LUMENHAUS, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg (2009), Center for Design Research, Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design, CAUS

5. The Academical Village, University of Virginia, Charlottesville (1822), Thomas Jefferson

6. War Memorial Chapel and Pylons, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg (1960), Roy F. Larson, FAIA of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston, & Larson

7. Washington Dulles International Airport, Chantilly (1962), Eero Saarinen and Associates

8. Moss Center for the Arts, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg (2013), Snøhetta

9. Christ Church, Alexandria (1773), Col. James Wren

10. Poplar Forest, Forest (1809), Thomas Jefferson

See the complete list at


No. 17: Stratford Hall (1730), designed by Col. Thomas Lee. Home of four generations of the Lee family of Virginia —including two signers of the Declaration of Independence—it was the birthplace of Robert Edward Lee (1807–70), who became the Confederate General-in-chief during the Civil War.

No. 29: Belle Grove Plantation at Port Conway (1790), architect unknown. The King George County birthplace of President James Madison, the plantation comprises a rich history from the late 1600s to its present status as a bed-and-breakfast.

No. 31: Montpelier, Orange (1797), Frances Taylor and Ambrose Madison. Home of fourth U. S. President James Madison—known as the “Father of the U. S. Constitution”—the estate now includes the Center for the Constitution focusing on educational programming.

No. 66: Mount Airy Plantation (1764), attributed to John Ariss. Home of the Tayloe family for more than 250 years, the distinctive manor house located on the Northern Neck overlooks the Rappahannock River.

No. 68: National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle (2006), Fentress–Bradburn

Architects. A tribute to the U. S. Marines of the past, present and future, the museum’s soaring design evokes the image of the flag-raisers of Iwo Jima.

No. 81: Barboursville (1822), Thomas Jefferson. The ruin of the mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson for his friend and political ally James Barbour—a governor of Virginia—it is now on the grounds of Barboursville Vineyards.


What:“Virginia’s Favorite Architecture”

Where: Virginia Center for Architecture, located in the Branch House at 2501 Monument Ave., in Richmond’s historic Fan District

When: Through Oct. 19. Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: 804/644-3041;