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Howard’s architectural legacy: blending the old with the new
Howard’s architectural legacy: blending the old with the new
James Murray Howard
Photo by Matt Kelly
James Murray Howard, curator and architect for the Academical Village.

By Matt Kelly

James Murray Howard is moving on.

Howard, 54, curator and architect for the Academical Village, has spent
the last two decades caring for the University’s historic buildings, especially Thomas Jefferson’s original Academical Village. His duties have included a major restoration effort, aimed at modernizing the structures while preserving Jefferson’s original vision.

Now he plans to return to private practice to wrestle with a different, but related, question: how to combine new and historic buildings.

“I’ve reached my 20th year here, four times as long as I have spent on any other part of my vocation,” he said. “When I came here, I thought this restoration effort might not last more than three or four years. Now I see that it needs a 50-year lifespan.

“The University now has a better understanding of how to care for buildings as exceptional historical objects that also must be lived in,” Howard said. “We should not worship them [the buildings], but mustn’t let them disappear.”

University President John T. Casteen III said of Howard, “He has combined scholarship and an informed love for architecture and built things in his work. His restorations have been eloquent, intelligent, and above all sympathetic with the minds and hands that made fine buildings and all their details and also with the generations who use and will use these artifacts.”

Howard’s restoration sought to expose or re-establish as much as plausibly possible of the original structures, while reducing changes that came later. In Pavilion VII, for example, workmen discovered and restored double doors that had been closed into one of the walls and re-created a triangular vestibule for several rooms on the upper floor.

Howard says he is thankful for the craftsmen and financial supporters who were part of the restoration process, including students who worked on the buildings as interns and experienced the critical importance of physical work — not just talk — in preserving a place.

Howard has been compiling a restoration archive, including hand-drawn sketches and written documents connected to the specific work on the Lawn pavilions. And he is leaving a written narrative, so that those in the future will understand not only what was done, but why. With the latest entries, the archive is going electronic, making it easier to use and more versatile.

Howard is proud his fingerprints appear on so few things. He said changes and additions should be subtle enough that nothing would stand out as incongruous to a casual viewer, while a professional, upon examination, would be able to tell the original from later additions.

“We should not confuse the old and the original,” he said. “But they should be very sympathetic with each other.”

He avoids conjecture as much as possible. Comparing Jefferson to the Bible, Murray said people take from him whatever they want in order to support their own ideas. “People think he was so forward-looking that his thoughts would surely have corresponded with that of today,” he said. “That can lead down a lot of blind alleys.”

When Howard first came to the University, the plight of the original buildings was not immediately obvious. The Academical Village sits atop bedrock that keeps the buildings from settling, but also prevents the soil from draining. The moisture causes the more degradable parts to suffer, he said, and the wood in the buildings wicks moisture up from the ground, which can cause trouble in the brick and plaster walls. The structural skeletons, however, are fundamentally sound, even overbuilt. Nearly everything can be preserved and restored, he said, save for a few elements conceptually flawed at the outset, such as the almost flat, wooden roofs over the Lawn’s student rooms, which leaked badly.

“There are some things whose re-creation is unwise,” he said.

Over the years, Jefferson’s buildings have become progressively more expensive to work on, as the work has become more intensive. Though private money is often used in restoration projects, Howard said the state “can never fully walk away from its responsibility for this World Heritage site. This place is absolutely unique on the world stage, and it needs to be protected with a constant infusion of major capital.

“But we have never used academic money for any of this work,” he said.

Working with an evolving entity such as the University has given Howard a unique experience. Americans have never formulated a complete answer to integrating new and old buildings, Howard said. The choices are often polarized, with buildings either preserved as frozen objects or torn down.

Howard plans to live in Europe this year to see how builders there have dealt with these problems over the centuries. Later, he hopes to fill an architectural niche, advising American institutions and corporations, and perhaps a few private property owners, on merging periods of architecture. He does not plan to have the University as a client — at least not right away — saying he knows the place too well to be neutral, and his neutrality is an asset he offers his customers.

“But I might be valuable to the University after a long pause,” he said. “It is always wise to revisit one’s opinions when they can benefit from calm reflection.”

The Kenan-Lewis Fellow in Historic Architecture, Howard teaches preservation of 19th-century buildings at the School of Architecture and hopes to continue teaching after his European research is completed.


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