ICA&CA Interview With Jeffrey Davis

CREDITS:  From the ICA&CA’s Fall Newsletter – Interview By Clem Labine

In 1992, when the ICA held its first summer program at the New York Academy of Art, a young column manufacturer was one of the students. Several years later, Jeffrey Davis, founder and president of Chadsworth’s 1-800-Columns, became a member of the Insti­tute’s first board of directors along with Clem Labine, who was profiled in the 2009 Spring/Summer issue of The Forum. They served together on the ICA&CA board as the organization was in its grassroots beginnings so we knew they would have a unique perspective on both the building industry and the ICA&CA today.

CL: A lot of us think of you as “Mr. Columns.” How did you get into the column business in the first place?

JD: Initially, I dreamed of being in politics. I had a solid liberal arts education with a focus on political science. But I found the game of politics disillusioning. So I moved on to the corporate world with the goal to create and build a successful company in the column market.

CL: Where does the name “Chadsworth” come from?

JD: I was impressed by the beautiful English estate, Chatsworth. The name evoked the sense of quality I wanted, but I replaced the “t” with a “d” to stand for my last name.

CL: As I recall, you were a student at one of the early ICA summer programs. What was it like?

JD: I was a student in the very first (1992) ICA six week-long summer program. The instructors included Richard Cameron, Richard Sammons, and Don Rattner. I had been running Chads­worth’s for several years by then. The program taught me so much about the language of classical architecture, but I also learned that classical design isn’t just one simple, set formula. I remember, too, all the fun times we had in the blistering heat of a New York summer: Our classroom wasn’t air conditioned!

CL: Did that ICA program have much impact on your business?

JD: The impact was substantial. I’d learned at the ICA that what was on the market at the time was not classical at all. In order to save money, manufacturers commonly reduced the height and projection of the plinth and base, so when we developed the first mass-produced FRP columns I didn’t just replicate the typical wood stock column. I explained to my production people that with FRP it should cost no more to make a classically correct column. I made a pattern of a classical Tuscan column and this was the beginning of our PolyStone® columns for which, in 2000, Chadsworth’s won an industry award for best new product.

CL: So you were really the pioneer of architecturally correct FRP columns?

JD: Yes! And in addition to the base moldings, we worked on getting the astragal correctly proportioned, well defined, and with the apo­phyge curving from the shaft to the fillet. Some companies produced columns with astragals so ill-proportioned that they projected like flying saucers; others made astragals with no clear defi­nition of the molding shapes. I take a lot of pride in having pushed the stock column industry into better design.

CL: Over the past 10 years have you seen any change in your average customer’s level of sophistication about classical detailing?

JD: When it comes to the average consumer, no. I still spend much of my time educating first-time buyers on proportion, design, and proper use. But I enjoy that part of my job the most. Design professionals, however, are more knowl­edgeable than they used to be due to the growth of the classical movement.

CL: What is the most challenging aspect of the column business today?

JD: My biggest frustration is when architects specify our columns, but the local lumberyard supplies a cheaper product without anyone realizing it until it is too late and the architect ends up disappointed. So we’ve been developing ways to make it easier for architects to get what they specify. For example, in addition to manufacturing and distributing our own col­umns, we’ve added other major column suppliers such as Hartman Sanders, Crown, Dixie Pacific, and HB&G.

CL: Has the internet helped you?

JD: We’ve been adding detailed specification and educational information online, which we hope makes the design and spec process easier. In developing our online store, we’ve also added complementary products such as Focal Point moldings, Life-Time Millwork, and Atlantic Shutters. Of course, price is a challenge. I’ve wanted to develop a low-price guarantee, but lumberyards will almost always find out our price and then undercut it.

CL: I’m curious: What are the biggest columns Chadsworth’s has ever supplied?

JD: Believe it or not, for a project in Kuwait, we furnished wood columns that were 30 feet high and 48 inches in diameter.

CL: Are there things about classical columns that you’re still learning today?

JD: I continue to be astonished by the variety within classical architecture. On a recent trip to Rome I spent time sketching and measuring different column bases and capitals, amazed as ever by the inventiveness of classical architects through the ages. I’m always working to improve stock columns, such as the way the shaft and base join.

CL: Some years ago, you relocated your business and residence from Atlanta to North Carolina. What inspired the move?

JD: When we were in Atlanta, I also had an accounting office in Goldsboro, North Carolina. My parents were running that office, but I spent a lot of time traveling between the two cities. Moreover, my staff was at a point where they wanted to raise families — and I wanted to be closer to my parents. So I asked everyone in the company to look at different cities and list their top three. In the end, we chose Wilmington, North Carolina, for its quality of life. My staff has enjoyed it, and I’ve been able to care for my parents and raise my two nephews through their teenage years.

CL: I understand you recently built a home on Figure Eight Island off the North Carolina coast.

JD: My original thought was just a simple poured-concrete box. But, of course, things soon got more complicated. Building on a barrier island isn’t easy! With a local engineer, I drew up a rough design for a 40-foot cubic house with four columns on the ocean side. I chose to put archi­tectural emphasis on the water side because I had a vision of boats on the Intracoastal Waterway gazing at this villa rising from the sand.

CL: Wasn’t fellow board member Christine Franck involved with the project?

JD: When I realized I wanted a classical villa, I knew the details would be critical and that I’d need a skilled classical designer like Christine. Christine and I looked at a lot of Federal and Greek Revival homes for inspiration. But in the end, what made the most sense was a type of palladian villa with a Roman temple front and high base. The high base was dictated by the local building code, which specifies that water-front homes must have a raised first floor with breakaway construction below.

CL: Is this a year-round residence?

JD: I did not expect it to be — I enjoy traveling and I also have homes in Atlanta on Lake Lanier and in the mountains, as well as a small maison de poupée in France — but Chadworth Cottage turned out to be home-base year-round.

CL: What do you like best about living in Chadsworth Cottage?

JD: I have complete privacy, yet the house never feels overwhelming. The room layout allows me to feel connected to the entire house even when home alone. My favorite features of the house are probably the Tower of the Winds mantel Christine designed for me and the various secret doors and hidden storage. Quite honestly, the house succeeds beyond my expectations! From the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, it is a beautiful, peaceful place to be. Christine visits often, as do family and friends. The house is usually full of folks, as well as my three dogs!

CL: Living on a barrier island as you do, have you had any scares from hurricanes?

JD: Hurricanes and nor’easters are part of living on the Carolina coast. I rode out Ophelia in the cottage and it was remarkable. We deliberately over-engineered the structure of the house so even with gale winds blowing, from inside the house you couldn’t tell there was a hurricane. Aside from that major precaution, before every storm we just close the shutters and move furniture inside.

CL: You’ve been involved with the Institute since the beginning. What changes have you seen?

JD: We’ve grown from an all-volunteer operation to having a dedicated board and a loyal and hard- working staff. Programs have expanded from that one six-week program to the broad range of national programs we have today. Even with all of those changes, though, one thing that hasn’t changed is the valuable friendships that I and others continue to make through the Institute.

CL: As one of its earliest board members, has the Institute lived up to your expectations?

JD: The Institute has exceeded anything I dreamed it would be. I certainly hope it continues to ex- pand its role in promoting the ideals of classicism and teaching the principles of classical design. I hope its mission continues to improve the quality of architecture throughout the industry — from design, to manufacturing, to construction.

CL: You are active in many non-profit and charitable organizations besides the ICA&CA. Is there one that’s particularly close to your heart?

JD: Closest to my heart is Meals on Wheels. I’ve been involved since I lived in Atlanta. I’ve also been on the board of the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture, and Urbanism (INTBAU), the brainchild of archi-tect Bob Adam. Through INTBAU, I have been gratified to see ICA&CA’s work in the United States expand worldwide.

— Clem Labine

New Old House Magazine | Chadsworth Cottage

CHADSWORTH COTTAGE

Classical elements create the perfect new old house in Wilmington, North Carolina.

By J. Robert Ostergaard  |  Photos by Erik Johnson

The 20-foot columns and classical façade of Chadsworth Cottage make it a Figure Eight Island landmark. Designer Christine G. H. Franck combined Greek Revival, Federal, and Palladian elements to create this waterfront villa for client Jeffrey L. Davis.

The 20-foot columns and classical façade of Chadsworth Cottage make it a Figure Eight Island landmark. Designer Christine G. H. Franck combined Greek Revival, Federal, and Palladian elements to create this waterfront villa for client Jeffrey L. Davis.

Some houses speak to us. Their voices are honest, eloquent, and deeply resonant. They communicate in a language that is grounded in our architectural history and an authentic local dialect.

Approaching Figure Eight Island, off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, is such a house: Chadsworth Cottage. It’s the waterfront home of Jeffrey L. Davis, the founder of Chadsworth’s 1.800.Columns. Its designer, Christine G.H. Franck, is fluent in the classical language that informed its creation. “My primary goal with anything I design is to ensure that it just feels right,” says Franck (a frequent contributor to New Old House). “The language that you use to express the design ideas is an important part of what makes a building feel right, as if it’s supposed to be there.”

Looking at the completed house—and how right it feels—it’s hard to believe that Davis initially considered building a poured-concrete structure, thinking it more likely to survive a hurricane. But because Davis is also a board member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, it’s not surprising that he chose a classical model for his new house instead. With the help of a local engineer, he drew up a rough design of a 40′-by-40′ cubic house with four columns on the waterside and a big double-story portico. “When deciding what side of the house to put emphasis on, I chose the waterside; I could envision boats coming down the Intracoastal and seeing this villa rising from the sand,” Davis says. “I also knew this house was going to be all about the details. So very early on I realized I was going to need Christine.”

As one ascends the 10'-wide, three-story staircase from the entry below, the view through the central corridor leads the eye out to the water and the broad horizon. The transverse arch has a historic precedent in this region of North Carolina.

As one ascends the 10′-wide, three-story staircase from the entry below, the view through the central corridor leads the eye out to the water and the broad horizon. The transverse arch has a historic precedent in this region of North Carolina.

For inspiration, Davis began sharing photos of favorite Federal and Greek Revival houses with Franck. But because building codes specify that waterfront homes have an elevated first floor and breakaway construction on the lowest level, a Greek Revival, which sits on a low base, would not be possible. “Jeff was also pulling photos of Palladian villas,” Franck says. “In the end, the direction that made sense was a Palladian villa, with its elevated high base and Roman temple front. We weren’t interested in the house being a strict interpretation of a particular period. We were more interested in letting the classical language and the traditions of the place inform the design project.”

As one ascends the 10′-wide, three-story staircase from the entry below, the view through the central corridor leads the eye out to the water and the broad horizon. The transverse arch has a historic precedent in this region of North Carolina.

Because Davis wanted Chadsworth to look like a surviving remnant of the island’s past, Franck tied the house closely to local tradition, looking specifically to houses in nearby towns like New Bern, North Carolina. “There was not any attempt to be wholly evocative of any time or place in North Carolina,” she says, “but there are specific quotations in the house.” For example, the railing around the southern balcony is based on a bundled wheat design from the historic John Wright Stanly House in New Bern. Full pilasters at the corners were used rather than thin corner boards as “a nod to the late Federal/early Greek Revival tradition in New Bern,” Franck says. “Because much of the Federal-style architecture in New Bern was built rather late, elements of Greek Revival began to sneak in.”

Franck created a tranquil master bedroom with views of the water and a classically styled fireplace. She reupholstered Davis's Biedermeyer sofa in a durable Schumacher fabric as a counterbalance to its formality.

Franck created a tranquil master bedroom with views of the water and a classically styled fireplace. She reupholstered Davis’s Biedermeyer sofa in a durable Schumacher fabric as a counterbalance to its formality.

Inside, the staircase details were inspired by another historic New Bern house, and the elliptical transverse archway on the first floor has a local precedent. “That’s part of the poetry,” Franck says. “Connecting with the place and connecting with a time, so 100 years from now, someone might recognize that some elements came from somewhere else, just as someone would notice today when looking at an old home.”

Of course, the very forces that would make it unlikely an old home might have endured on Figure Eight Island through the ages—hurricanes, high winds, and flooding—were the very forces Franck’s design would have to address if Chadsworth Cottage is to survive into the future. The house is grounded to the site using an interlocking grid of wood pilings that were driven 16′ into the sandy soil and nearly 50 concrete grade beams.

“The engineering is a marvel in itself,” Davis says. “I rode out Hurricane Ophelia in this house for 16 hours, and it was solid.” As protection against both hurricane-force winds and everyday sun, Franck specified Bermuda shutters for the southern windows and found a company that produced PVC shutters that looked as good as traditional wooden shutters but would be more durable in this harsh environment. Franck also turned in part to local builder Jim Murray of Murray Construction for guidance. “All they do is build along the coast, so they have a tremendous body of knowledge,” she says. “When I insisted on wood windows, for example, they explained that during a hurricane, the blowing sand literally sandblasts off the paint, so based on their experience a clad window was best.”

Franck allotted the space at the front of the house for service elements, such as the kitchen and laundry room.

Franck allotted the space at the front of the house for service elements, such as the kitchen and laundry room.

Creating the open floor plan that Davis envisioned posed additional challenges. Considering the dimensions of the house, Franck knew that a truly open floor plan would make it appear that the interior ceilings were lower than they are. Her solution was to run three rooms across the waterfront side of the house—a dining room, a large hall, and a living room—painted in the same color and separated only by column screens. “So you have a living room and dining room in the traditional sense, but they are open to each other and you really occupy those three rooms as one room,” she says. “This way it feels vast because the proportions are better and it picks up on the horizon line outside.”
Another of Davis’s expectations was that the house be built economically using—as much as possible—stock materials. He wanted to demonstrate that building a classical home needn’t break the bank, that it was something anyone can not only aspire to but also achieve. The exterior columns—from Chadsworth’s 1.800.Columns, of course—are in the colossal Tuscan order and made of fiberglass. “It’s a great material to use,” Franck says, “especially when you are talking about 20′-high columns and a beachfront environment. And the Tuscan exterior says ‘This isn’t going anywhere.’”

The living room's club chairs and caned chaise are new pieces chosen for their beauty as well as their durability.

The living room’s club chairs and caned chaise are new pieces chosen for their beauty as well as their durability.

Franck then designated a hierarchy with regard to the orders of columns: Tuscan for the exterior, Ionic for the column screens on the first floor, and Corinthian in the private quarters upstairs. “These are based on specific Grecian models, and the entablatures are a rendition of those Grecian entablatures, but it’s not a temple on the Acropolis. It’s a house, so the details are scaled down appropriately.”

Matters of scale became a primary concern when it came to the interior millwork. “Stock millwork profiles don’t give you the projection or depth that you would like to have in a room that has 10′ ceilings and 8′ doors. You really want something heavier and beefier,” Franck explains. She employed a variety of innovative solutions, including using millwork upside down and combining stock pieces. In the end, the millwork was a combination of half stock and half custom milled. “The primary generator of the house is just simply the classical language working through specific problems that need to be addressed,” she says.

Franck’s confidence in the power of the classical language was put to the test when a question arose regarding the siting of the septic system. Because of the lot’s small size and proximity to water, there was no room for a traditional leach field, so Chadsworth Cottage required an aboveground biofiltration system installed directly in front of the house. Franck was undeterred. “The interesting thing about these sorts of problems,” she says, “is that they are opportunities for design solutions.”

The outdoor shower is a must-have in this beach environment.

The outdoor shower is a must-have in this beach environment.

Her remedy was to construct a pergola covered in wisteria and jasmine that both disguises the septic system and enhances the classical aesthetic. Moreover, the pergola enriches the way in which visitors first encounter the house. “What it does from a design standpoint,” Franck explains, “is that when you arrive from the land side of the house, you have a very constricted approach that heightens the excitement as you pass through the lower entry, rise through the stair hall to the first floor, and turn to see the whole view open up to the landscape and the ocean.”

In the end, Chadsworth Cottage is a model of how a talented designer uses the classical language to solve site-specific problems, accomplish her client’s desires, and remain true to a sense of place and a sense of history, with the result of a new house that faithfully embodies a traditional style. “Moreover,” Franck says “Chadsworth Cottage is a testament to the power of Davis’s vision of a house with that ineffable Southern quality of comfort, good taste, and most importantly, hospitality.”

 

J. Robert Ostergaard is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Published in: New Old House

 

Visit Chadsworth’s Online Store at:

SHOP.COLUMNS.COM