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Milton Grigg, Preservationist/Architect: a Quintessential Virginia Approach

The architect Milton Grigg (1905-1982) is best known for his work in the field of historic preservation having worked on many significant restoration projects throughout Virginia including Monticello, Bremo, and Christ Church, Alexandria. His very first job, as a draughtsman on the Colonial Williamsburg restoration, helped to establish his reputation as a preservationist and gave him a crucial understanding of the vital role of archaeology in the restoration and reconstruction of an early building.

A native of Alexandria, Virginia, Grigg attended the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia (after spending two years at the Engineering School), but he did not receive an Architecture degree although he is listed as an alumnus of the Class of 1929. At the time, this was not uncommon since it was possible to become a state-registered architect after passing a qualification exam following an apprenticeship with a registered architect.

Colonial Williamsburg figured largely in Grigg’s life; his second wife, Ella Albien Repass was the niece of Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, the rector of Bruton Parish and the man who, after meeting John D. Rockefeller Jr. at a Phi Beta Kappa anniversary dinner, succeeded in convincing him to commission the restoration of Williamsburg. According to Howard E. Goodwin, Dr. Goodwin’s son, Ella and her mother had moved into a small cottage on the Goodwin’s property after her father had died and their financial situation became precarious. Ella attended the College of William and Mary and living at the epicenter, as it were, of the Colonial Williamsburg restoration effort she naturally encountered Grigg. Though their relationship was initially hindered by the fact that Grigg was already married; after the eventual dissolution of that marriage, the two were wed at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg in 1940. 

By all accounts Milton Grigg was a charming, courteous and modest man—“a thoroughly nice guy” is how Howard Goodwin describes him. Through the marriage to his cousin, the two men became very close and Grigg even arranged for the Goodwins to have his house when he died and Ella moved into a retirement home. Grigg’s marriage to Ella Repass was a long and, on the whole, a happy one. An erudite and congenial person, Ella worked as his office manager for many years. Such marital felicity had not been the case with his first wife, Grace Vestal Thomas whom he had married in 1930. During the course of their marriage they occupied the Michie Tavern, which had been moved from its original location in Earlysville to its current site near Monticello. Grigg’s first office was located in a small outbuilding on the property. After their divorce, Grace continued to live in the tavern until she sold it in 1968 to the corporation that transformed it into a museum and restaurant featuring traditional Southern fare in an 18th century tavern setting. Grigg’s hand in the restoration of Michie Tavern cannot properly be determined since Grace destroyed all the drawings and records associated with the building.

Grigg’s contributions to the field of Architectural Preservation are of unquestionable importance yet, his approach has not been entirely without controversy. Early on in his career he received some criticism for his tendency toward overzealousness in terms of “conjectural reconstruction”. During the Monticello restoration, he was sometimes at odds with Fiske Kimball, Director of the Restoration Committee at Monticello from 1925-1955, whose restoration philosophy held that if there was not enough evidence to create an accurate recreation of a missing element that it should not be guessed at. Better to leave it out altogether than substitute something that might not be correct. Specifically, where Grigg received criticism was on his work on the above-ground portion of the stables at Monticello where it was felt that he relied on what he thought logically would have been there rather than following Jefferson’s drawings exactly. Grigg maintained that architectural plans are merely that and changes usually occur during the building process. However, contemporary accounts of the stables do differ from Grigg’s recreation. With the exception of the stables and the ice house, the majority of Grigg’s work at Monticello is considered accurate both in design and execution.

Grigg embraced Jefferson’s architectural ideals, brilliantly combining them with a Virginia plantation house vernacular with its Georgian-derived influences to produce domestic structures that are graceful, elegant and imbued with a distinctive Southern charm. These are the antithesis of the white elephant “McMansions” that now dot our landscapes. While Grigg was perfectly capable of building large houses and adding expansive additions to smaller ones, as the houses at the Farmington Country Club attest, his work is characterized by a modesty of scale. Like Jefferson (and Palladio before him) Grigg intentionally disguised the true size of a building making it appear more diminutive than it was.

Other Jefferson-inspired characteristics of Grigg houses are classical ornamentation, small bedrooms, triple sash windows, octagonal rooms and an overall practicality of design. Grigg’s practicality extended also to his favored choice of building material where he opted for masonry as a protection against fire. Though the houses are firmly rooted in Virginia, their understated elegance and classical villa-like appearance would not look out of place in the tonier enclaves of Florida, California or the Riviera.

Edgemont (located in Keene just south of Charlottesville) long attributed to Jefferson on account of its strong Palladian character and striking similarity to Jefferson’s drawings of Edgehill, though a definitive attribution remains to be established, was discovered virtually in ruins by Grigg in 1936. It had a profound influence on his approach to domestic architecture. In the process of restoring Edgemont, Grigg was able to study and absorb 18th century Virginia plantation house design with its classical motifs firsthand. Though Grigg was a great admirer of Jefferson and well acquainted with Monticello, having by then worked on its restoration, it is the more livable, user-friendly Edgemont that is present in his subsequent designs.

Charlottesville, where Grigg lived for most of his life, has a rich concentration of Grigg houses designed in the years between 1940 and 1964. On some of these he collaborated with William N. Hale with whom he was in partnership from the mid-40s until the early 50s. The houses are located primarily in the Meadowbrook Hills section and Farmington. On Hessian Road one can see a cluster of several fine examples of various sizes and proportions. Because of the number of houses on this street, at one time there was a movement afoot to rename it “Grigg Alley”.

Number 2033, at the bend of the road, was Grigg’s own residence. Evident here is the clever sleight of hand that disguises the true size of the building. From the front, the house appears to be all on one level, with the exception of two small attic dormers. In reality there are three floors. Grigg accomplished this effect through the placement of the entrance floor up almost at a mezzanine level, and by using that classic Virginia feature; the English basement, down a level, which opens up to the garden at the rear of the house. In addition to new commissions, Grigg also restored and created extremely sympathetic additions to many older houses including some of the most historically significant ones in the area.

K. Edward Lay, Cary D. Langhorne Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture and the author of The Architecture of Jefferson Country, calls Grigg “one of the premier architectural restoration/preservationists of his time—always with an inquisitive mind on the forefront of architectural inquiry”. Lay goes on to say that like Jefferson before him, Grigg took inspiration from historic buildings and architectural motifs absorbing and reinterpreting the principles embodied in them to fit contemporary needs. Though he may have changed scale and, for example, applied what previously had been a window design to a door, in the process, he ended up with a structure that always evokes the distinct flavor of traditional Virginia architecture. Jefferson had a similar approach thinking “outside the box” and utilizing an inspired fluidity when it came to both practical and decorative design innovations.  

Douglas L. Gilipin a principal in the architectural firm of Dagliesh Eichman Gilpin & Paxton, which is what the original Grigg firm has evolved into—refers to Grigg’s houses as “scaled down urban estates; moderately-sized, classically inspired residences”. The appeal of this kind of sophisticated abode is understandable and Gilpin currently has several clients who have requested Grigg type homes that share with the originals such qualities as an overall modesty of scale (though large kitchens and expansive master suites are de rigueur these days) and attention to such details as fine woodwork and classical decorative motifs throughout the structures.

While Grigg was an architect clearly rooted in the past whose great interest was architectural preservation, it is hard to pigeonhole him for he worked on such a wide range of disparate buildings and projects during his career including Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C.; Marion duPont Scott’s art moderne Red Room at Montpelier; the annex of the United States embassy in Canberra, Australia, where he created quite an uproar over his insistence on importing brick (at great expense—the bricks cost $15,208;the shipping, $22,614) all the way from Virginia; numerous municipal buildings and hundreds of churches. In addition, he developed a system for creating prefabricated houses in post-World War II France using surplus aircraft aluminum, and he worked on the psychological effects of color to be used in medical facilities.

Virginia Living 3.4 (2005): 146