Several years ago, when she and her husband, Jim Bonbright, lived on Kingcrest Parkway in Richmond’s West End, Ellen Bonbright used to walk through the Westmoreland Place neighborhood across Cary Street Road and admire the expansive house at 4711 Pocahontas Ave.
“That’s the most beautiful house in Richmond,” she often said.
Looking back, Bonbright admitted she didn’t expect to live there.
“It was a complete fantasy,” she said. “Never in a million years did I think we would live in my dream house.”
Many of us have entertained similar thoughts in idle moments. Here’s the difference: Bonbright and her husband actually bought the property five years ago.
“It was all about timing,” Bonbright said.
The 8,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom house is more than just an attractive property, though. Noland & Baskervill, one of Richmond’s leading architectural firms between 1897 and 1917, designed the home in 1913 for Oliver J. Sands Sr., a prominent businessman.
Sands was president of the American National Bank and even had a village—Sandston—named after him when he helped to convert a former munitions plant to a residential community in eastern Henrico County.
(Sands stayed busy. In addition to running a bank—housed in the city’s tallest building at the time of its construction—and investing in real estate developments, he helped secure Richmond as the site for a Federal Reserve Bank.)
Another prominent Richmond figure, the sculptor Ferruccio Legnaioli, probably created the house’s elaborate fireplace mantels on the first floor, said Chris Novelli, an architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Legnaioli worked on residential projects with several significant architects, including William C. Noland, Noland & Baskervill’s lead designer, and William Lawrence Bottomley, although much of it remains unidentified. (Noland & Baskervill’s Scott House at 909 West Franklin St. is one of the few houses known to have decorative sculpture and plasterwork by Legnaioli.) He also designed the Christopher Columbus statue in Byrd Park and did the plasterwork in Richmond’s National Theater.
Noland’s role in the Sands House’s creation might be the most intriguing, though.
Noland, who cofounded Noland & Baskervill with Henry Baskervill in 1897, belonged to a generation of architects who aspired to an academically correct approach to design that rejected the Victorians’ love of picturesque and eclectic forms. In addition to the Scott House, his designs for the firm include the Hunton House at 810 West Franklin St., the Chesterman House at 2020 Monument Ave. and Swannanoa, a palatial mansion in Nelson County.
The Sands House is different.
“It’s the most eclectic house by Noland I’ve ever seen,” Novelli said.
The exterior is primarily Mediterranean Revival (on display in its stucco cladding, round-arched porch, red tile roof and deep eaves and brackets), but it also includes elements of the Colonial Revival (the front entrance with its transom and sidelights) and the Craftsman style (the dormer with its elongated, horizontal proportions).
Noland apparently moderated his preference for stylistic purity to accommodate trends in the years around World War I.
“When the Mediterranean Revival came on the scene in the early 20th century, it was considered wonderfully exotic,” Novelli said. “Home builders and designers had a field day combining it with other popular styles of the time, like the Colonial and Tudor revivals. You often see Colonial Revival houses from this period with red or green tile roofs, which would have given the houses a Mediterranean flair.”
The influence of the Mediterranean Revival stops at the Sands House’s front door, though. Inside, Noland presented rooms with a more restrained, classical design. And each room has its own stylistic identity. The drawing room is Colonial, the library is Italian, and the dining room is French, for example.
In many ways, though, the Sands House shows where Richmond architecture was going in the 1910s.
“The balmy Mediterranean feel of the exterior together with the treatment of the interior give the house a more relaxed feel, which would have been in keeping with tastes and trends around World War I,” Novelli said. “Society at large was just starting to move away from the strict rules and opulent tastes of the Edwardian era.”
The Bonbrights have undertaken a few renovation projects, including the kitchen and three of the house’s eight bathrooms, and they added a laundry room, a mudroom and a travertine patio. And they’ve settled comfortably into the house Bonbright fell in love with years ago.
“We love to entertain, and the layout of the house is perfect for parties,” Bonbright said. “We were originally a little intimidated by the formal architectural aspects of the home, but I’ve had lots of help making it warm and comfortable for our family while trying to maintain the elegant, stately feel.”