Paris. New York. Berlin. Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei left his fingerprints on these and other cities around the world through the buildings he designed, ranging from museums to apartment complexes.
One city that eluded the renowned architect’s long list of creations — which include the landmark Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the skyline-defining Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong — was Williamsburg.
In 1981, Colonial Williamsburg unveiled its plan to build about three dozen luxury town homes in the Peacock Hill area adjacent to the Historic Area.
“It was a project we had initiated to develop that block, essentially. It seemed to emerge out of a number of different motivations. One was to generate a little revenue for the foundation, but also to continue to protect its edges,” said Jeffrey Klee, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Shirley and Richard Roberts Architectural Historian.
At the helm of the project design was Pei. The then-new East Building of the National Gallery of Art, which was also designed by Pei, had just opened to the public in 1978. Alongside museums and skyscrapers, Pei also designed residential developments.
Pei died last month at the age of 102. Though the townhomes never materialized, the concept represents a snapshot of the times — when Colonial Williamsburg and the wider community was debating how to preserve historic buildings and which historic buildings were worthy of protection, Klee said.
The townhomes would no doubt cut a striking figure on the edge of the Historic Area, being decidedly modern in design but also influenced by the historic setting. Pei had some experience with this type of project, having designed a townhome complex on Society Hill near Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1960.
“Inspired by Georgian-style townhouses in London, the Townhouses of Peacock Hill will feature classic arched doorways, flat roofs, small front yards with painted wrought iron fences and square windows,” the Daily Press reported in April 1981. “All models have … high ceilings, private baths with each bedroom, two parking spaces and private patios.”
The homes were to sell for an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 each (about $573,621 to $860,431 when adjusted for inflation) and would have been located on Scotland, North Henry and Prince George streets near Matthew Whaley Elementary School, the Daily Press reported.
“This is what they decided to do to define that edge,” Klee said.
Perhaps to be expected of a Colonial Williamsburg proposal to develop its property around the Historic Area, the project set off a lively debate in the community.
The city’s architectural review board rejected the design plans the next month because they didn’t jive with city zoning.
A number of city residents voiced opposition to the townhomes. At issue were plans to raze existing Victorian houses in the development area, as well as concerns about preservation of the area’s historic character.
But conversation about the townhomes continued.
In a February 1982 editorial, The Virginia Gazette noted city residents Dianne Spearman and Inga-Britta Currie gathered 530 signatures for a petition asking the development of Peacock Hill include the existing Victorian homes.
Spearman and Currie launched a bid to add Peacock Hill to the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. But that failed when Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission voted to deny the listing during a hearing in February 1982.
Commission member Roy Graham introduced the motion to not consider Peacock Hill for the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Graham, a former Colonial Williamsburg architect, was acting as a consultant for the foundation at the time of the hearing, according to a Virginia Gazette report.
It isn’t clear exactly when Colonial Williamsburg killed the project. In August 1982, The Virginia Gazette reported that Colonial Williamsburg may have bulldozed an unmarked cemetery at the corner of Nassau and Scotland streets.
That would appear to have been the case, given that a small marker notes the burial of members of the Armistead and Prentis families at that location today.
The Virginia Gazette report went on to say, “(t)he razed property included a number of trees and at least one house. It is all part of Peacock Hill, where CW originally intended to build a set of controversial townhouses. Although the design of the townhouses is thought to be under revision because of opposition to the lack of variable setbacks, CW considers the entire parcel prime residential land for new construction.”
“I assume that we decided that this is just too controversial and it wouldn’t be smart to proceed,” Klee said.
To the best of Klee’s knowledge, Colonial Williamsburg had not undertaken a similar residential development project before or since Peacock Hill.
A project such as Peacock Hill seems like it would be even less likely to succeed today. Klee said the whole premise points to a different time and place for Colonial Williamsburg, where a modernist buffer development was seen as a viable solution to concerns about unwanted development butting up against the Historic Area.
“I think it’s really interesting to imagine a time when there was thought to be a market for that sort of thing,” he said. “It does seem so alien to where we are today in preservation. There’s this sense that modernism is this encroaching force that needs to be held back, and I think in this environment, modernism was a way to carry forward the tradition of good design into the present.”
Since the Peacock Hill development project faded away, the area has more or less stayed the same since the early 1980s, being primarily an area of rental properties, Klee said.
That the area was totally demolished means the city maintains a link to the time between the Colonial era and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.
“There’s so little that survives in town between 1780, the move of the capital to Richmond, and 1926, when the foundation gets underway, that testifies to the fact that this was still a vital place,” he said.
Klee, who is also on the city Planning Commission, said it can be difficult to make the case that buildings of other eras of the city’s history, not just the colonial era, are worthy of preservation. Though the Peacock Hill development didn’t happen, the debate around the project kicked off conversations that continue to the present.
“It’s interesting to see how that debate goes right back to this moment, when people were wondering what the fate of Peacock Hill would be,” he said.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, email@example.com, @jajacobs_