What Would Mr. Varney Think?

AC Varney

In recent months, as the work on the El Moore has come to completion and the building has opened to both residents and visitors, I’ve thought a lot about our friend A.C. Varney, the building’s architect.  I can’t help but wonder what he would think of the place if he were able to see it today.

The exterior of the building looks much as it did when it was built in 1898 except, of course, for the new entrance & elevator tower and the rooftop cabins.  A lot of effort went into restoring the exterior to its former glory – I’m thinking especially of the work that went into recreating the beautiful iron railings on the balconies.

The interior, however, has changed dramatically.  The floor plan designed by Varney no longer exists in its original form and, instead of 8 apartments, the building now holds 12 apartments and a variety of lodge rooms for nightly rental.  But my favorite room by far is the parlor!  Located on the first floor, the parlor is a gathering space for residents and visitors to the city to meet up and mingle.

With sustainability in mind, the goal was to reuse as much material as possible in the parlor’s design.  But there was no desire to recreate a Victorian Parlor here.  Instead the idea was to build a bridge between the past and the present, give a nod to the El Moore’s Victorian past without actually trying to be Victorian.  The design team accomplished this by moving the only surviving original fireplace from an upstairs apartment down to the parlor, as well as the only remaining turret bench. The original wood floors were restored as well.  The decor and furnishings, while suggesting times gone by, are much more contemporary and the clean, uncluttered feel of the space is much more in line with our modern sensibilities.

Current parlor.

Current parlor.

 

Another view of the current parlor.

Another view of the current parlor.

A.C. Varney, as we know from his book Our Homes and Their Adornments, was an expert in Victorian living. Victorian society was very rule-driven – there were rules about absolutely everything, including how to decorate your home. All of this information is detailed in his book, and what I learned when I revisited it recently was that there was barely a surface within a room that was not covered with something – carpets, draperies, tapestries, doilies, wallpaper, embroidery, pictures and knick-knacks (you should really have a look at this book during your next visit)! One of the considerations that drove Varney’s design was the importance of natural light; therefore, lots of windows. However, the building was not insulated at that time, so the need to conserve heat in the winter months could explain the need to cover everything, windows and floors especially. So we could say that the fashion of that time was driven, at least in part, by limitation and their need for comfort. Although we don’t have any period pictures of the El Moore interiors, I have managed to find this picture from the same era of the Richard Storrs Willis parlor in his home on Jefferson Ave. which gives us an idea of what a Victorian parlor might look like. Certainly a beautiful room, but I’m not sure that most people today would be comfortable in such an ornate space.  That kind of formality just isn’t who we are anymore.

Traditional Victorian parlor.

Traditional Victorian parlor.

Varney would tell you that comfort, that of your family and your guests, was paramount – a space had to be welcoming and cheerful – colors and decor in harmony. And we can say the same today. All of the design and decor in the El Moore has been done with an eye on comfort, on being inviting, and encouraging residents and visitors to come together. Beautiful spaces, beautiful colors, a place that welcomes. I hope he would be pleased if he could visit the El Moore today. Pleased that it has survived all these years and that it has undergone a sort of rebirth – that it remembers the past while it looks to the future.

El Moore