On December 19, the Branch House, one of the most distinctive buildings in the city of Richmond, will celebrate its one hundredth birthday. A special hallmark of this centennial celebration will be the temporary return of one of the home’s original furnishings, and one of the things that inspired John Kerr Branch, an avid collector, to have his Monument Avenue home built in the first place.
Part of the reason Kerr had the place built was to house his expansive art collection, which included a 16th century Flemish tapestry, measuring fourteen-by-ten feet. This tapestry, which features a graphic telling of the marriage of Rachel Jacob, will be on loan from J.K. Branch’s descendants, the Dotts, starting in mid-December.
The Old Testament story of Jacob was a popular subject for Flemish Renaissance tapestry design. Jacob, called Israel, was the traditional ancestor of the people of Israel. Through deception he robbed his brother’s birthright. While escaping his brother’s wrath, he fell in love with Rachel. Rachel and Jacob’s path to the altar was operatic, to say the least, involving a dark tent, a substitute bride, and a love triangle.
Designed by Bernard van Orley, the tapestry was woven by Willem de Kempeneer on fabric of silk and wool. Gold and silver wrapped threads were used in the tapestry. This tapestry is thought to be one from an original series commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This much-prized Story of Jacob set of tapestries is recorded in the collection of Charles’ son, Philip II of Spain.
“The tapestry’s return represents a happy reunion, especially because my great-grandparents built the house one hundred years ago to house this beautiful work of art and others like it,” says Walter Dotts, whose late mother Zayde Rennolds Dotts inherited the tapestry. “It personalizes the Branch Museum and will help tell the story of who built the house and why. It’s also a terrific example of the principle of decorum, that is, appropriate decoration for specific rooms dedicated to a particular use. In this case, an art work depicting a marriage feast will hang in the original dining room of the Branch House.” The public will have its first opportunity in this century to see the tapestry at the Branch House come December.
Back in the early 1900s, after receiving the gift of half a city block from his father, John Kerr Branch commissioned John Russell Pope’s firm to design the house. Pope, of course, was noted for his design of the National Archives Research Center, the Jefferson Memorial and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and here in Richmond, the neo-classical masterpiece, Broad Street Station, which now houses the Science Museum of Virginia.
The Branch House, at more than 30,000 square feet, is roughly three times the size of its stalwart neighbors on Monument. The architectural style of this elaborate home is frequently described as Tudor-Jacobean Revival. According to the 1984 application to the National Register of Historic Places the design “incorporated salient features from several 16th-century English country houses to form a convincingly correct assemblage of design elements,” adding that “to maintain the illusion of age, the architect had the building materials distressed and aged to add patina to the image of power and pedigree.”
Back in 1984 the house was formally listed on the National Register of Historic Places. About twenty years later the Virginia Center for Architecture Foundation bought the house and opened it to the public two years after that. Five years ago the Center’s mission expanded and the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design was born.
The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
2501 Monument Avenue
Richmond, VA 23220