Friday, December 3, 2010

Nosey, But Heart-Healthy

Who doesn't like a peek where you're not supposed to go? Well, perhaps well-behaved types, but I must not be one of them.

Tonight the Virginia Center for Architecture was hosting a holiday open house, significant because the second floor of the Branch House (where the VCA is housed) was going to be open to the public. And this public wanted a room (or ten) with a view.

Now I've been to the VCA many times and I've even taken the tour of the Branch House, but I'd never seen anything but the main floor where the exhibitions are held. I was chomping at the bit to see what was behind the curtain.

Like so many Richmonders, I find the Branch House fascinating. The concept of building a 63-room house with eleven levels for living in for only four months of the year (simply for the social season, darling, September through January) speaks to a level of wealth beyond my comprehension.

The Branches had an extensive collection of Italian tapestries and antiques (no doubt from living in their Florence house) and the individual rooms were designed to accommodate specific collections. At least that's how they justified it.

I loved the warmth of the wood-paneled music room, which was also used as a gentlemen's smoking parlor. At the time, it was hung with wall tapestries to hide the liquor cabinets built into the walls (it being Prohibition and all), despite the plethora of speakeasies on Monument Avenue (who knew?).

A photograph in the room showed a harp situated in a corner near the window, ready for musical evenings with the leaded windows open. How very civilized.

Mrs. Branch's bedroom was enormous with extensive decorative motifs in cream and blue; it held Addams period antiques. There were no closets in her room because they were on the third floor (taking up nearly a third of that floor, so she must have been quite the snappy dresser), but there was a butler's pantry just next door for the preparation of Mrs. B's breakfast.

Also up there were the servants' quarters as well as the rooms for the grandchildren (why see them or hear them if you don't have to?).

Our guide mentioned that Mrs. B never laid eyes on any of this because she never went higher than the second floor (no need to clearly), which says volumes.

I was beyond surprised to be shown the outlet for the central vacuum cleaning system, a feature I would not have guessed would have been in existence in 1919. With enough money ($160,000 in 1916 dollars) though, I suppose anything was possible.

Probably the most striking feature of the second floor was the living room ceiling, made from a combination of molds, carvings and stencils, white and vaulted.

It was a study in contrasts, however, with the molds chosen from a sample book but the artisans brought over from Europe to do the intricate work.

Upon walking upstairs, I had been joined by another would-be snoop who, much like me, said his primary purpose in coming out tonight had been to see the elusive second floor.

We were partners in crime, opening doors (many with large brass rings rather than doorknobs) and cabinets to satisfy our curiosity together. It was illuminating hearing the guide's information and it was just as cool to check out all the unexplained stuff on our stealth tour.

The reception downstairs had live music, food, drink and socializing, but after the high of playing sleuth in an historic house, not much could compare, so I enjoyed some time in the museum shop and then headed out.

Now that the safety/beautification project has been completed at Shepherd and Cary, I ventured back to Secco for dinner. As usual, it was mobbed, but with just one empty bar stool mid-bar, I was all set.

The sudden shift to December weather made red wine a requirement so I put myself in mind of the south of Spain with the 2009 Verasol Monastrell (also with Cabernet and Syrah) and was not disappointed.

My frozen bones must have been evident on arrival because my server (new Dad Lincoln) asked if my hands were cold and when I nodded yes, returned with a glass of hot water "Don't drink it. wrap your hands around it," he instructed. It's the little things.

Wanting to extend the warmth even further, I ordered a bowl of the ribollita with cranberry beans and farro.

It was a hearty Tuscan vegetable soup and, as owner Julia pointed out, dangerously close to vegan if not for the abundance of grated Parmesan on top of all that beautiful kale. A big hunk of soaked bread awaited me at the bottom of the bowl; now I was warm.

My second course was dealer's choice meat and cheese: Langa la tur (Italian sheep, goat and cow milk cheese), Sottoconcre (Italian semi-soft with ash-dusted rind) and Jamon Iberico (that tastiest of Spanish acorn-fed ham). Dealer's choice works for me because otherwise, I'll just ask for the stinkiest cheese on the list and never try anything subtle. Force it on me and I'll love it.

It was during this course that I started chatting up my neighbor, a woman who had recently closed her retail shop to go back into the corporate world. When asked if she read, she shook her head no. "But 2011 is the year I get my life back," she proclaimed, raising a glass.

Given that she said the only thing she's had time to do for the past few years was watch "Glee" and sleep, I'd say she was overdue for a change. I don't recall the last time someone told me that becoming a corporate drone was their goal, but I sincerely wished her all the best.

I got sucked into a discussion of relationships and dating with a couple of nearby females, with occasional input from our male server. I found myself mostly listening, being newly returned to this world, but curious about their recent experiences nonetheless.

One asked why she knew so many smart and amazing women unable to find good guys. That was an answer I was curious to hear, but no one seemed to have one. I've been gone a while, but maybe there are just too many single women?

I didn't need dessert, but since I was raised in a family where dessert was a nightly occurrence, I feel safe in saying it's just a genetic pre-disposition that makes me order it when I'm full, which I was. And that was even after the preserves with the cheese had sated my sweet tooth. No two ways about it, I am weak.

Well warmed by then, I decided to get the olive oil gelato with rosemary sorbet to finish things off. The mouthfeel of the gelato was just this side of obscene with its rich, dense flavor and texture. Don't judge; I was just following a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil's heart- healthy fat. Yea, right.

After all, I wouldn't want to offer up anything but a healthy heart...assuming there are some spare men out there looking for one.


  1. in a previous incarnation the Branch House serviced as the local office for the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co.[circa] 1980..purchased by Jan & Robert Pogue of Wisconsin. the conversion to "office building" took two years. I was present during that time. Probably no tour made no mention of the Hellen Keller Room.."the circular closet" or the ghost elevator...nor the 5000 gallon oil tank under Monument Ave. The cedar linen closets on the third floor were to die for. the stories i could tell about that's sights & sounds on a cold dark rainy night...what used to go up & down that dumb waiter.. or what really happened in the "apartment".. the library or the Master Bedroom... would give you the creeps...

  2. I saw more than I blogged about but we'll just leave that to the imagination. The house is quite the experience and I was just happy to snoop what I could.