Gaver NIchols has a vision for the homes of Del Ray

PUBLICATION: Alexandria Port Gazette Packet
DATE: Sep 10, 1998

Driving down Monroe Avenue in Del Ray, Gaver Nichols points to a porch roof suspended by rough pieces of lumber at a 45-degree angle. The rubble of what used to be a front porch lay underneath; renovation is in progress. “Damn I missed it!” he says while thinking of what he could have done for that house. But having worked on more than 60 projects in Alexandria, he doesn’t miss much. Nichols is an architect with a vision for Del Ray, the section of Alexandria north of Braddock Road and roughly confined by Mount Vernon and Commonwealth avenues. “It’s my neighborhood,” he said.

Nichols graduated from Virginia Polytechnical Institute, in Blacksburg, with a degree in architecture in 1979. He completed his three-year apprenticeship in 1982, but then he became a stockbroker. He says that working as a stock broker, in Tysons Corners, taught him how to run a business — something architecture wouldn’t. Nichols returned to home building in 1988 by taking a job on a construction crew. “You really learn how to build a house, by taking one apart, “ he says

“I began to see that the public likes character homes, and they want them updated,” he said. Soon after buying a house in Del Ray, Nichols started to test his design theories on it. “Build it first, then get hired” became his strategy. But he is not quite Howard Roarke — the fictional architect in a popular 1940s novel — who shocked society and fought city hall with his designs. Nichols’ designs beautify the neighborhood, but seldom does he fight to gain acceptance for his work. He soothes his clients, much like he did as a stockbroker, by anticipating one question: “Do you own it?” Walking along the mahogany flooring on Nichols’ new porch and looking at the Hardiplank siding on his house is proof enough that he uses the same material on his house as he does in his designs. “After all I have to run into my neighbors in the grocery store,” he said.

Walking through his lawn one gets a sense of his larger vision, what he calls “shared visual green space.” His house, 319 Monroe Ave., shares open space with three other houses all of which are hemmed in by the same iron fence. The largest of these houses is an old brick boarding house Nichols renovated. It sits much closer to the road than two houses, which Nichols designed, on either side. Nichols designed the porches of these houses to be on one visual plane. From the Rite Aid parking lot across the street it appears that all the porches are on one level, an optical illusion produced by adjusting the height of each porch in proportion to the distance of the observer.

Blending seamlessly

Nichols, whose designs of porches, pillars and farm house styles to match those of a century ago, wants his buildings to “blend into what was there seamlessly.” He has done projects on Alabama and Dewitt avenues, Oronoco Street, and many locations in Alexandria and said that there are “maybe four or five houses in each area” that he takes his cues from. “I am constantly studying old buildings,” he said. “Blending the old with new technologies and materials” requires balancing budget, zoning, and sometimes neighbors who don’t like construction debris. Nichols often works with city officials and members of the community to develop a design that will meet zoning requirements and add to the community.

Nichols also explains that “there is a whole network of us out there.” He says that he often develops a property with the owner and a contractor as a kind of partnership. Although some of his design details are often scrapped in the construction, he says that working with one contractor can lower the price because it is easier to economize on some things while maintaining the integrity of the design. One such contractor is Russell Seward, who went to school with Nichols and is working with him on a house in the Beverley Hills area of Alexandria. The design is Nichols’, but the work — which in this case requires taking out the corner of the house — is Seward’s.

Nichols gets his inspiration, and often his next project, by walking the neighborhood. “I have been trained to see the potential of a building,” he says. Even if the building is a “Sears bungalow” like the one he designed the renovation for on the corner of E. Oxford and Commonwealth Ave. That project, the construction of which is being done by another contractor, illustrates Nichols’ vision for the neighborhood. Driving past it, Nichols points to a bungalow across the street and says “that’s the model” and further down the street points out the inspiration for the second house he designed that is being built on that property.

“I just try to help folks as best I can,” Nichols said. Judging by his designs he is helping the whole neighborhood.

“I just try to help folks as best I can,” Nichols said. Judging by his designs he is helping the whole neighborhood.


A house on Stonewall now transformed.

Plans for the home on Stonewall Road.

Architect Gaver Nichols’ house on Monroe Avenue in Del Ray.

What once was a Sears bungalow.

A house in progress.

The proposed redesign plans for two homes on Oxford and Commonwealth.

This house on East Alexandria was not done by Gaver Nichols. He consulted with the owners who followed his advice to create an award-winning home.

 A house on East Windsor.