The Source for Richmond Architecture and Design Information

Architects of Richmond: Carneal & Johnston


Article and photographs by Robert P. Winthrop.

As part of a continuing series we are featuring an essay from a guest writer, Robert Winthrop. Winthrop is partner at Winthrop, Jenkins, and Associates, a Virginia based architecture firm specializing in historic renovation. Historic buildings have also been his focus in numerous writings and lectures. As author of The Architecture of Jackson Ward, Cast and Wrought: The Architectural Metalwork of Downtown Richmond, Virginia, and Architecture in Downtown Richmond, Winthrop has established himself as an authority on the city’s architectural history.

Winthrop has adapted these essays from a lecture series at the Virginia Historical Society. The series, entitled “Sophisticates and Wild Men,” followed the interaction between the exuberant Victorian architects and the sober classicists at the turn of the twentieth century.

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William Leigh Carneal (1881-1958) and J. M. Ambler (1885-1974)

Established in 1908 the firm of Carneal & Johnston became the most prolific Richmond architectural practice of the twentieth century. They produced a huge number of buildings specializing in commercial and institutional works. In their later years the firm’s output might best be described as conventional and substantial. They produced major work for Virginia Tech, Virginia Military Academy and for the University of Richmond.  Some of their earlier works were daring and imaginative; a few of their early buildings are eccentric.

William Carneal was the architectural member of the firm. Carneal was a native Richmonder and his father was a partner in the large hardware firm, Sitterding-Carneal-Davis. In 1903 he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute.  He worked for his father’s firm and then briefly worked for C. K. Howell.  This was his only overt architectural training. Carneal went out on his own in 1906.

He shared and office with Ambler Johnston for a year and then formed a partnership in 1908. Ambler was a native of Rockbridge County. He was an electrical engineer who studied at V. P. I. and Cornell. Carneal’s association with V.M.I. and Johnston’s with V.P.I. would provide an important part of the firm’s work for the next 60 years.

The firm produced well over a thousand buildings of greatly different levels of architectural inspiration. Some work is conventional and utilitarian.  Other buildings are impressive and imaginative.   They worked for developers, institutions, governments and businesses. They responded to the needs and demands of each.

During the first decade of the firm’s life there was a distinctive classical style to their work. One assumes this was Carneal’s personal preference. A row of small houses on Grace Street erected in 1907 illustrate the style. The first level is limestone and the upper level is red brick with stone dressings. The houses are crowned with a comparatively simple classical cornice.

Their largest early project is similar in design approach.  Gresham Court of 1909 uses the same elements, but on a high rise building. In this case the limestone is replaced with buff brick, but the architectural impact remains the same. The single bay windows of the Grace Street houses are replaced with stacked bays. The windows and quoins are trimmed in limestone colored terra-cotta.

The firm’s early apartment houses on Monument Avenue use a similar vocabulary. The Stafford and Brooke are the finest of these. The Brooke of 1912 is particularly well detailed. It is a dignified and impressive classical mass. They also designed the Baptist Home for Aged Women on Grove Avenue in 1913. This is a simple mass enveloped in wide porch supported by paired columns. Set back from the street, this building has considerable charm. While the firm was a pioneer in apartment house design, the firm designed few apartments after the Brooke.

Their finest early church was designed in 1911 for Westminster Presbyterian.  Located on Park Avenue facing Davis Avenue, the church is a simple Corinthian temple-form structure on a high basement. They also designed the Boulevard Methodist Church in 1919, a few blocks away. While it is handsome and dignified, it might well be a bank or an auditorium. The firm was specializing in commercial and institutional buildings by 1919, and the Boulevard church seems cold. In 1955 they designed the Reveille Methodist Church. It is a fine Colonial Revival structure with only its large scale indicating it is a mid-century building.

The most unexpected of the firm’s buildings was the new home for the Richmond Dairy of 1913. Located on the edge of Jackson Ward.  It is in a simplified Gothic featuring three, monumental, two-story high milk bottles as the primary architectural features. The building is impressive in spite of the curious design choice.

In 1913 they became the associated architect for Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, the architects for the new Richmond College at Westhampton. Cram was one of the most distinguished Neo Gothic architects in the nation at the time. Now the University of Richmond, Carneal and Johnston would continue to work with the college for decades. They would also work Cram at VPI.

Carneal did some residential work in the early part of his career, but houses eventually became a minor part of the firm’s work. Most notable was the Isaac Held house of 1911. Built on a triangular lot at the future site of the Maury Monument, it presents and ordered face to Monument Avenue.  The rear of the house is a contorted exercise in wedging the house onto the difficult lot. Best known as the home of author James Branch Cabell, the eccentric house seems to mirror his eccentric writings.

Carneal & Johnston’s 1912 home on Monument Avenue for H. S. Wallerstein is a neo-gothic in brick and terra-cotta tile. This house may reflect Carneal’s association with Cram and Ferguson. It is an impressive house, but has more of an institutional than a residential ambience. Carneal’s Bellevue School of the same year shares the same architectural vocabulary. The firm did comparatively few public schools, and Bellevue is the most architecturally successful. More typical is the Sacred Heart School of 1920 on Floyd Avenue.  This building is simple and direct rather than imposing.

The firm was also the associated architect on the J. B. Mosby store with noted New York City department store architects, Starrett & Van Vleck.  Remarkably, the vaulted interior of this building remains. Built in 1916, this building is a reworking of Stanford White’s Gorham building of 1906. Carneal and Johnston designed their own version of the building in 1921 for the Methodist Publishing House at the corner of Seventh and Grace Street. Known as the Cokesbury Building, it is one of Richmond’s finest commercial buildings of the period.

They produced several theaters, of which the exterior of the Colonial Theater, 1919 is the sole survivor. The designed numerous stores, ranging from some simple and utilitarian designs to impressive structures. The finest of these is the Corley Company store of 1928 on Grace Street and the beautiful Art Deco Syndor & Hundley furniture store of 1931, located a few blocks away. They were the associated architects for John Eberson’s CFB and the associated Arcade. The Syndor building recalls the sophisticated detailing of the impressive skyscraper.

The firm survived the Depression, as did Richmond two other well established firms, Baskervill & Son and Marcellus Wright. The handsome Italian Renaissance complex of St. Joseph’s Villa dates from 1930-31. It is one of the firm’s most attractive works. Oscar Pendleton Wright, Marcellus Wright’s brother, was a partner in the Carneal firm at his time and he lists the Villa as his project.

C & J’s monumental home for the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation is their most notable work of the later period. This is in the stripped down classical style associated with the dictatorships of the 1930s. Highway Department is particularly impressive. In the United States, the style is associated with the important French born architect, Paul Cret. Cret was the head of the University of Pennsylvania’s school of architecture. His austere approach to classicism was influential through the United States. The austerity seemed appropriate during the Depression when funds were limited.

Robert P. Winthrop


  • David E. James

    Marcellus Eugene Wright Sr. was my grandfather. Oscar Pendleton Wright was my great uncle.

  • Daniel Gibbs

    Nota bene: the Colonial Theatre opened on October 12, 1921. The earlier Colonial that it replaced was torn down in 1919, but the Carneal and Johnston edifice was not completed until ’21. As my email address will attest, it was my favorite movie palace.

  • Ambler J. Gilmore

    My curiosity about what had been published about my grandfather’s architectural firm, Carneal & Johnston, led me to discover your fine web site.
    The overview was certainly a nice tribute to him and his associates, though I would suggest a couple of corrections:
    First, instead of J. M. Ambler, he should have been identified as J. Ambler Johnston.
    Second, he was a mechanical engineer, not an electrical engineer.
    Ambler Johnston Gilmore

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