Thomas Woltz and the Monticello Project

It’s a mid-June morning in Charlottesville, and a charismatic Thomas Woltz is discussing the art of collaboration on the Victorian porch of his Locust Avenue home.

He’d flown down from New York the night before, then woke at five to get his hands dirty, weeding the garden he’s sculpted on his half-acre lot. By nine, he’d been photographed and briefly interviewed—with visits to Monticello and the University lingering just ahead.

Woltz is the principal and owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, a firm he’s transformed from groundbreaking regional practice into international game-changer over the past 12 years.

He’s done that by working intently with others, sharing credit whenever and wherever possible. It’s a consistent theme throughout his entire oeuvre across the globe.

He’s succeeded by listening to the land that informs its culture and the culture that informs its land. But he’s achieved rock star status because he listens carefully to people, too—long before he begins working with them.

Collaboration is a matter of keeping “peace in the kingdom,” he says.

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

When Leslie Greene Bowman joined Monticello in 2008 as president (now emeritus) of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, NBW was hired to develop a comprehensive landscape plan for the entire acreage at Monticello, thanks to a trustee’s gift. “We didn’t consider any other firm,” Bowman says. “Thomas and his firm did a wonderful job of giving us a through line with hot spots and opportunities for cultural holdings.”

More recently, NBW worked there on a single project with two parts. When Monticello’s Visitor Center was envisioned in 2009, the foundation’s leadership was informed of a nearby burial ground for about 40 of Monticello’s enslaved population—by the descendants of those buried there. Once anomalies in the ground were confirmed, the foundation issued a statement of values about the site.

“We wanted to restore and enhance this burial ground, and the descendants wanted the public to be involved and aware of this history,” Bowman says, adding that it’s the only known burial ground of slaves at Monticello and that work is ongoing to find others.

NBW collaborated on the project with Peter Cook, an African American architect who’s design principal and vice president at HGA in Washington, D.C. The two firms worked together to reveal and improve the five-and-a-half acre burial ground site and make it accessible to visitors and descendants.

NBW designed a pathway that now circumscribes the burial ground for contemplative walks, then added plantings. It identified sites for public seating, and for descendants’ parking and private seating. With HGA, it collaborated on the site’s benches, railings, and a gate that opens to a descendants’ seating area. It also suggested removing eight parking spaces that were abutting the site. The space is now reclaimed as a reforested 
buffer that helps create sanctity, respect, and dignity.

Farther up the mountain at Mulberry Row—where many of Jefferson’s slaves worked and lived—NBW, HGA, the descendants, and the Monticello staff collaborated on a Contemplative Site that honors all those whom Jefferson owned. “It’s equal parts landscape architecture and architecture,” Cook says of the site. “Thomas offered his thoughts, opinions, and design creativity, but allowed us space to refine our concepts.”

The Contemplative Site consists of an HGA-designed, 60-foot Corten steel wall with a slight curve, one that traces a recreated, Jefferson-era “1-in-10” path where his slaves would walk to retrieve water from the North Spring.

Three fieldstone benches, capped with bluestone, are strategically placed before the wall that faces south toward the burial site. The names of 607 people known to have been owned by Jefferson were water-jet cut into the steel, with blank spaces left so other names can be added as they are found.

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

Closer to home, there’s the Beaverdam Reservoir in Loudoun County, as well as work at Keswick Hall, the Blue Moon Foundation headquarters, and a multitude of farms across Albemarle County.

All that flows from a firm with 50 employees—in Charlottesville, Manhattan, and a field office in Houston. The kind of work they choose to do—or not to do—attracts gifted designers like a magnet, “The staff he’s surrounded himself with is the most talented and kindhearted in the profession,” says Jenn Jessup, a senior NBW 
associate in Charlottesville.

Jessup started in 2015, after graduating from Virginia Tech and interviewing with Woltz in late 2014. She entered the interview a little intimidated, then found herself surprisingly relaxed. “His work is so powerful, but I felt like I was talking to my mom,” she says.

Since he bought the firm from Warren Byrd, its cofounder, Woltz has worked on clarifying its mission and methodology. He’s honed his staff and his definition of landscape architecture—and merged the two into his own vision.

“For me landscape architecture is a kind of living public service—for the ecology of the planet and the humans that occupy it,” he says. “Working with that in your heart means you approach it in a different way.”

He’s assembled a team with advanced degrees in restoration ecology and conservation biology for what he calls the Conservation Group. Its job: to rapidly assess the environment for a project, whether urban or rural. Then there’s the Culture Group that specializes in history, including everything from life in the Colonial period to Emancipation. “It’s a research-driven design process where we ask the land questions as it exists,” he says.

By the time they’ve got their answers, they understand the land in an intimate way. They then synthesize that understanding with the client’s perspective—and decide what will be built. Finally, they turn to a Communications Group for film, signage, and wayfinding to help designers tell their stories. “When we write a contract, each group is represented, and if you look at the structure of our office, it looks exactly like the contract,” he says.

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

It is an immense kingdom. NBW has conceptualized and designed the restoration of a temperate rainforest in New Zealand, created a rooftop Garden of Light at the Aga Khan Centre in London, and designed the public plaza, streetscape, and rooftop gardens for Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

The firm’s work stretches across the states. On the boards are 45 active projects, including the Nina Simone Childhood Home in Tryon, N.C, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, the Angel Oak Preserve in Charleston, S.C., and Bard College’s Comprehensive Landscape Plan in New York. It has executed a master plan for Memorial Park in Houston, created the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., and, for the past decade, has been designing the construction of major landscapes in Nashville’s Centennial Park.

Perhaps NBW’s most ambitious and impactful collaboration in the state is nearing completion now on the Grounds of the University of Virginia. The Contemplative Commons faces the Dell, one of Warren Byrd’s last projects. It was also, Byrd says, one of the firm’s first expressions of natural and cultural history.

Located on the western edge of the University, the Dell’s 1,300 feet of a daylighted stream was piped underground in the 1950s. Completed in 2004, its rain gardens now filter water at Meadow Creek’s edge. Water flows into a pond where it’s cleaned further and is then released into the Rivanna River. Snapping turtles, kingfishers, and blue herons now call this sculpted landscape home.

Like the Dell, Contemplative Commons is aligned precisely with Jefferson’s design grid. The 57,000- square-foot structure by San Francisco architects Aidlin Darling Design looks out to the Dell from a four-story courtyard, open to the sky. Its first two exterior floors are clad in stone that echo the Dell’s fieldstone walls. Its top two floors are common-bond brick, resembling the masonry on nearby buildings.

NBW articulated the landscape inside and outside the courtyard in concert with the Dell’s plantings, its terraced slopes, and the shape of its pond. “His knowledge of plants is breathtaking,” architect Joshua Aidlin says of Woltz. “We talked days on end about how plants worked vertically or laterally with the Dell—it’s such a rigorous story of how it relates to the micro-climate and the planted world.”

NBW collaborated with a number of groups on one of the most dramatic elements connected to the Center. Early on, the firm—along with Philadelphia-based urban planners Venturi Scott Brown—was asked to assist in the Center’s site selection. One approach suggested a bridge that would connect McIntire Hill dorms behind the proposed Center across from the Dell, continue east up Monroe Hill on the main campus, and then to a walkway leading to Pavilion IV on the Lawn.

Once a design team was assembled to include Aidlin Darling and VMDO Architects, NBW designed the sweeping, 735-foot-long bridge as it was planned. 
The richly planted, structural and sculptural form blurs boundaries between design disciplines—and curves 24 feet above Emmet Street. It also docks with the Center where, after a walk along the building’s interior edge, a view of the planted courtyard and the Dell is revealed.

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

The Center will serve students and professors at the University as a setting for research and study that integrates meditation, yoga, and teaching to guide students’ thoughts and actions through mind and body awareness.

“The Center works on both sides of the house for cross fertilization, so academics are more in contact with the social side and vice versa, to create a bridge,” says David Germano, former director of the Center and an early proponent of the physical bridge.

Germano was instrumental in assuring that the Center came to fruition. He was also part of a committee that heard presentations from six competing teams of architects and landscape architects for its creation. Of the six teams, five had chosen NBW as their partner. Germano says Woltz’s presentations were “visionary and very compelling. He is extraordinarily eloquent—an inspiring speaker.”

The NBW/Aidlin Darling Design entry won because it articulated bold solutions for the Center’s goal of merging academic and social life at the University. It won because it proposed a metaphorical, High Line-like link between the academic campus, the Center, and a residential hall. And it won because it shines a new beacon on an entry to the Grounds. “That northeast corner will glow at night, nestled next to the Dell,” Aidlin says.

But it also won because a charismatic Thomas Woltz is also a generous collaborator—and, as NBW senior associate Jeff Aten says, he’s the ultimate storyteller. 

At Machicomoco State Park in Gloucester County, NBW master-planned 645 acres on the York River, then executed a detailed design scheme. Comprehensive landscape planning started in 2018, with the first phase of construction completed in 2020.

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

The goal, says Jessup, was to honor and interpret the land’s use for all people who lived there over time, to protect and preserve it and to make the invisible visible again. “The site showed evidence of a long, broad timeline of agriculture, maritime use, forest, marsh, and upland estuary habitat,” she says. “It has a rich cultural and ecological history.”

They collaborated with Martin Gallivan, anthropology department chair at William & Mary, and met with descendants of the Algonquin-speaking tribes who once inhabited the site. All information was vetted through the tribes’ chiefs. “We showed them the analysis we’d done, and we listened to the stories they told us,” she says.

The firm designed and built an open-air interpretive pavilion, picnic shelters, campsites, trails, and boardwalks. Their material palette included oyster shells, plentiful on site and in the water.

For the pavilion, NBW designers referenced Algonquin Chief Powhatan’s longhouse, or yehakin, recently excavated at Werowocomoco, 10 miles upriver. It recalls the traditional Algonquin form, using black locust timber because that’s what indians likely used. “Their structures were clad in bark and grasses, but we used overlapping panels made of corrugated metal,” says Jessup.

“Lost No More” was written by J. Michael Welton after his trip to Venice for the Architecture Biennale in 2012. It is adapted and reprinted from Dream of Venice Architecture by JoAnn Locktov. 

I’m an eighth-generation Virginian, a fact that carries some weight in certain parts of the Commonwealth. But when I traveled to Venice and the Architecture Biennale in 2012, Virginia and my entire notion of the world slipped into a Venetian dream state, totally untethered from the 21st century—which made it a fine and lovely place to get lost.

After arriving at the airport and making that long, purgatorial trudge from terminal to vaporetto dock, I hopped onto a waterbus. A breathtaking ride followed, past buildings too old and too wondrous to comprehend. I disembarked at my prescribed stop, seeking Philippe Starck’s Palazzina G Hotel, which was no easy quest. Wandering streets and bridges for 30 minutes, I finally located the service entrance to the hotel restaurant. The staff fell all over themselves. There was no signage, they said, so guests like Naomi Watts and Johnny Depp could avoid the paparazzi. “But: please—have some cake and prosecco!”

A nap ensued, followed by a visit to the concierge, who tapped the address of Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo into my GPS. I plunged into the twilight for a flaneur’s 45-minute stroll, now feeling not-quite-so lost. At my destination, I ascended a stairway for a boisterous rooftop view of the Grand Canal. After a glass of wine, I slipped down to the courtyard for dinner. At dessert, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Would I like, my host asked, to tour the galleries? And, ecco! The Peggy Guggenheim Collection—the Pollocks, the Picassos, the Magrittes, the Mondrians, and the rest—were all mine for 15 quiet minutes until 75 guests roared in.

I stepped out onto the portico. Turning left, I noted a bronze plaque, its raised letters praising the courtyard’s restoration by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, from Charlottesville, Virginia.

It was my 60th birthday in Venice, and I was at home.

—J. Michael Welton

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