All in the family: Architect Anne Gibson Mark helms her father’s business

Johnson, Craven & Gibson has a long history with Charlottesville, with projects that include many buildings at the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville City Courthouse, shops and apartments on the Downtown Mall (such as Timberlake's and what's now Java Java) and the Boar's Head Inn (pictured), for which the firm has handled design since it was built in 1963. Photo: Kirsten Rose Photography Johnson, Craven & Gibson has a long history with Charlottesville, with projects that include many buildings at the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville City Courthouse, shops and apartments on the Downtown Mall (such as Timberlake’s and what’s now Java Java) and the Boar’s Head Inn (pictured), for which the firm has handled design since it was built in 1963. Photo: Kirsten Rose Photography

When you’re young, one of the hardest —and most important—decisions you face is what to pursue as your life’s work. For Anne Gibson Mark, that choice didn’t come easy. She had always been interested in architecture—her father was a founding principal of local firm Johnson, Craven & Gibson, so she’d grown up with an appreciation for the craft her whole life—but two years into architecture school at UVA, she decided to take a year off and pursue another love: tennis.

“[At UVA], I was simultaneously playing on the tennis team under Lindsay Burns and Mary Hotchkiss and earned the MVP award in 1976,” she says. “I taught at a tennis camp with [tennis pro] Ian Crookenden and helped [tennis coach] Mike Dolan with clinics. I was ranked second in the mid-Atlantic.”

But ultimately, after a year as a tennis pro, she went back to architecture.

“I missed the thoughtful challenges of the field,” she says. In 1985, she returned to Charlottesville to take over JCG when the firm’s partners retired. She’s been there ever since.

“The mountains, the seasons and the remaining small town feel have shaped my personality and my sensibilities,” she says. Seems like some things just come easy.

Anne Gibson Mark. Photo: Amy Jackson
Anne Gibson Mark. Photo: Amy Jackson

Why architecture?

From an outsider’s point of view, I took a straight-line path to the practice of architecture, whereas the route was challenging and circuitous in reality. My primary interests throughout school were math, art and tennis. I had an early exposure to architecture as my father was one of the founding principals in the firm of Johnson, Craven & Gibson in 1947. Early in life, I had to learn to spell “architecture” as they used to ask you on forms what your father’s work was. He had a parallel edge and drafting tools at our house so I was allowed to play with triangles, scales and compasses. I also loved to paint watercolors with him on the weekends. He also often took us to his job sites. I remember visiting the site of the Boar’s Head Inn and watching the timber frame of the old mill after it had been carefully numbered and dismantled being reassembled at its new location. I remember taking the trip down to Peaks of Otter Lodge as it was being built and after its completion. I watched the City Courthouse be built and heard about the riots at UVA when Wilson Hall was added to the Lawn. However, I did not grow up thinking I would be an architect.

Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson
Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson

I spent a great deal of my time playing and teaching tennis well into my 20s. However, I realized by the time that I was applying to colleges that I wanted a “real” career, and due to my mother’s own regret for not having a career, she encouraged me to think of one that I could do. Since math and art were the subjects that I enjoyed the most, I decided architecture would be a good fit for me. When I started to apply to colleges, my father’s firm was working hard on the Virginia Psychiatric Institute. His passion for the project was evident as he discussed the early programming of the project and how exciting it was that they were going to create living pods where patients could come for varying lengths of time. It was considered a great innovation in that it was not a place to live forever, but basically thought of as an outpatient service. I became fascinated with the idea that buildings were responding to the specific needs of a lifestyle or medical condition. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to become an architect. I went directly into architecture school from high school, but after two years I took a year off to rethink my decision.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

I am a native of Charlottesville which again would make it seem like an obvious pathway to practicing here. However, I never thought that Charlottesville would be where I ended up! After attending the architecture school at UVA, I worked in Richmond for Glave, Newman and Anderson. After a year, I went on to graduate school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Upon graduation I set out to discover my own path and accepted a position in Baltimore at Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet. My father’s firm asked me to return to Charlottesville in 1985 as he and his partners were hoping to retire at some point and wanted the firm to continue. I have remained here since. The local environment has at this point become an integral part of who I am. As a native of Charlottesville and the daughter of a Charlottesville architect I have been presented with a unique opportunity to practice here. I have come to truly understand and value the importance of the architectural vernacular and what makes Charlottesville so special.

Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson
Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson

What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?

I grew up in an old farmhouse that was recently torn down to make the new lower school at St. Anne’s-Belfield. Our property was surrounded by woods and fields. There were old farm buildings and our house itself was old and had been added on to several times. We usually spent our weekends doing some household fixes or playing outside. I was always fascinated by the plan of our house and the interaction of the house with the natural environment. However, if I reflect on what was most influential in my love and understanding of architecture, I would say that it was travel. When I travelled in the mid-Atlantic for tennis tournaments, I was always intrigued with the other towns and cities and how people lived. At that time, you were typically “housed” by someone who lived locally. You could see such a difference between the small towns and the large cities. Throughout my childhood, I visited a friend whose family had a home on the coast of Maine. Again, the landscape of the rocky coastline and the water surrounded by mountains introduced me to another style of architecture. When I was in high school, I spent a summer studying with a group called Corolla in England run by the Blue Ridge School in Dyke. I spent the summer in Reading, England, and one of my courses was on the history of British architecture. We took lots of local trips as well as spending three days in Paris. I was so amazed by the age of the cathedrals and even some of the homes and shops. It was fascinating to see how the architecture reflected the lifestyle. Upon returning home, the contrast made me aware of how much the landscape or natural environment had influenced the architecture.

Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson
Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson

Tell us about your college experience. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

I went to the University of Virginia architecture school right out of high school. It was a big surprise to me to be in an academic arena where the student presented his or her work and was publically criticized in front of a jury as part of the education process. It was also a surprise to me that I was one of 10 women in a class of a hundred! There were no longer absolutes of right and wrong, but what felt like very subjective determinations of what was good or bad. Perhaps Mario Valmarana had the most influence on me as I took some independent studies with him and then spent a summer in Vicenza studying Paladian architecture. I think the impact of the history and rules of design that became so apparent have had a lasting impact on me. Since then, I have had the opportunity to travel with my husband, Earl Mark, a professor at the UVA School of Architecture. We have travelled to Canada, Scotland, England, Germany, France and Austria. We lived in Cambridge, England, at Downing College while he was on a sabbatical there. Living there for so long allowed us to explore much of the English countryside as well as Scotland and France. In 2001, we travelled to Russia and adopted our two daughters. Once again, it was an inspiring and educational experience.

Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson
Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson

On process: How does it begin?

I approach the design process in a theoretical way. To me it is not a magical inspiration but a series of problems and opportunities to be analyzed and creatively synthesized with vision and purpose. The client’s desires, site and context all have to be examined and then integrated. It is a methodical process and definitely one that evolves into a solution or piece of architecture. It is also a fun process of discovery and possibilities. I like to approach a design solution from as many different perspectives as possible and try to always make it a team approach. Over the years, JCG has assembled a large group of consulting experts whose opinions we value and trust.

Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson
Photo: Courtesy Johnson, Craven & Gibson

What inspires you?

Living in Charlottesville, we are surrounded by inspiration. The natural beauty of the area combined with the incredibly rich history all provides constant inspiration. Understanding and studying our predecessors and how and where they built, their successes and failures all fuel our vision. JCG is a firm that has a long history in Charlottesville. I have been fortunate to have worked with my father, David Gibson, Floyd Johnson and Tommy Craven at UVA, Monticello and many of the beautiful private residences in the area. I’ve also had the opportunity to continue their stewardship of the Boar’s Head Inn and many of their other projects as needs arise today.

It provides us with a sense of continuity, an appreciation for detail and a realization of the power of architecture to positively change one’s life.

Certainly having a great site is very inspirational. Being able to use materials aptly and creating spaces that are enjoyable provided an enduring sense of satisfaction. The greatest accomplishment is when you can satisfy both your client and your own senses.

What are you working on now?

We have just finished a renovation of a 1920s catalog house in the city and we’re currently finishing a new residence in the county. Our next undertaking is the restoration of an early 19th century property that is listed on the National Register.