November 2008 Issue
Sessions Village, an 80-year-old private neighborhood on Columbus’ east side, opens its gates for a rare look at its French-inspired architectural details.
The arched stone gatehouse offers a glimpse of a charming European-style village. A curved cobbled street further beckons passersby to take a closer look. Diamond-paned windows, gabled slate roofs, secret walled gardens and hundreds of other details enchant visitors to the French-Normandy-inspired Sessions Village in the Columbus suburb of Bexley.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this reclusive neighborhood rarely opens its gates to guests. But what lies behind them is a collection of architectural gems rarely seen this side of the Atlantic.
“The architect [the late Robert ‘Roy’ Reeves] was successful in capturing the essence of a French village and plunking it down in Bexley,” says Robert Loversidge, Sessions Village resident and president of the architecture firm Schooley Caldwell Associates. No doubt, the neighborhood emulates a French village with its narrow cobbled street, varied rooflines and intentionally diminutive scale.
The village was created by Reeves and local developer Dwayne Fulton during the prosperity of the late 1920s when, Loversidge says, Ohioans were building homes in the state’s first ring of metropolitan suburbs. Reeves, who had spent time in France and was enamored with the charm of its villages, encouraged Fulton to recreate a small French village on the Sessions Parcel property the developer had recently purchased from Francis Sessions, a prosperous Columbus businessman.
According to village archives, Reeves first gained his passion for romantic building designs as an architecture student of Henry Hornbostle, a romantic baroque designer and the director of the School of Architecture at Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh. Later in his career, Reeves worked in Montfaucon, France, where he won a 1924 competition for a War Memorial for the Ohio 37th Division in World War I.
Upon returning to Columbus, Reeves drew from his library of architectural books to create Sessions Village with the scale, materials and architectural details of a Norman village. Traditionally located where the wooded countryside offered a rich source of timber, these villages were especially noted for their charming half-timbered structures faced with clay and punctuated with steeply pitched roofs. The homes were built close together for space constraints and security reasons.
The first phase of development at Sessions Village began in 1928, when 13 homes were built. In 1935, building ceased for 10 years due to the Depression, resuming again in 1945 after World War II. Reeves, who died of a heart attack in 1937 at age 51, wasn’t able to see the completion of his master plan. His son Roy Reeves, Jr., built three homes, and trustee-approved architects designed the remainder, bringing the total to 29.
Through the years, the village’s governing association has renovated common areas and guided homeowner restoration efforts. Village resident and archivist Judith Fischer says it can be challenging to remain true to the original design, especially given the expense of original materials — wood, brick, stone and slate — compared with the cost of imitation products. However, “You can’t replicate the real thing with plastics or composites,” she says.
Amid central Ohio’s ever-expanding landscape of new homes with indistinct styles, Sessions Village is an architectural treasure, and according to Fischer, it’s Sessions’ dressmaker details that give this intimate village its charm. Here, we highlight eight elements of the village that exude French ambiance:
The fleur-de-lis or “lily flower,” a classic French symbol of peace and purity, is repeated throughout the village. It’s found painted in a series on a stucco wall of the timber-framed home at 8 Sessions Drive and incorporated in iron fence designs throughout the village.
All of the original 13 homes feature a walled courtyard with a water feature — either a small pond or a wall fountain. “Nothing is as intimate or secretive as a walled garden,” says Fischer. She says first-floor rooms were arranged to face these gardens. Many were designed to provide a glimpse from the street, whether through a garden gate, an iron fence or a clairvoyee (a hole in a wall framing a scenic view of the garden). One clairvoyee frames the sculpture in the pool of 10 Sessions Drive. This pool emulates one typically found in a town center and is perfectly situated at the crossroads of this village.
Sessions Village windows mimic medieval times when windows were assembled in attractive geometric patterns of small glass panes, necessitated by glass size constraints. Two of the half-timbered homes feature the classic diamond-patterned windows, including one with occasional pastel panes. Many of the village’s windows are dressed with pierced shutters, scalloped tin valances and window boxes filled with geraniums.
The gatehouse features carved limestone keystones at the crown of the pedestrian walkway arches. Fischer says residents speculate the keystones may be salvaged pieces that Reeves brought back from Europe.
Wrought iron gates, iron fences and iron balconies are characteristic of villages in Normandy. Here, the balconies are both decorative and functional, since they were designed to allow cool evening or morning air into bedrooms during pre-air-conditioning days.