Haigh Jamgochian, renegade architect and self-professed "ego maniac," was born in Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia, on August 29, 1924, in the apartment above his parents' store at 5th and Leigh Streets. Haigh (pronounced "Hike") was the youngest of three children born to John A. and Azniv E. M. Jamgochian, Armenian immigrants who came to American during World War I. As an architect, Jamgochian had a brief but notable career, but as a newsworthy and controversial local figure, he has been a presence for nearly 50 years.
It was in his parents' Fan District home that Jamgochian began what would eventually become an architectural career. At age 8 or 9, he excavated a portion of the family's basement to create a room for an elaborate train town. He then realized his ability to build and create, an endeavor he would pursue his entire life. First though, like many of his generation, Jamgochian felt the patriotic call and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps shortly after graduation (1942). He served in World War II's Pacific Theater and participated in raiding parties charged with capturing Japanese radar and other electronic equipment.
Jamgochian returned from military service with access to The Servicemembers' Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, affording him the opportunity for higher education. He began in earnest at Dartmouth College (Fall 1946-Spring 1947), after which he transferred to Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), where he earned a Bachelor's degree in Building Construction (Spring 1950) and a Master's degree in Architecture (Spring 1951). Princeton University courted the aspiring architect in his senior year at Virginia Tech. Jamgochian had become one of the twelve finalists in the rigorous competition for a scholarship to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, an honor that Princeton wanted for one of its students. On a full scholarship to Princeton (Fall 1951-Spring 1952), Jamgochian again competed for the Paris Prize and again made it to the finals. However, when he was not chosen for the second year in a row, Princeton did not renew his scholarship.
While competing for the Paris Prize, Jamgochian worked as a draftsman and studied for his architectural certification. He labored in the firm of noted Baltimore architect Lucius Read White, Jr. It is White who Jamgochian credits with his success on the certification test. White chaired the Maryland Board of Examination and Registration of Architects and was a very influential person to know in that capacity. Following his receipt of certification, Jamgochian returned to Richmond in 1952 and worked outside of his profession until architect Fredrick Hyland, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, hired him as a designer for his Richmond office.
In the fall of 1955, after leaving Hyland's office, Jamgochian began a teaching position at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). He taught courses in architectural history, city planning, design, and building construction. Jamgochian attempted to establish an architecture program at the school without success and left the college in 1958 to begin working for local architect John Stafford Efford. As a draftsman/designer for Efford, Jamgochian worked closely with clients and prepared sketches for their approval. Jamgochian and Efford had a rocky relationship due to their opposing personalities and architectural philosophies, which eventually resulted in Jamgochian leaving Efford's employ in 1960 to strike out on his own.
Shortly thereafter, Jamgochian gained international prominence when the Associated Press picked up an image from the local newspaper of his "Tree House" design superimposed over a Richmond streetscape. Jamgochian had created the photo in an effort to convince the Richmond City Council to grant him a variance permit for the building's construction on West Franklin Street. The newspaper photograph looked so realistic that the architect received nearly one hundred letters from all over the globe requesting information about the building. After a protracted battle and a great deal of press coverage, Richmond City Council eventually denied the permit. However, local businessmen, Lewis and Irvin Markel, were looking for someone to design a unique building for their company headquarters and they took notice of all of the publicity surrounding the controversial "Tree House." The Markels operated the insurance company founded by their father in the late 1920s.
Around the time he was approached by the Markels, Jamgochian married Revonda Nunn. The union produced one child, Haigh Jamgochian, Jr. Over the next decade, the marital relationship soured and divorce resulted sometime in the late 1970s.
After the public debate over the "Tree House," the Markel brothers hired Jamgochian and set him to work on their company's main office in the city's West End. After an initial design of mushroom-shaped pods, the one million dollar budget was cut in half forcing the architect to develop the three-story cone-shaped structure clad in wrinkled aluminum that stands today. The idea for the exterior purportedly came when the architect attended a dinner where he was served aluminum-wrapped baked potato. Its unique design and unusual execution have made it a local landmark since its construction. Further, it heightened the exposure of Haigh Jamgochian as an architect and led to his next client, local car salesman Howard Hughes also known as "Dapper Dan The Used Car Man."
Hughes reportedly contacted Jamgochian telling him he would like a residence designed for his property along the James River that was "out of this world." Jamgochian's response, "How about the moon?" Thus began the germination of the "Moon House" concept. This one-of-a-kind residence, built between 1967-1968, had a crescent moon-shaped roof with an all glass interior curve facing the river vista and its points wrapping to create privacy walls for the expansive stone patio and swimming pool. While successful in these two projects, additional commissions would elude the architect over the next thirty years. Proposals from both clients and the architect came and went with no other buildings of his design being executed in Richmond or elsewhere.
A number of manufacturers utilized Jamgochian's distinctive architectural models in print advertisements, and national and international trade journals lauded his forward-thinking designs, however, the clients did not come. Several factors such as a lack of business experience on the part of the architect, the conservative artistic sensibilities of Richmond, and simple bad luck contributed to this outcome. Despite this, Jamgochian continued to put his ideas on paper and took on a number of other endeavors along his career path. For instance, during the "Massive Resistance" Movement of the 1970s, Jamgochian opened and ran a Montessori-type school at his residence on Rockfalls Drive at the behest of his neighbors. The property, purchased in 1968, contained a rock quarry with a large Moderne style house at its precipice. The land's original owner utilized a design by Edward D. Stone published in Collier's magazine (1936) for the home. Jamgochian outfitted the house with classrooms and named it The Rockfalls School. He and his wife operated the school for one year until the endeavor became too expensive to maintain.
Time passed and commissions were non-existent for the maverick architect. In March 1983, his increasingly notorious ten acre estate suffered a house fire in which the architect was severely burned on his hands, neck, and face. During his three month recuperation, Jamgochian conceived a spiral skyscraper design for Southside Richmond's Midlothian Turnpike. Together with his second wife, Betty Cunningham (they would divorce 12 years later in 1997), he envisioned the office tower providing temporary office space with all of the clerical and technological amenities needed by a renting firm. Following financial difficulties suffered by his backers, namely the savings and loan scandal of the mid-1980s, Jamgochian found an unlikely champion, the City of Richmond. City Hall encouraged the architect to relocate his unconventional building to an empty parcel on the north side of the Ninth Street Bridge. Despite city backing, however, Jamgochian could find no financial backing for his design and the proposed development fizzled.
In recent years, a new appreciation has arisen for Jamgochian's designs and his one remaining structure, the Markel Building. The aluminum oddity has been named one of the 75 most important buildings in Richmond (Richmond Magazine), and, in March 2006, it was designated a Henrico County landmark building. In addition, a number of recent magazine and newspaper articles have retrospectively considered the enigmatic architect's long tenure in Richmond. The architect continues to design structures for his quarry property working with heavy equipment in what he has termed his "sandbox." The walls and tunnels that he has created with huge boulders within the confines of his estate function as his commissions; his only client being himself. He considers this endeavor simply his childhood train town writ large.