Bristol's new Birthplace of Country Music Museum
A blend of architecture & story
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | August 27, 2014When you walk into the colorful, light-filled, modern Birthplace of Country Music Museum in downtown Bristol, Va., you see a collaboration of architects and designers that flows as seamlessly as the harmony of the musicians whose story it tells.
Peyton Boyd, the museum's principal architect, talks a great deal about the collaborative effort among the museum staff, Boyd and his staff, exhibit designers, the content team, Burwil Construction and subcontractors.
One example is the musical marquee. "It evolved a lot," Boyd says. "We worked with the exhibit designer to flesh out the details. The content team was involved in what words would be on it. At one time it had "affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution,' but they decided that was too much. The musicians insisted that the musical notes actually be a tune." The musical notes are from a song written about the Bristol Sessions.
When Boyd began the adaptive reuse project of turning the Goodpasture Motors building into the museum, he found it was structurally sound, demolition had begun and the interior was "a nasty old dump," he recalls. Some of the material found when the building was cleaned out included old coke bottles and an Edison light bulb that still worked. The Palace Barber Shop sign was still in the window and was used in the exhibit.
The original second floor windows had been removed, which Boyd says was "kind of a good thing. If they'd still been there, the Department of the Interior Standards of Rehabilitation might have made us try to keep and restore them which would have led to thermal issues, since they were single-pane glass. So they're all new, with insulated glass, and they are configured to look like the old windows. We did the same thing on the first floor."
Boyd had to cope with a project that spanned nine years, and he had to adhere to state and federal standards of rehabilitation so that Birthplace of Country Music could receive tax credits.
"Because it was a contributing building to the historic district to get the tax credits, you have to submit the designs to the state and federal government and follow their guidelines — that was one layer of complexity. The second was the nature of what was happening — to tell the story of the music, the story of the Bristol Sessions, how they came about and what they led to," he says. Another layer was putting the project on the shelf when funding issues arose, and then picking it back up. The fourth was bringing together everyone's visions.
Initially, Boyd created a design development set. This is a package that includes exterior views, floor plans and some idea of materials and structure. "It's a way of communicating the vision," Boyd says.
The flow of the vision and its details changed as the content team, composed of volunteers who were experts in the history of country music in Bristol and the effects of the Bristol Sessions, began to fine tune the story.
"That group went through the whole schematic design that had been created for the permanent exhibits — which is basically the whole second floor, divided into zones. And zone-by-zone they went through and dug down into the detail of what would be in there, and then they worked on making sure everything was authentic and accurate. That took a year or so. I sat in on most of the content meetings, because they might bring up an idea of changing something for the sake of telling the story that might change something we'd already designed. So I'd say, "we can do that but we'll have to change this.' So again, it was a very back and forth collaborative process."
"That was the most fun part of it," Michael Haslam, part of Boyd's staff who served as project architect, says. "While the construction of the building wasn't a linear process, the experience of the museum is intended to be linear: first you go here, and then there. It has a beginning, middle and end. As we were talking about those pieces, it would become apparent that it might be better if this piece of the story came a little earlier, so we'd take a whole piece of the narrative and relocate it, which had an effect on the architecture. But the marriage of architecture and storytelling was interesting and fun."
One of those changes was the entrance into the orientation center. Originally it was a diorama of a front porch scene that visitors would take in as they wait for the film about the Bristol Sessions that begins the visit to the museum. "As we started developing all the individual ideas, we were also talking about how important the train was to the history of Bristol and its impact on the sessions. So they came up with the idea of a departure point, where the story begins, being a train station." Haslam says.
Another reason for the change relates to the accuracy that was so important to everyone. The initial consultant who started the narrative had overly romanticized the story. "The romanticism comes from someone who doesn't come from here who's tasked with telling a story they haven't lived or their parents didn't live," Haslam says. "They're not invested in it. The real experience is what we got with this content team."
"Once these very serious academics got together to write the script they started to have a different look at some of these things like that front porch," Boyd says. "In the initial concept, the ground was treated as a forest floor. It placed too much emphasis on that romantic notion of a hillbilly out on his front porch, and that's not the story they really wanted to tell.
"And something that I and others brought up was one of the early designs, which never materialized, a recreation of a parlor with mother sitting in her chair with a child at her feet. Some of these early designs didn't recognize that Bristol was a big, bustling town, a lot bigger and more bustling than it is now. Both my parents grew up in Bristol and didn't know what it was like to live out on a farm. As the content team got more into it, the focus shifted to Bristol as a bustling town."
Just as the content team focused on accuracy, so did Boyd. The details on the train station in the museum match the details in Bristol's train station. This theme flows through the museum like a melody. The curly maple, ash and walnut used throughout the museum are tone woods, wood that is used in the construction of musical instruments. The interior colors, deep blue, Indian red and green, were taken from a palette developed by the exhibit designer, Joseph Nicholson. He took his inspiration from quilts. "We picked those up to get a visual continuity, and we wanted to enliven that neutral concrete interior with bright colors," Boyd says.
Additionally, the new replacement exterior bricks were hand stained to match the original brick. The original brick has varied colors, reds, tans and ochres. It's also very textural and has a different proportion from modern brick. The new brick was special ordered, and the size and texture were close to the original, but the color range was not. Holly Thomas, Brushworks Decorative Painting, Meadowview, Va., hand-stained all the new brick to match the original brick. Boyd and his team also restored the building's exterior to its 1920s appearance.
"The outside was nicely detailed, with arches, keystones and piers topped with precast concrete Doric capitals. The inside was reinforced concrete and some exposed brick," Boyd says. "It was a very utilitarian warehouse, but the restoration guidelines don't want you to hide that. They want people to be able to go in there and see what it looked like when it was built. So part of our challenge was fitting all this new construction in there, including all the exhibits, without completely hiding that old reinforced concrete structure. So where possible we left that exposed."
He also chose finishes that complemented the original building. "In historic preservation good practice, you want to be able to distinguish old from new, but it needs to be compatible with the old. So we worked with a lot of materials that had a certain kind of industrial high-tech aesthetic that would be complementary with the bare rough concrete that was in there." One of those choices was in the guardrail system that runs along the stairs to the second floor. The metal guardrails run atop glass panels that are attached to the structure with a metal button rail system.
"You don't go into a building like this and put molding, fancy detailing and Corinthian columns in it and try to make it look like something it never was, but we think this complements the building. It doesn't disappear, but it doesn't obscure the existing structure," Boyd says. Another feature of the original building that was partially kept is the ramp that was used to drive cars to the second floor. "Part of the ramp was still there, but it was too steep to use for anything," Boyd says. "We really needed that space and wanted to tear it all out. After a lot of discussion, the Department of Historic Resources agreed, if we left a remnant so future generation could see where it was." If you are ever in the loading dock area, look up and you'll see where the ramp joins the fire stairs.
Two major changes made to the structure of the building are the holes that were cut in the floor to accommodate a two-story sculpture and a skylight that brings in natural light.
"It was difficult to get past the reviewers," Peyton remembers. The sculpture was originally an egg-shape on a floor plan that Nicholson created. Designing the elliptical openings, creating the skylight and the complicated diamond steel beam structure to allow it to be built was Boyd's task. It was the biggest structural change to the museum and is one of Boyd's favorite parts of the museum.
One of his favorite exhibits is the immersion theatre. It features a curved screen that shows a film of various artists talking about the Sessions and singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." "It has no seats," Boyd says. "The idea is for the museum visitors to dance, clap and sing along. There are different musicians singing, everybody from Dolly Parton to the Grateful Dead to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Everyone has their own take on the song. They sing in different keys, different tempos. It's my favorite exhibit."
Boyd hasn't yet had the courage to try the soundproof karaoke booth, but says that people really seem to enjoy it. The proof of that is inscribed on a wall designed for people to leave their comments as they leave the building. It includes words such as "awesome," "cool," "loved the museum," "truly impressive," "singing with my tone-deaf mother in the booth was absolutely the highlight of this day," and the signature of the last living musician from the Bristol Sessions, Georgia Warren.
"It was challenging and complicated, but we had a fantastic team that we were working with, not just the contractors, but the exhibit designer and Burwil and the owner," Boyd says. "It was just a fantastic team and a fantastic group of people and everybody's happy.
"Some things changed a lot, and some didn't change too much. Some were changed because they'd be better, some were compromises to make the budget work."
Boyd says that even with the stops and starts and the changes, it was what he loves to do. "I think any architect who's worth his education and is interested in sustainability doesn't like to see an old building torn down, especially if it's one that hasn't been let go to the point of no return," Boyd says. "Michael and I are both involved in Believe in Bristol. My interest comes from growing up in Bristol and going downtown to the Paramount every Saturday to watch the movie, the serial, the cartoons for 25 cents, and then going to Buntings to get two hot dogs for another 25 cents. I could get 50 cents and bus fare and go downtown and that would be Saturday morning.
"The whole mission was to tell an important part of Bristol's history, and it wouldn't have been in keeping with the vision to take a part of the history down and build something new in its place."
Boyd and the museum team have created a feeling of place and a gentle rhythm to your progression through the museum. If you want to see their blend of architecture, storytelling, history and music, the museum is located at 520 Birthplace of Country Music Way, Bristol, Va. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 1-5 p.m., on Sunday.
About Peyton Boyd
Peyton Boyd is regarded as a proponent of design excellence, he uses the power of architecture and the arts to elevate the quality of life of society in general and his local community in particular.
His design expertise spans community facilities, campuses, exhibition spaces, performance venues, commercial buildings and residences. He encourages all of his clients to embrace sustainable design practices.
A graduate of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, he is president of Peyton Boyd Architect, Abingdon, Va., a diversified practice in institutional, commercial, religious and residential architecture.
He has been a guest lecturer on a variety of topics including historic preservation, downtown revitalization, sustainable development and art in architecture.
Boyd is Chair of the Virginia Center for Architecture in Richmond, past president of AIA Blue Ridge, and past president of the Virginia Society AIA.
As AIA150 Champion for the Virginia Society AIA, he was guest curator of the exhibit "Livable Communities for Virginia" which opened in December 2007 at the Virginia Center for Architecture.
The Virginia Society AIA honored him in 1998 with its Award for Distinguished Achievement and in 2010 with the William C. Noland Medal, the statewide organization's highest honor. In 2011 he was elevated to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.
Peyton Boyd's significant projects include:
Museums and Art Galleries:
Birthplace of Country Music Museum
William King Museum
Cultural Campus Project
Pisgah Farm Heritage Center
Historic Crab Orchard Museum
Swimming Pool and Health Spa
Martha Washington Hotel
Theatre and Performing Arts:
Renovation and Addition
Charles King Community Center
Southwest VA Community College
Jubilee House Retreat Center
St. Anne Catholic Church
Addition and Renovation
Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church
618 State Street
Winery Events Center
The Virginian Golf Club
Voted best architectural firm in Southwest Virginia by the readers of Virginia Living Magazine in 2012 and 2014.
> Architect eager to share the spotlight
Peyton Boyd stands inside the immersion theater at the Birthplace of County Music Museum.
The restored exterior of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
The reception desk sits just outside the gift shop.
Payton Boyd points to the signature of Georgia Warren, last living musician from the Bristol Sessions.
A wall containing records with labels from the 1927 Bristol Sessions can be seen in the museum.
The last exhibit before visitors exit the museum discusses the future of country music.