555 West Main Street - Heard House

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The house at 555 West Main Street (GPS N 36 degrees 34.408’, W 079 degrees 24.972’, Elevation 590’) was the home of J. Bryant Heard, an architect who left his mark on Danville in the form of the many buildings he designed while living and working here. With over 900 local commissions, Heard was the most prolific architect in the Danville area during the 20th century. Only a few of the structures he designed will be covered here, but more exhaustive research into the life and work of Heard could result in a work which could serve as the basis for a history of Danville during the 20th century.

John Bryant Heard (12 February 1884 – 9 December 1956) was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, a son of Elijah Meredith Heard, a tobacconist, and Hettie Williams Heard. His father was the son of William Heard, a farmer, and Mary Meredith Heard of Henry County, Virginia who were married on March 9, 1826 and had a large family.

From early in his life John Bryant Heard went by his middle name, Bryant, so in most references he is listed as J. Bryant Heard. His early education was in the Lynchburg public schools after which he attended VPI and later did graduate work at Carnegie Tech. During his early professional life Heard was associated with a number of prominent Lynchburg architects including John Robert Caldwell, Preston Craighill, Bennett Cardwell and Aubrey Chesterman. He first established an office in Lynchburg in 1909 in partnership with John Robert Caldwell known as Heard and Caldwell. This firm was responsible for the design of the Rothsay house built in 1914 on the site of a previous house that burned in 1912 due to a chimney fire and the addition to the house that was made in 1918. The Rothsay property, located in northeastern Bedford County near Forest, has a long history going back to at least 1811 when it was purchased from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest tract. Later houses designed by Heard in Danville at 334 and 500 West Main Street in Danville are similar in form and detailing to Rothsay, with two-story, rectangular hip-roofed massing, small Doric porches, and wood-shingle sheathing. The house at 334 West Main Street, known as the Jordan house, now houses Averett University’s Admissions Department.

In 1917 Preston Craighill joined the firm of Heard and Caldwell and it became Heard, Cardwell and Craighill. J. R. Caldwell’s younger brother, Bennett, had joined the firm in 1913. They opened an office in Danville in 1915 and in 1917 they had an office in the Arcade Building and Heard was living with his wife, Bernice, in the Edmonds Apartments. One of the early commissions in Danville for Heard and Chesterman was the Miller Building which was constructed at 423-425 Main Street after the disasterous fire on January 3, 1920 which started in Johnson’s Department Store at 413 Main Street and destroyed the Masonic Temple and most of the stores in the 400 block of Main Street. Later the firm or Heard alone received commissions for at least seven prominent buildings in downtown Danville which continue to be landmarks, including the Hotel Leeland built in 1918 which contained space for the Strand Theater which still remains although it was never operational, the F. W. Townes and Son Funeral Parlor building built in 1923 at 635 Main Street and later housed the Chamber of Commerce, the Municipal Building at 418 Patton Street which was constructed in 1927, the Danville City Auditorium at 125 North Floyd Street which was built in 1932, the downtown Post Office building at 700 Main Street which was built in 1932, the American National Bank building at 226 Main Street which was built in 1934 and is now occupied by Virginia Bank and Trust Co. and the Woolworth building at 501 Main Street which was built in 1937. All of these buildings have interesting histories. The laying of the cornerstone for the American Legion Memorial Armory and Auditorium (Danville City Auditorium) on November 11, 1932 was conducted by the Masonic Lodges of Danville including Roman Eagle, Morotock and Ramah with Ben W.Beach, Grand Master of Masons in Virginia of Danville presiding. The twelve-page program for the occasion was printed by J. T. Townes Printing Company and contains a picture of Louis A. Johnson, National Commander of the American Legion at the time as well as lists of City Council members, the Council Committee for construction of the building, the American Legion Committee, the Committee from Militia Companies, officers and Executive Committee of the local American Legion Post and officers and trustees of Roman Eagle Masonic Lodge. J. B. Heard is listed as the Architect and P. L. Anderson is listed as the Contractor for the building.

Before coming to Danville to live, Heard was active in the design of buildings in the City as a partner in the firm of Heard, Cardwell and Craighill. This firm designed the Dan River Welfare Building (later the Dan River Personnel Building and now owned by the Schoolfield Preservation Foundation), the Schoolfield YMCA building and Hylton Hall during the decade prior to 1920. In 1917 the firm had an office in the Arcade Building and Heard was living with his wife in the Edmonds Apartments. Later Aubrey Chesterman (1874 – 1937) joined the firm and it became Heard, Cardwell and Chesterman. After Cardwell’s death in 1918 Heard and the remaining partner, Aubrey Chesterman, continued their partnership as Heard and Chesterman and practiced together until Chesterman left the firm after which Heard continued his professional life alone. Although Chesterman was active in the Danville office of Heard and Chesterman, he continued to have his residence in Lynchburg until his death. By 1921 Heard and Chesterman had offices in Rooms 6 and 7 of the Arcade Building and Heard was living at 208 West Main Street where he lived until he moved into 555 West Main Street which was built in 1922, although apparently he did not move into the house until after 1924. He continued to live at 555 West Main Street until his death in 1956. Heard and Chesterman moved their offices to rooms 701 and 702 in the newly constructed Masonic Temple sometime during the 1920s and Heard continued to have his office there after the departure of Chesterman, later moving to room 222 in the same building until he moved his office to 273 Howeland Circle in the 1950s. The office at 273 Howeland Circle was immediately behind and adjoined his dwelling at 555 West Main Street and consisted of offices above a 2-car garage which still stands. During the 1920s Heard was the president of the Automotive Service Corporation as well as being an architect.

Heard served as a Director of The Forest Hills Development Corporation which developed Forest Hills which has been described as Danville’s first upscale automobile suburb laid out in Pittsylvania County prior to it’s annexation by the City in 1932. The Corporation initially stipulated that all houses built in the subdivision should be architect designed, and Heard was the architect for many of them. One of the earlier ones designed by Heard is now 500 Hawthorne Drive which was originally built for Ben Temple of Patton, Temple and Williamson, then sold to Mr. and Mrs. William Robinson in 1931, then sold two years later to members of the Herman family who lived there for many years before the house was acquired by Ruth Simpson Carrington who bequeathed the property to Averett College in January 1983 to become the Averett President’s home which it remains. Another building which Heard designed is the Forest Hills Elementary School. Many of Heard’s later designs can be identified by ornamental concrete slabs above and below each of the windows of the house. Athough Heard has beendead for over a half-century, the fact that he designed a house is still used as a sales pitch for the property by current realtors.

A Heard firm-designed house for which the current owners are in possession of the original blueprints is at 319 West Main Street which might be known as the Bradley house or the Wayland house because of long residency’s of those families in the property. The inscription on the blueprints reads, “Heard and Chesterman, Architects, Danville and Lynchburg, Residence for Mr. B. F. Gravely, West Main Street, Danville, Va. Commission No. 220, June 1921, Danville Office”.

In Heard’s personal life he married Bernice Sheppard (February 26, 1891 – April 23, 1981) of Texarkana, Texas in 1909. Born in Pittsburg, Texas, she was the daughter of John L. and Margaret Alice Sheppard and the sister of U. S. Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas. She attended Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg. In Danvilleshe was a member of Main Street United Methodist Church, the Danville Golf Club and a charter member of the Gabriella Garden Club. Heard was also a member of Main Street Methodist Church and was the architect for its educational building. He was a member of the Danville Golf Club and was active for some years in the work of the Danville Kiwanis Club.

The exact date of the move of Heard’s family from Lynchburg to Danville is somewhat difficult to determine. His obituary indicated that the move was in 1915, but his wife’s obituary indicates 1914. It is obvious that he worked here for some years prior to moving his family here.

Bryant Heard and Bernice had four children, a daughter, Olga, a daughter, Alice, a daughter, Bernice, and a son, J. Bryant Heard, Jr. Olga (March2, 1912 – January 24, 1997) was born in Lynchburg and came to Danville with her family in 1914. She never married and was a career dietician with the U. S. Army, retiring with the rank of Major and living in Colorado until her death. She is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Danville. A 1933 graduate of Averett College, she established two scholarships at Averett, The J. Bryant Heard Scholarship in memory of her father, and The Mrs. Bryant Heard Scholarship in memory of her mother.

Alice A. Heard (about 1917 – September 2, 2000) married Dr. David E. Warden (January 3, 1910 – January 25, 1996) and lived most of her life in Syosset, Nassau County, New York. She was the mother of Alice Guida Warden and David Todd Warden II, and grandmother of three grandchildren.

Bernice Heard (October 25, 1920 – December 31, 1988) (accent on the first syllable of her name, not the second) was born in Danville and married Charles K. Waddell (December 6, 1914 – September 27, 2001) who was the Secretary-Treasurer of the Danville Tobacco Association for many years. She taught foreign languages as an Associate Professor at Stratford College and later at Averett College. After her death her husband married a much younger Amy Harlan, a close friend of his former wife, and moved to Keswick in Albemarle County where he died, but he is buried in Danville.

John Bryant Heard, Jr. (February 8, 1922 – November 18, 1922) died during the first year of his life, leaving no male heir to carry on the Bryant name.

It can be seen that J. Bryant Heard lived an active and productive life. A few aspects of his private life, known only to a few of his contemporaries, have not been recorded and will probably fade from memory with time. Let readers speculate as to what those aspects might have been.