August 2010: Modernism comes of age

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“The shade of Jefferson broods over Charlottesville. Misunderstood, embalmed by little minds in static thought, the revolutionist must turn forever in an angry grave. The grandeur of his University looks down at sycophants who ape his cornices at puny scale…and strive forever to repeat the form without the soul. To follow in his footsteps means to move, to build with philosophic meaning and dynamic force.”

In 1934, when he he designed the International Style home on Bollingwood Road, Philadelphia architect Kenneth Day’s mission, was to follow in Jefferson’s footsteps, by which he meant not to “ape his cornices at puny scale,” but to “build with philosophic meaning and dynamic force.”

That strong statement, published in The Architectural Forum in 1934, came from Kenneth Day, a Philadelphia architect. He’d been hired the previous year by a Charlotteville widow, Mrs. James A. Cole, to design a modern house for her lot on Bollingwood Road. Clearly, he felt that building in Jefferson’s town carried an important mission: not to emulate the founding father’s style but to embody his spirit. The 1934 article reveals a thoroughly modern dwelling, designed in the International Style that was just then becoming prominent—a clean break from Charlottesville’s red-brick mainstream.

The Jeffersonian style-versus-spirit debate is one that still goes on in Charlottesville, and it’s fitting that one of the local architects whose work lands in the latter camp, Jeff Dreyfus, is—along with his partner Bob Headrick—the current owner of Mrs. Cole’s modern house. Though they’re less strident in expressing their opinion than was Kenneth Day, it’s still clear that Dreyfus and Headrick are devoted to modern architecture. “I don’t understand the idea that if you build new, you have to replicate what was built before,” says Dreyfus, a partner in Bushman Dreyfus Architects (designers of the downtown building that houses Live Arts, among many other projects).

Of course, the Cole house is now almost 80 years old. What’s interesting is that it still seems to animate the tension between old and new. A major renovation by Dreyfus and Headrick brought the home firmly into the 21st century—and won an award from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, for which it qualified because it was more than 50 years old.

“People are astounded when they find out the age of the house,” says Dreyfus. Perhaps that’s because Day’s design has aged so well, and because the changes to it—by Dreyfus and Headrick as well as previous owners—have been so intelligent. 

Streamlined thinking

 

It’s not clear exactly why Mrs. Cole made such an unusual choice when she hired Day, but his approach to the project still makes sense. “He sited it brilliantly,” says Dreyfus. Tucked into the property’s northwest corner, “It takes advantage of all the sunlight, the southern exposure.” Plenty of glass along the south wall overlooks one acre of woods and lawn, bisected by a creek. Gazing at this parklike view from inside the serene, white-walled environment of the house, one can easily forget about the bustle of nearby UVA and Ivy Road. 

Ivy Road is but a distant memory from inside the south-facing living room that overlooks an acre of woods and lawn. The original architect “sited it brilliantly,” says current owner Jeff Dreyfus, himself an architect.

Day’s design called for a two-story structure with a living room and dining room that flowed into each other—a precursor to the “great room” found in most houses built today. The house was a crisp white, with a flat roof and none of the ornamentation found on more traditional buildings.

It was that clean modern look that attracted Headrick, a Realtor, the first time he spotted the house. He and Dreyfus closed on the Bollingwood property in 2002 and, having collaborated on an updated design for their new home, immediately began six months of renovations.

Over the decades, the house had acquired several new elements: a 1970s sunroom addition that Dreyfus calls “very well proportioned,” but also some unfortunate kitchen tile and linoleum. “The bones of the house were good,” he says. “Stylistically the house on the exterior reflects how we wanted to live. We took the clues from the outside—clean, streamlined.”

An effort to simplify

 

“On the inside,” Headrick adds, “we saw a wonderful design that looked tired.” Day’s plans had called for built-in shelves, cabinetry and benches that, after decades of use, were sagging and worn. “The whole thing looked inward,” Dreyfus remembers. “What we were after was just opening it up and making the view the focus.” Wanting as minimal an interior as possible, they removed the built-ins and made all the flooring match the original maple. Now, carefully chosen modern furniture keeps company with just a few art objects—and the green sweep of the view, seen through original steel windows.

Worn-looking built-ins and cabinetry, dating from the 1930s, were jettisoned in the renovation.

In one way, Day’s design was outdated: The kitchen was small and separated from the great room. The new owners took out a wall to open the space, allowed the kitchen to absorb a tiny bathroom, and designed a room that cleverly hides much of what usually defines kitchens. 

“We don’t like looking at the refrigerator,” Dreyfus explains, “[and] we wanted to deal with the cabinets as furniture.” They tucked the fridge around a corner where it’s accessible but invisible, and enough storage packs two banks of lower cabinets—made of maple with stainless countertops—that upper cabinets aren’t necessary. 

The couple’s penchant for minimalism even drove them to bump an entire kitchen wall inward by a foot to hide an A/C duct—which their contractor had proposed enclosing inside a more noticeable corner box. The arrangement may sacrifice some space, but it carries an aesthetic bonus: It creates a “frame” around the kitchen as seen from the dining room.

Finding solutions

 

The first phase of renovation saw one other major change: a first-floor bedroom became a large new bathroom. “As simple as it seems,” says Dreyfus, “this was the hardest room in the house.” Headrick remembers “a couple dozen drawings” of the double-sink, double-showerhead bathroom before the right layout became clear. 

From top: The original kitchen, which was separated from the great room, was updated when the Headrick and Dreyfus took out a wall and hid most of the major appliances. Previous owners had added a sunroom in the 1970s. Headrick and Dreyfus doubled it to create their master bedroom with plenty of room for lounging. “I didn’t want to walk into the bathroom and see the toilet,” says Headrick.

The challenges: Dreyfus wanted to avoid a shower stall, and Headrick “didn’t want to walk in the room and see the toilet.” They settled on a simple layout with a partial-height wall dividing the shower from the sink, and a closet for laundry and storage that also conceals the toilet. Green glass tile covers the walls and shower floor, and indirect lighting (a strong preference of Dreyfus’s) comes from fixtures atop the partial wall.

After all this was complete, Dreyfus and Headrick were asked if they’d like to have their house on a Garden Week tour the following year. They agreed, knowing they wanted to install a pool and do major landscaping work, and thinking that a year would be plenty of time to make it happen. It was—barely.

“If you want to finish a project, throw a party,” says Dreyfus, who now dispenses this hard-won wisdom to his clients. “The pool people were vacuuming as the garden tour was starting.”

Beyond pool installation, Phase 2 included doubling the size of the 1970s-era sunroom addition, to create a master bedroom with a generous seating area. Dreyfus gestures to an entire wall of white-doored closets and explains, “Part of the joy of living the way we live is not having a lot of stuff out. But you have to have a lot of storage.” 

Just like possessions, says Dreyfus, “Doors need to disappear. That’s a huge bugaboo of mine. It has to be a pocket door or as tall as the wall,” to avoid breaking up wall surfaces. Blinds on the bedroom’s tall windows are white, also mimicking the walls when drawn. 

Even furniture is calculated not to disturb the sense of open space. “We like long and low,” says Dreyfus, pointing out a bureau near the bed. Above its low profile, wall space is expansive and undisturbed.

A house that stands alone

 

All these touches add up to a refreshing, serene abode flavored by hints of the 1930s: heavy brass window hardware, original radiators, an original steel trellis on the patio. The couple relishes their home, a piece of modernist history that’s unique in Charlottesville. “[During] Garden Week,” says Headrick, “we had 1,300 people come through here. It was interesting to see all these people who were going to leave here and go to Monticello or Morven.”

Adds Dreyfus, “This is the only place we’d want to live unless we built our own house. It’s special in part because it’s not a replication of the history we’re surrounded by.”

Historical significance is one thing, but living is another. “Come home, close the gate, and everything is far behind,” says Dreyfus. “I never was conscious of how the lack of clutter positively affects my well-being. It’s very calm to be here.”


Landscape revival

 

“People say this feels like California,” says Dreyfus. The comment is prompted by the house’s easy indoor/outdoor flow. And while the flora covering the one-acre lot might be classic Virginia—crepe myrtle, juniper, azalea, magnolia—the long, narrow pool flanked by modern-style chaise lounges does conjure Palm Springs.

Before Dreyfus and Headrick bought it, the Bollingwood property was badly overgrown. Where the pool is now, a small terrace was enclosed by a hedge, cutting off views of the creek and opposite bank. Now, the couple can gaze over plantings of perennial geraniums and hostas, all the way to a 6-foot fence that keeps vehicles and the street out of sight.

The couple didn’t hesitate to remove a straight concrete path from front door to street, replacing it with a curving stone-and-gravel walkway. Nonetheless, other elements—wisteria vines on the trellises, a stone patio off the master bedroom that contrasts with the house’s crisp white exterior—were well worth saving. “There were lots of good things [already in place] to build from,” says Dreyfus.—E.H.

 

 

 

 

 

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