Standard story: Couple buys a 1922 house in one of Charlottesville’s protected historic districts, then plans a renovation. But what happens when the couple in question has distinctly modern taste?
The front facade of the hous, as the Mills and Dreyfus learned, hadn’t always featured brick columns or railings (above). The new wooden porch is actually closer to the original 1922 look.
The full story involves a front porch surprise, a two-floor reconfiguration by architect Jeff Dreyfus, and a screened porch to die for. Oh—and a mod update for cast-iron radiators. Part past, part present and wholly sophisticated, this house is pure Charlottesville.If they’re Chuck and Lynn Mills, they find a way to satisfy their desire for a sleek, contemporary dwelling while keeping the Board of Architectural Review—which guards the integrity of the city’s historic fabric—happy. The strategy in a nutshell? Historic on the outside, modern on the inside.
Back to the source
Chuck Mills described himself and Lynn —though they’d lived, most recently, in “a big place on the water” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—as city people. So it’s unsurprising that, upon moving to Charlottesville, they’d be drawn to North Downtown, from where they can “do most of our errands on foot,” as Lynn said.
In 2008, they found a brick foursquare house on Altamont Circle. “Someone had owned this house who fell in love with Arts and Crafts,” said Lynn. The interiors were laden with dark woodwork, and the Mills were nonplussed by the heavy brick columns and railing on the front porch. “It was probably the least attractive façade on the block,” said Chuck.
The existing porch “looked dingy and heavy and ponderous,” said Dreyfus. “From the beginning we wanted to replace it with a wood-columned porch, which seemed more appropriate for the style.” The Board is charged first with protecting historical character, not with making aesthetic judgments, so the Mills and Dreyfus sought to prove that the offending porch was not original to the house.They connected with Dreyfus (who’s got a well-established track record of modern work through his firm, Bushman Dreyfus Architects) and set about bringing the house in line with their tastes. Inside, this meant reconfiguring the home to suit their needs. But when it came to the exterior, as a contributing structure in one of Charlottesville’s Architectural Design Control districts, the house could not undergo changes without the approval of the BAR.
“If it’s something that’s really going to change how it looks—roof material, siding, windows—the BAR definitely reviews those,” explained Mary Joy Scala, the city’s liaison to the BAR. “A porch is a major character defining feature on a house, so they look at those pretty carefully.”
The Mills replaced a wooden deck with an expansive screened porch.
On an old insurance map, they found what they needed: “One little drawing showed there was a wood porch on this house not long after it was built,” said Dreyfus—meaning the brick had been a later addition. “Once we were able to put that in front of the BAR, they said great.” The Board’s next questions, said Scala: “Would it go with the house in terms of proportions? Would it be consistent with other porches on the street, in the neighborhood?”
Dreyfus’ simple, traditional design won approval. The irony? “We do have modern tastes, but we took the front porch back to its original state,” said Lynn. Renovation, in this case, became restoration.
It wasn’t the first time the Mills had taken this tack. In 1972, they redid a Chicago row home with a historic exterior and contemporary interior. They’d also built two new weekend homes that Chuck called “very modern.”
The Mills showed Dreyfus photos of their Chicago house. “I remember the clean lines; I remember white with a little bit of modern furniture, but not in any way cluttered…That gave me a very clear idea of what they liked.”
But the house they’d just bought featured dark wood and old-fashioned rooms that Dreyfus called “discrete little boxes.” The first problem was simple to solve. “Lots of people would consider the fact that we painted all the woodwork reason to put us in the Arts and Crafts prison,” said Lynn. But Dreyfus lost no sleep over the decision. “For the type of interior they wanted, which had less visual clutter than more, painting the trim out is a non-issue.” The home now features white trim and walls throughout.
It’s a strategy that selectively embraces historic touches, rather than obliterating them. White paint on the risers and pickets of the staircase, said Lynn, “allowed all the stuff we left dark to stand out”—like the curved shape of the bottom stair, and an original built-in bench.
Period hardware remains, and Chuck lobbied to keep the cast-iron radiators. “I like that type of heat,” he said. [Contractor] John Anderson fashioned modern white covers for them, which “sleeks them out a little.” To Lynn, the covers recall an iconic midcentury furniture design, the Parsons table.
Of course, the bigger issue for Dreyfus was how to reconfigure the house’s layout, upstairs and down. “I wanted to open it up for them, but to keep a suggestion of the original volumes of the house.” To that end, he made larger openings between existing rooms so they’d be more connected—for example, removing swinging doors between the living and dining rooms.
The Mills’ new kitchen is defined by the white lacquered cabinetry, and flows easily into the nearby sunroom and screened porch.
In the rear corner, the existing kitchen flanked a cramped sunroom, which led to a large back deck over what Lynn called “a Driving Miss Daisy garage, where the car sticks out the back.” Major changes were in order. Dreyfus made the sunroom more spacious, redrew the kitchen while borrowing space from the dining room, and opened all the rooms to each other. “The house doesn’t feel large because you always see through the house to the landscape beyond,” he said. “By visually connecting one end of the house to the other, the spaces collapse a little bit.”
Specifically, most of the spaces on the first floor now connect—physically or by sightline—to the grand new screened porch that replaced the old deck. (Miss Daisy’s garage, too, got an upgrade.) “This is a major part of our living space,” said Lynn. “We eat most of our meals out here.” Opening into the dining room via French doors and to the sunroom via space-saving accordion doors, the screened porch easily accommodates a table for meals and another seating area, with plenty of room left over. A leafy view of the neighborhood, surprising in its scale, wraps around.
“I’m a huge proponent of screened porches in this climate,” Dreyfus said. “People use them more than if it’s an open porch, certainly more than a deck. It becomes another room in the house.” One caveat: “It can’t be dark during the day. In this instance we added skylights because it’s a deep porch and would have made the dining room next to it fairly dark.”
Jennings Landscape Contracting redid both front and back yards, adding stone steps from back door to driveway and lighting along the alley. “The landscape plan is a really nice complement to the structure,” Dreyfus said. “The lighting extends the room at night to the trees that line that alley. You don’t feel like there’s some big black void outside the screen.”
The new kitchen and sunroom feel like one big space, sharing the same white lacquered cabinetry. In the sunroom, that means built-in bookshelves and cupboards. A pair of easy chairs faces the new gas fireplace, which eschews fake logs. “It just is what it is,” said Lynn. Dreyfus sees this as a space properly scaled for his clients. “It’s a great place to sit in and relax as one or two people, which is how they live most of the time when their house is not filled with kids and grandkids.”
The master bathroom, now sleek and roomy, replaces an odd second-floor configuration that included three bathrooms.
In the dining room, French doors replaced a window, allowing access and a sightline to the screened porch.
The Mills have furnished their home carefully, including a mix of antique and modern pieces, sparingly placed. “The antique furniture we have looks better against a white wall,” said Lynn. A minimalist sensibility also led them to plaster over a brick fireplace surround in the living room.
All this white is offset with bright bursts of color and a collection of modern and Aboriginal art. “We tried very hard to give wall surface for backdrop to whatever they chose to put up,” Dreyfus said.
Upstairs, the house suffered from an odd configuration that included no fewer than three bathrooms. “That was one of the bigger challenges, figuring out that whole maze of existing spaces,” said Dreyfus. He cut the bathrooms to two, designed a modern shower in the now-roomy master bathroom, and separated the master suite from the guest rooms with a closet-lined hallway. From their room, which Lynn calls “very simple and straightforward,” the Mills enjoy a view of Brown’s Mountain.
One upstairs room—an office jutting off the back of the house—recalls the old Arts and Crafts era: The wood paneling remains dark and unpainted. “We didn’t see anything wrong with this,” Lynn said. Perhaps this room is the exception that proves the rule. Or perhaps it’s a sign of the Mills having tapped Charlottesville’s spirit: modern, with a memory.
What’s local got to do with it?
The Mills house lies within a district that’s not only designated for historical protection by the city, but boasts recognition on state and national historic registers. “All of North Downtown is in a National Register District,” explained Mary Joy Scala. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior sets standards for historic preservation in such areas. Yet it’s only on the local level that homeowners wanting to renovate must submit to architectural oversight before calling in the contractors.
“[The national registry] is an honorary, and has no regulations associated with it,” Scala said. “It’s sort of an incentive: If you want to rehab your property, you can say that you will do it in accordance with those Secretary of the Interior standards inside and out, and then you can qualify for possible tax credits.”—E.H.