For Katie and Ty McElroy, the white-picket-fence, manicured-lawn version of the American dream wasn’t appealing. Preparing in 2010 to move to Staunton from Lexington, the couple set their sights on something different: an urban loft-style space, a home that would indulge their interest in design while allowing them to participate in a walkable, downtown lifestyle.
“Ty would love to live in New York City in a loft,” said Katie. “This is the compromise, because I’m a small-town girl.” Staunton affords amenities from gourmet food to theater, but the McElroys looked at a lot of real estate listings before they found the one that spoke to their needs. “We came here and it was unfinished and full of junk,” Katie remembered. “It had never had electricity or water.”
The $70,000 property wasn’t a residence. It was a two-story garage, built in 1910 and tucked into an odd paved space off a downtown street. Its form was simple in the extreme—a rectangular box with one door in the front and one window in the back. What spoke to the McElroys were its authentic materials: brick walls and concrete floor. Though it was being offered as commercial space, they knew they could carve out a home there.
Despite the less-than-homey appearance of the place, Katie remembered, “As soon as Ty saw it he was sold.”
A little red tape
Their decision may have been easy, but the purchase process was anything but simple. Recounting the story of how the garage became their home, the two finish each other’s sentences in a flurry of details.
“The big appeal was to get to work with the design process,” said Katie, tourism director for the city of Waynesboro. Her husband, who heads the local Boys & Girls Club, used a program called SmartDraw to create an initial concept for the home: kitchen and dining area at the rear, living space near the front door, and a staircase along one side that led to a second-floor master suite.
A more immediate concern than layout, though, were the legalities. “It was zoned business,” Ty said, reminding Katie of how the journey began. “First you went to the city’s planning commission to get it zoned for a special-use permit.” (Normal regulations prohibit downtown residences on the ground level.)
“That’s when they passed it on to the Historic Preservation Commission,” Katie said. “We brought Ty’s drawings and they said no.”
“I had bigger plans for the space,” explained Ty. “I wanted a second-floor balcony,” with large windows to light what was originally windowless space. He also envisioned a third-floor master suite with a rooftop garden, but these features were deemed inappropriate on the basis of preservation guidelines. (The building also appears on the National Register of Historic Places.)
The question then became, as Ty said, “O.K., how are we going to get light to the second floor?”
The couple called Frazier Associates, a Staunton firm known for adaptive-reuse projects. Kathy Frazier provided the McElroys with some concepts for transforming the garage into a well-lit living space that would satisfy historical requirements.
First, the garage-style front door would give way to a shallow recessed patio. This, said Annie Mathot—the architect at Frazier Associates who eventually completed the plans for the home—“provided outdoor living space…and allowed them to build a very transparent wall within the original wall to bring as much light into the space as possible.”
The second major move was to add a “light monitor”—a rooftop structure much like a cupola—to bathe the second floor in natural light. Another benefit: It creates a section of elevated ceiling over the center of the master bedroom, making the entire suite feel more open.
Guidelines also allowed for the addition of one second-floor window and two light tubes (skylights), bringing in yet more sun.
After seven months of planning, the McElroys were finally free to close on the property.
Meanwhile, the couple had selected local contractor Jesse O’Brien and amassed lots of furniture, which was starting to overfill the living room of their temporary dwelling. Construction began in September 2010 and wrapped up by the following March.
The finished space combines smart, functional design with a celebration of what makes the building unique. Its gritty nature, and the quirkiness of its context in the downtown cityscape, are embraced rather than hidden.
Along with limited light sources, said Mathot, the greatest design challenge was the building’s small size. “To make the most of the compact space, we minimized the amount of walls added for the most open floor plan possible, and clustered the utilitarian functions, such as laundry, powder room, and storage, under the stairs and away from the sources of natural light,” she explained.
The McElroys’ two dogs also have their own little cubbyhole under the steps—an idea that renders a space-hogging dog crate unnecessary. Mini-splits for heating and cooling allowed the home to remain free of ceiling ducts, which would have impinged on overhead space.
Upstairs, the need for storage is answered by a system of closets, which Ty built across the entire front wall of the master bedroom and fitted with sliding door panels from Ikea. “The one thing we thought we’d have to compromise was closet space, but this works perfectly,” said Katie.
The open floor plan maximizes the sense of roominess inside. “Someone came in who lives in a 2,200-square-foot loft and said this seems bigger, because of the way it’s laid out,” said Ty. But the building is small enough—1,260 square feet altogether—to remain comfortably human-scaled.
“Katie and Ty have a very strong sense of design,” said Mathot. “They worked really hard on their vision.” Now that the couple has fully appointed the home, its original features—mainly exposed brick and concrete—make a backdrop for sleek, modern finishes set off by colorful accents.
In the kitchen, for example, tiny stainless-steel backsplash tiles contrast with white cabinets, black metal hardware, and white oak countertops—and all are set off by a fire engine-red stove. The McElroys chose it because, as a floor model, it was more economical. “We weren’t planning on red, but hey…” Katie said.
She joked that “The kitchen is probably larger than it should be.” But its size accommodates the couple’s love for cooking, as well as their desire to hide small appliances inside cupboards rather than letting them clutter countertops. It even provides space for a number of guests to comfortably sit—on brushed-metal barstools—and observe the cooks at work. A nearby woodstove doubles as a pizza oven.
The McElroys are fond of salvaged materials, and found several clever repurposed pieces that complement the historic nature of their home. Their dining table is made from a steel drum out of a German ship; a TV console has pressed-metal doors in a salvaged wood frame. Both came from Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke. In the powder room, an old STOP sign dominates one wall.
Steps made of reclaimed wood lead upstairs, edged by a custom-welded metal railing that perfectly embodies the loft’s old-and-new aesthetic.
In the master suite, the light monitor is a dramatic form, perched right over the bed. “That was the one concern we had—will we feel like we’re in a cave?” said Katie. “But this brings in so much light.” The sight of stars and the sound of rain can come through the monitor, which is approximately six feet square. And yet, said Ty, “The light is never directly in your eyes if you want to sleep in.”
The wash of light from above plays off the wide, black bank of closet doors—which, at night, could be mistaken for a wall of windows looking into the darkness. It’s a lot of visual interest for what is, after all, a relatively small space. One pale green wall, more exposed brick, and heart pine floors complete the look.
The master bathroom is a study in materials: small blue and gray glass floor tiles, a salvaged-wood storage cabinet, modern white tub and sinks. The vanity had a former life as a charming wheeled cart that the McElroys found serving as a display table in an Atlanta shop. And the bathroom door, covered with three or four layers of chipped paint in different colors, is truly an authentic salvage: The McElroys found it here in the garage, and left it exactly as it was.
One element is yet to come: The little den upstairs (which the couple hopes to someday convert to a baby nursery) needs a sliding door, and Katie wants to make one from a reclaimed sign. She’s waiting to happen upon just the right one.
A better city
For Mathot, the McElroy loft represents an approach to housing that benefits Staunton as a whole. “This kind of project is central to our mission—supporting downtown revitalization—and key for downtown Staunton’s 24-hour community,” she said. “Katie and Ty had a strong vision….We helped them with the layout and the logistics, to make all the pieces fit into the compact footprint—but the end product is a testament to their vision and taste.”
The couple relished the process of transformation as much as they now enjoy the end result. “This was like building new,” said Ty. “This is the kind of place I wanted to live in.”