Aging well: For this mid-century modern, it’s what’s inside that counts

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Natural light is abundant, like in the dining room, where southern-facing windows line the wall and flood the house with sunshine. Photo: Andrea Hubbell Natural light is abundant, like in the dining room, where southern-facing windows line the wall and flood the house with sunshine. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Forty years ago in Charlottesville, modern houses were not nearly as common as they are today. Walter and Ruth Wadlington lived on Yorktown Drive with their four children, and when a new house began to go up next door, they took notice of its contemporary look. It had been designed by an architect and UVA professor named Jim Tuley.

An oversized stone fireplace serves as the centerpiece of the split-level, high-ceilinged great room. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

“We liked him a lot,” Ruth recalled. Walter was also a professor, in the law school, and the Wadlingtons were beginning to outgrow their dwelling. They decided to approach Tuley about designing a new house.

It would sit in the Meadowbrook Heights neighborhood, on a low site watered by springs and a stream. “Jim was marvelous at siting houses,” said Walter. Tuley located the house as close to the north edge of the lot as possible, leaving the rest open for gardens and a new pond. Cecilia Nichols, an architect with Formwork Design who completed a kitchen renovation for the Wadlingtons in 2003, said that the siting shows Tuley’s sensitivity to the spot.

“He very carefully looked at the topography there and where the water was coming from,” she said. While the house has few windows on its north side, it opens a face of glass to the south, letting in the garden view as well as ample sunlight.

Interior life
Built in 1972, the house exemplifies certain trademarks of Tuley’s, who also designed a number of other houses in and around Charlottesville before his death in 1994. One is a propensity for natural exterior materials—in this case, vertical pine siding. The house, from the street, looks low-slung beneath its flat roof, receding into the landscape. “He let the street face be very mute and quiet and blank—no gymnastics,” said Nichols. “It was all about the interior life of the house and the family.”

In fact, given the understated front entrance, the house is downright surprising: A tight hallway unfolds into a stunning, high-ceilinged area that includes the living and dining rooms, flooded with light from the sweeping southern windows.

Another Tuley trademark is the way these two rooms, while they are very much connected, remain subtly demarcated. The living room is two steps lower (giving it the feel of an even higher ceiling) and a built-in bookcase provides a solid boundary. In the dining room, formal furniture lends a sense of solidity, while the living room invites lounging with its packed bookshelves and oversized fireplace.

Beyond this sprawling common space, the house continues to surprise with its ample private areas, reached via half-flights of steps leading up to the bedrooms and down to a pair of studies.

One of the Wadlingtons’ only requirements was that each child have a separate bedroom. Three of these were located on the upper level, along with a diminutive space where a TV was kept. “It caused the children to get along, because it was a small space,” Ruth said. Once the nest was empty, the Wadlingtons removed a wall to absorb one bedroom into the lounge area.

The kitchen, once a cramped space typical of minimalist architecture, has been renovated twice—once in Tuley’s lifetime, then again later by Formwork. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Bigger and better
Back on the main level, the master bedroom and bathroom are tucked away, around a corner from the kitchen. Jim Tuley was not known for being generous with kitchen space, even for an enthusiastic cook like Ruth Wadlington. “Some minimalists are known for this,” said Nichols—“not being interested in kitchens and bathrooms. They found it frivolous to find comfort in those spaces.”

Thus, the original kitchen was cramped and ill-suited to the needs of a cook. “It was amazing what Ruth could produce from that kitchen,” said Nichols. The Wadlingtons expanded it once during Tuley’s lifetime, and hired Formwork years later to improve it again.

“We designed it as a really good working kitchen,” Nichols said: improving the triangle between sink, stove, and refrigerator; increasing counter space by three or four times; adding an island and plenty of storage. And a large new south-facing window brings the garden view to the spot where the Wadlingtons eat most of their meals.

Looking back
The Wadlingtons put their trust in Tuley and his unorthodox vision. Four decades later, they feel he delivered. If there are certain imperfections in their home, they are sanguine about it. And there’s been plenty of time to tinker—for example, by replacing all those generous windows with double-glazed models that make the house much more comfortable.

In 1972, they say, financial limitations forced a few compromises. “But we were just so happy to get in it,” Walter said. Even if money had been no object, Ruth added, “we still would have changed things” throughout 40 years of family life.

In the meantime, Charlottesville’s taste for modern architecture has grown. When the house was built, Walter said, “Some people asked us, ‘How will you ever sell it?’” They haven’t had to find out yet. But when the time comes, they likely won’t have too much trouble.

  • CWZ

    Loved this piece! So well written, and interesting to see how modern architecture in this area really is alive and well. Thanks Erika.

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