April ABODE: Tuley’s last stand

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Classic Charlottesville surroundings, including lots of greenery, lend the house its character. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Jim Tuley certainly wasn’t the first architect in Charlottesville. In fact, he arrived in 1968 to join a well-established design community at UVA’s School of Architecture. But he was one of the first to create a substantial body of modern work in Charlottesville. Dotting the city and Albemarle County, his nearly two dozen houses stand as a collective monument to his career.

Maybe because Tuley—who died in 1994—designed modern houses in a brick-and-white-column town, most of his projects break with tradition in a relatively quiet, unobtrusive way. The home of Pam Friedman and Ron Bailey is different. Located in a historic district north of Downtown, on a street that’s lined with timeworn Victorians, their house cuts a tall profile on its steep lot, presenting an asymmetrical, geometric façade to the street. It’s modern enough to have earned some neighbors’ ire during its construction. “How dare you put such a house in this neighborhood?” they asked Pam Black, who with Theo Van Groll commissioned the house in 1989.

Nonetheless, Black and Van Groll spent nine happy years there—and now Friedman and Bailey are doing the same. The house is a kind of landmark in North Downtown, proof that even historic Charlottesville can admit an occasional contemporary thread into its tapestry. “It makes the street more interesting because it’s a little bit of a surprise,” said Friedman. Given that her home is the last one Tuley designed, one might say he went out with a bang.

A simple galley-based shape makes the kitchen space-efficient. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

“A set of drawers”
Even in the design phase, the house was a bit of a stretch for its location. Van Groll (also an architect and a former UVA faculty member) owned the lot; it was contiguous with the property surrounding a house on First Street, where he was living. He was able to get permission to build on the narrow, steep site only because it was grandfathered into the city’s minimum site requirements.

He and Black turned to Tuley because they liked his previous work, and because —in a display of humility that might be called unusual in the architectural profession—Van Groll thought he’d be better off not designing the house alone. “I’ve always thought that when architects do their own houses, they would benefit from someone looking over their shoulders,” he said, “because it’s so easy to fall into your own traps.”

Of course, Van Groll did bring plenty of ideas to the table. Whereas most of Tuley’s houses are single-story affairs clad in redwood siding, this one is a three-story stucco edifice that harkens to the 17th century canal houses of Van Groll’s native Holland. Such houses were taxed based on the size of their footprints, so they were built tall and narrow to max out living space. “There’s a lot of glass in that house,” added Van Groll, “and that would have been typical [of a canal house].”

Tuley devised a scheme to connect the three stories with a long stairwell on the north side of the house. A curved wall on one side makes it an inviting rather than confining space, and big windows and skylights flood it with light. While the ground floor provides storage and utility room, the living space is on the second floor (kitchen, living and dining) and third floor (bedrooms and den). It’s been described as a “set of drawers,” slotted into the hillside.
“One of the considerations, a very serious one,” said Van Groll, “was that we did not want that house to get in the way of the view of the houses on First Street”—houses that sit higher and look over the flat roof of the Tuley house.

The steep lot does have one big advantage: Every floor opens directly to the outside. A second-floor porch on the front of the house is elevated above the street, but wraps around to meet the ground on the south side, where a surprisingly private courtyard is tucked against an ivy-covered wall. And from the third floor, a door opens in the house’s rear wall onto the highest part of the lot, where a small but lovely garden provides yet another space to relax.

Friedman and Bailey sit on their private side patio just off the dining room. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)
Jim Tuley: A Charlottesville career
Though Jim Tuley, who taught architecture at UVA from 1968 to 1994, designed about a house per year during his long tenure in Charlottesville, his architectural legacy isn’t terribly obvious unless you know where to look for it. Partly that’s because most of his houses—despite their departure from the traditional Charlottesville styles—are somewhat subtle in appearance. And partly that’s because they’re spread out over the area, many of them tucked in quiet residential neighborhoods or secluded on rural lots.“He was designing custom homes, but not for the super-wealthy,” said Emily Kilroy, who wrote a study of Tuley’s work for a UVA course last fall. Middle-class families hired Tuley to design contemporary homes that emphasized craftsmanship and functionality over size. A Tuley house “was supposed to be a backdrop for your life—functional, well done, in many ways modest,” said Kilroy. Indeed, Tuley’s homes were about 15 percent smaller than the average suburban house of their era. 

Influenced by modern touchstones like the Bauhaus movement and Buckminster Fuller, Tuley designed houses in a variety of forms, and Kilroy said his inventiveness is apparent despite certain common threads. “You can see ‘This is a Tuley floor, this is a Tuley organization of rooms,’ but they all stand on their own. He was responsive to what the site had to offer…he wasn’t just pulling out a formula.” Tuley houses range from single-story houses with flat roofs, to A-frame dwellings, to a vacation home off the Blue Ridge Parkway, with 360-degree windows and a form based on a seashell.

Current occupants of Tuley houses include Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja, at least one UVA architecture professor, and one couple who hired Tuley to design their home nearly 40 years ago. Most see themselves as stewards of an important legacy, said Kilroy—a view that Tuley himself probably shared. Past clients told Kilroy that “he had a huge ego about what he did. He thought he was the best designer in Charlottesville at the time.”—E.H.

Views, in and out
So much outdoor living space is impressive for a house that fills nearly the entire width of its lot. “That relationship to the outside of that house, even at the front with the generous balcony structure, was really very nice,” said Van Groll.

Emily Kilroy, a graduate student at UVA, completed a study of Tuley’s work last fall and wrote in her report that he tended to “utilize the exterior for living space,” partly to make up for the generally modest size of his homes. Not only does the design invite occupants outside, it also makes the outdoor surroundings an important part of being inside. A classic Charlottesville mix of brick walls, well-tended gardens and blooming trees pours into windows. “This is a house shoved into existing gardens,” said Van Groll, “so we had the instant pleasure of looking at nice things on either side.”

Ron Bailey praised the airy feel of the house’s interior. “On a sunny day you feel like you’re in a jewel box,” he said. “There’s lots of light. It’s built in the side of a hill, but it’s designed to bring in light from every possible corner.”

The stairwell is key to creating that effect. Beginning in a small entry on the ground floor, it narrows as it climbs along the curved wall, toward a bank of eight large north-facing windows positioned over the second-floor landing. Though this is the stairs’ narrowest point, the landing feels expansive with the glass on one side and the open great room on the other. From here the stairwell continues up, widening again as it approaches the third floor, bathed in light from three skylights (whose outlines follow the curve of the stairs). A maple handrail lends a touch of earthy warmth.

Even as the curved wall defines the stairwell, it brings interest and life to the rooms on its other side. “I like Theo’s line about it,” said Friedman—“It activates the space.” Two large openings in the wall create sightlines between the living room and stairwell. In the dining room and kitchen, the curve provides generous hanging space for Friedman and Bailey’s modern art collection.

Otherwise, the house hews to a rectilinear geometry that owes much to the Dutch “De Stijl” movement of the 1920s (think Mondrian). Case in point is the front façade, where a “subtractive form,” as Kilroy put it, defines the second- and third-floor porches. In other words, they look as though they’ve been carved out of the house rather than tacked on.
Standing on the second-floor porch, one has a view of greenery rather than the street, framed by supports that form window-like openings. The feeling of expansiveness is enhanced by the double-height ceiling.

There’s a different, but equally appealing, atmosphere in the patio off the third floor. It’s a squarish space where low walls, steps, and planting beds form a geometric pattern, beautified by copious daffodils and other ornamental plantings. Older houses on adjacent lots lend historic patina. Yet even this patio comes in second as a place to be outdoors.

“The little courtyard [off] the dining room was really our favorite idea,” said Van Groll. “The area in the back is quite nice although admittedly we didn’t use that very much. It was so convenient to get off the dining room into that courtyard.” From inside, two sets of sliding glass doors invite people to step outside into this leafy space, just big enough for a table, chairs, and a few potted herbs.

An ivy-covered wall contains two small windows, a nod to the house’s original occupants: One is at eye level for Van Groll, the other for Black. Luckily, they also fit Bailey and Friedman.

Generous glazing defines the master bedroom, which opens onto a small third-floor porch. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Two heads are better…
Inside, the house exhibits a few key traits of Jim Tuley’s work, with a dose of Van Groll thrown in.

From the dining room, a couple of steps lead down to the living room, giving it in effect a higher ceiling. This, said Kilroy, is a trope that Tuley repeated in nearly all his houses (though in many others, the living room ceiling is also raised). Flanking these steps is a set of built-in cabinets, serving as a room divider as well as storage, designed and built by Van Groll.

The house also has a balance of minimalist, modern surfaces and natural materials. All its walls were originally painted “Tuley white,” a color developed collaboratively between Tuley and Meadowbrook Hardware’s Ronnie Kite, and still available for sale. But much of the flooring is maple. Ornamentation is very minimal, and the tones of the house are muted, set off by colorful Oriental rugs, paintings and art objects.

According to Kilroy, kitchens are often seen as a weak point in Tuley’s designs by those who live and cook in them. Yet this one “works well,” said Friedman. Perhaps that’s partly due to the custom cabinetry Van Groll provided, with many shallow drawers and a large bank of open shelving for dishes and glasses.

A final Tuley hallmark: In many ways, said Friedman, the house is a sensible one. “It’s not built terribly expensively. The floor in the front hall”—a plain linoleum—“you’ll see it in shop floors. It’s easy to clean.” Besides durable materials, the house achieves economy through relatively small size. It has just two bedrooms, both modestly proportioned.

“It’s a very easy house to live in,” Friedman said. “Many houses have little bits of architect-ego poking through, and this house doesn’t.”

Off the third story, a patio and garden warm up the house’s symmetrical facade. 
(Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

The standout
Just being modern in North Downtown has earned the house lots of attention—positive and negative. During the design phase, Van Groll said, some neighbors were vehemently opposed to what they saw as the affront to their streetscapes presented by Tuley’s style.

Yet others were more amenable. “We went before the BAR”—the Board of Architectural Review—“and the members felt it was perfectly in scale with what else was going on in the neighborhood…The porch, the stucco, all of these things we could find in the neighborhood. There was an elderly Greek lady living across [from the site] and she said ‘It reminds me of Athens.’ That was good enough for us.”

Friedman, a longtime Downtown dweller, liked what the house brought to the neighborhood so much that, in 1998, she told Van Groll that she’d buy it if he ever wanted to sell. She was engaged to Bailey, who shared her fondness for modern design, and had considered putting an addition on the small cottage she owned on Hedge Street. But she found the prospect of construction daunting.

Reaching out to Van Groll and Black was a good idea. “Within six weeks they called and said ‘We’re thinking about moving; are you interested?’” she said.

When Friedman and Bailey went to see the house, things moved fast. “We’re coming up the first flight of stairs and said ‘Oh my God…’” said Friedman.

Van Groll gave them a careful, one-and-a-half-hour tour. Then, said Bailey, “He brought out the [architectural] drawings, sat us down and said, ‘What do you think?’ We said ‘We’ll take it.’”

Fourteen years later, the couple is happy with that quick decision. Bailey said they’ve been in other Tuley-designed homes around town, and he credits the influence of Van Groll for this: “Ours is the best.”

 

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