With six previous renovations under their belts, Frank and Rebecca Gristina had lots of practice sizing up old houses. When Rebecca, accompanied by her mother, came to see a 1906 farmhouse in western Albemarle, she quickly noticed promising signs. This was despite the fact that the place had been uninhabited and was so uninviting that even the realtor was reluctant to step inside.
“It was early spring, and you could see the mountains through the trees,” Rebecca says, adding that she also liked the size of the windows and some other structural details. “That potential starts peeping in.”
Perhaps bolstered by their experience with houses, the trust between the couple was such that Frank okayed making a bid on the house even before he’d seen it in person. From the beginning, the Gristinas knew they would need to plan a large addition to make the house work for their family of five. They also knew that tearing down the old portion wasn’t an option.
“It was solid,” says Frank. “You could have torn it down, but you’re throwing away a thousand square feet of history.”
In this spirit, the couple asked architect Scott Weiss to design a two-floor addition to include an open kitchen/dining/living space, a master suite, two kids’ bedrooms and lots of storage. The original house would offer a sitting room, an office and another bedroom—and it would be, Weiss says, “the jewel.” Rather than imitating its look, the new portion would be complementary.
Laying out the space, Weiss says, was simple, because he and the clients knew that the rooms should face the rear. This was partly to take advantage of views, and partly for the safety of a son with autism, who needs to be discouraged from heading toward the road.
“It all fell right into place,” he says: hallways along the front, with bedrooms and public spaces along the back. And he found ways to make it easier for his clients to keep eyes and ears on their son—for example, by creating a seating nook in the upstairs hallway, just around the corner from his room.
The original portion of the house would remain low-tech (no plumbing) and charmingly funky, with so few straight lines that the clients nicknamed it “Wabi-Sabi” after the Japanese aesthetic that prizes flawed beauty. Weiss designed the addition as a contemporary farmhouse, with shiplap interior walls to suggest a house-within-a-house. The heart of it is the great room, where big windows and French doors invite the family to look and perhaps even to step outside.
“We cook a lot and never understood the formal dining room,” says Frank. Instead, this one flows seamlessly into the kitchen, and a sitting area facing a TV in a niche lined with reclaimed wood.
The kitchen is relaxed and open with few upper cabinets and a big island near the bank of three windows over the farmhouse sink. White and gray backsplash tile echoes the hues of the soapstone and quartz countertops, allowing a royal-blue stove and range hood to come forward as an accent.
“We’re in here 80 percent of the day,” says Frank.
The hallways running the length of the addition, upstairs and downstairs, manage to be a destination in themselves. “The problem was to make it not feel like this giant hallway,” says Weiss. Carefully spaced niches and doorways break up the hallways’ long length. Perpendicular to the first floor hall, an axis connects the front door with the French doors near the dining table, providing a mountain view to visitors even before they come inside.
Whereas Weiss initially designed the house with many windows and exits, his clients’ concerns about their son prompted him to trim them back. “We wanted no windows that open to the front,” says Frank. So Weiss designed small “barn windows” to be placed high on the walls of the upstairs hall, allowing light but not much view, and turned some downstairs doors into windows.
One window on the front did become a focal point—a large square broken into smaller squares and rectangles, à la Mondrian. Weiss had specified this as one oversized pane; Frank played with the idea of breaking it up (“I made it look like a spreadsheet,” he jokes); then Weiss reined in the idea by relating the window sections to the ratios of other windows in the house. “That was the benefit of having an architect,” says Rebecca.
The girls in the family have identical bedrooms with a Jack-and-Jill bathroom between; their brother has a room in the old portion that can, when he is older, become a private suite of sorts. Weiss gave their parents a gem of a master bath, with corner windows over a soaking tub, patterned floor tile and a barrier-free glass-walled shower.
The century-old farmhouse has entered a new era, married happily to a newer and hardworking partner.