Bistro chic: A Downtown Colonial gets a modern kitchen for the ages

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Original heart pine cabinetry keeps the kitchen feeling warm and timeless, while French-inspired wares lend some style. Photo: John Robinson Original heart pine cabinetry keeps the kitchen feeling warm and timeless, while French-inspired wares lend some style. Photo: John Robinson

If you own a house in a historic district, it turns out that implementing any kind of renovation project is tricky business. Mark and Caroline Shaffrey knew this when, in 1997, they decided to buy their 1902 Colonial in Downtown Charlottesville. And it meant waiting to make any changes to the space until they were absolutely ready to accept the chaos it would bring. “We’re at full capacity, with four kids, and an ever growing amount of dogs,” Caroline said. “The kitchen renovation ended up taking six months or so, and that was about all we could handle.”

Dried hydrangeas spill from a vase behind the sink, which was a must-have for Caroline: It’s a deep farm-style made of hammered copper. Photo: John Robinson
Dried hydrangeas spill from a vase behind the sink, which was a must-have for Caroline: It’s a deep farm-style made of hammered copper. Photo: John Robinson

They decided to redo the kitchen about three years ago. Their four kids, whose ages range from 11 to 22, are all in various stages of growing up. Caroline realized how important a functional kitchen was: “We absolutely live in this room. It’s the only modern room in the entire house, in fact. The oversized windows and enormous island make it so that everyone has space to spread out, do homework, and entertain friends.” And dinners are a favorite time considering the busy schedules the family keeps, especially Mark, who is a doctor in the neurology department at UVA. An avid cook, Caroline ended up creating a chef’s dream kitchen, appointing it in a way that fits her cuisine of choice: bistro French.

It was genuinely a group effort. Caroline rattled off a laundry list of people she brought in to transform the space, but the headline acts were architect Ellen Atlaw and builder Tony Wilson of Ovation. Each was determined to update the dark, slightly old-fashioned room using contemporary materials and state-of-the-art appliances. That said, the space still feels warm and timeless, mainly due to the original heart pine cabinetry that the Board of Architectural Review encouraged the couple to keep.

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The banquette at the corner of the kitchen, complete with custom draperies, provides a cozy nook. Photo: John Robinson

“I would say it was a strong suggestion,” Caroline said. “So we had them taken out, refinished outside the house, and then reinstalled.” Stained a honey tone, the cabinets complement the backsplash, countertops, and massive island, all of which is made of a gorgeous Jerusalem limestone which Caroline actually had an easy time picking out.

“I knew I wanted a material that was going to be subtle enough to blend in with the rest of the room and that would go well with my custom copper sink.” The sink is a showstopper and was an absolute must for Caroline: a single, deep farm style tub made entirely of hammered copper. The appliances include a major Wolf range, Bosch dishwasher, and Sub-Zero refrigerator which, unlike the rest of the appliances, is not stainless but has antique white panels. “I wanted to break up all the wood in the space—there’s so much of it! So having an antique white fridge with a pretty, polished bronzed handle helped lighten up the room.”

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Photo: John Robinson

In terms of décor, Caroline collaborated with local interior designer Kathy Davies to help further the bistro theme. “We used a wide variety of resources to give her new kitchen a warm, comfortable, livable feel for an active family,” said Davies, who even helped pick the paint colors, including the Navajo White used on a brick archway that leads into the space. The back wall of the kitchen is covered in a natural linen and raffia-textured wallpaper from Hines, in order to “add a little more texture and balance out the walls of the addition, and to play with the existing tones so as not to overwhelm the space,” Davies explained.

Photo: John Robinson
Photo: John Robinson

The cornices, which are made of a Donghia fabric with a raffia top-stitching, and a clear beaded detail trim by Samuel & Sons, are another detail worth mentioning. When the space was completed, the windows on the banquette were not evenly placed in the corner, so they had to design the cornices to cover up this discrepancy and create visual symmetry, despite the 6-8″ difference from side right to side left. “There were all sorts of changes that had to be made and mistakes that were made,” Caroline said. “But honestly, at a certain point, I just said enough. It’s beautiful in its imperfections.”

She’s had fun accessorizing the space with her favorite things. She describes her taste as “eclectic,” and has a penchant for hunting things down at local auction houses and antique stores. Some found treasures include blue Italian glass canisters that line the back wall, French decanters, and bisque wares. A grouping of dried hydrangea, which will be replaced by freshly picked ones this summer, spill out of an oversized vase behind the sink in the corner. Caroline is looking forward to the inevitable increase in people as her children come home from school and as the warm weather makes their house more inviting. “We’re so close to the Downtown Mall that in the summer our house—and really our kitchen —becomes a stop before the night activities ensue. Wouldn’t have it any other way!”

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