“How do we touch this and not mess it up?”
That was the question that Tim Burgess asked himself in 2010 as he and Sharon Shapiro considered buying an 1860 Louisa County farmhouse. The house wasn’t a museum piece; previous owners had installed a modern kitchen and loft. But the historic nature of the property was certainly intact. Even more important, Burgess said, its sheer proportions were extremely pleasing. Though the couple (a chef and a painter) knew they’d need to add square footage, they wondered how to do it appropriately.
For answers, they went to Ted Nelson of Design Build Office (DBO)—the same firm that had, 6 years earlier, put in the kitchen. While that had been a renovation project, this one involved constructing a brand-new wing on the back of the house. Nelson found a way to provide Shapiro and Burgess with the master suite they required while striking a tricky balance between the classic and the contemporary.
The house now seems to embody 150 years of American history, stretching from the Civil War to the present. Its form resembles a technology—the train—that was rather new during that earlier era but still flavors the region today. The “train” is made of three separate buildings connected by narrow passageways or bridges, with the “caboose” being the new master suite.
While the exterior is unified by a single paint color and traditional detailing, the interior speeds toward the more recent end of the timeline. One can enter through the front door of the original two-over-two farmhouse, which probably looks much as it did in the 19th century, and walk straight through to the back doors, where daylight pours through a wall of glass into a thoroughly modern room.
Shapiro and Burgess married in 2010, combining their families—she has one child, he has five—and were soon on the hunt for a home. “We needed something that was just ours,” said Shapiro, unlike the Rugby Avenue house where she’d lived for a dozen years.
They wanted a country home, but they didn’t want to tackle the long process of building. The Louisa house, located in a rolling landscape of cornfields and stoplights, wasn’t quite big enough. “We weren’t going to do it without the addition,” said Burgess. They came to see the house as “a good blend,” said Shapiro: They’d share the experience of hiring an architect to design for their needs, but they’d also get to move in as soon as they wanted to. And, as a professional artist, she was attracted to the standalone studio on the property.
Nelson, who consulted with the couple before they finalized the decision, knew the place had the right ingredients. “It was easy to envision it as a hip space,” he said. “Some country houses are so doily-laden.” He’d already worked hard to modernize and preserve the house when previous owners asked him to transform what was then its rear portion.
Standing in that part of the house, now a sleek kitchen, he recalled what it looked like when he first saw it in 2004. “This was a pre-Civil War cabin”—originally located elsewhere on the property—“that someone moved and stuck on the back of the house. It was a storage room and had a huge fireplace up through the middle of the building. It was decrepit. There were old weird upholstered things in it.”
He and his crew set out to make it into a kitchen (downstairs) and bedroom (upstairs) while salvaging as much of the original material as possible. “We had to strip it to bare studs,” he said. Even as DBO stabilized it structurally, it insisted on a slight lean, which is still just visible. Modern windows and insulation made it comfortable.
The clients had asked for a “country chic” look, Nelson said: “rustic materials, but the lines are more contemporary.” He accommodated by, for example, installing wood paneling on the walls (which “felt like a cabin”) but whitewashing it for a clean appearance. The palette of materials also includes Buckingham slate countertops, Ikea cabinets, and stainless steel appliances—along with a large central island clad in wood recycled from the structure.
The floor is inch-and-a-half maple, reclaimed from a Brooklyn sewing factory and stained nearly black. On the ceiling, white beadboard fits between exposed unpainted joists; custom-fabricated metal railings lead upstairs to a roomy loft bedroom, where the crisp black-white-and-gray scheme continues.
Shapiro and Burgess—the co-owner of two Downtown restaurants—have changed very little about their kitchen. It was the key to envisioning the next stage for the house. “We liked how this had the old and the new,” said Shapiro. “Tim is more into old and I lean more toward contemporary.”
Burgess especially loved the form of the house from the outside: two boxes, set at right angles to each other and connected by a narrow breezeway. He wondered where an addition could go. “You can’t add on by going up, or on the side. The two-over-two is so classic, you can’t touch it,” he said.
For Nelson, the solution was in a window at the rear of the kitchen, overlooking the large open field behind the house. “That’s how we’re going to get to whatever it is,” he thought.