Park place: A North Downtown house takes a step toward the present

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On the exterior, details of the original home informed the new designs. Photo: Andrea Hubbell On the exterior, details of the original home informed the new designs. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

A historic house on Park Street—one of the first ever built in this genteel Charlottesville neighborhood—is certainly a prize. But it comes with some baggage. When Ariana and Greyson Williams bought their home, built in the 1850s by a Virginia Supreme Court judge and listed on the National Historic Register, they knew they wanted to do some renovations. The house’s age meant they’d not only have to contend with an antiquated structure, but any changes would have to gain approval from the City’s Board of Architectural Review.

Their projects were also fairly large in scope. “Our goal was to make this our family house,” says Ariana Williams, who was just about to have her first of two children when they moved in 2009. One upstairs bedroom functions as an office, and the Williams needed a guest suite. So the latter would have to be carved out of the basement—partially finished by a previous owner but essentially unlivable.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Photo: Andrea Hubbell

“It was dank,” remembers architect Dan Zimmerman of Alloy Workshop. The basement floor was brick laid on soil, making for poor air quality that bothered Ariana’s asthma. “I couldn’t even be down there,” she says.

Alloy’s task, in a physical sense, was to gut the basement, lay down a concrete slab and finish the space with a bedroom, bathroom, exercise room and living room. Outside, a small rear sitting porch would become a larger screened porch, with a patio underneath looking onto the backyard. The Williams also commissioned Alloy to design a new two-car garage. The challenge was to blend all these new spaces and structures with the vocabulary of the existing house.

“I’m multilingual,” says Zimmerman, comparing building styles with languages. While his “native language” is the modern/contemporary look for which Alloy is best known, he welcomed the chance to test his fluency in a more traditional architectural language. “It stretched us a little,” he says. “You’re adding onto an architecturally strong structure; I wanted to do it correctly.”

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Especially on the exterior, the details of the original home informed the new designs. The screened porch, for example, borrows its scale from an existing sunroom around the corner of the house. “We mimicked its windows with the openings in the screened porch,” says Zimmerman. The same goes for trim details, including the fairly ornate railing.

The results are convincing. “People are surprised the porch is new,” says Williams. At the same time, the structure does offer clues that it does not date to the 19th century. The floor is made of teak, and the ceiling planks form a subtly contemporary diamond/chevron pattern—painted, however, in traditional sky blue.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
In the basement, lightly whitewashed pine planks warm up walls and ceilings (above) while, underfoot, concrete floors are a blank canvas for various patterns and colors. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Modern on the inside

Inside, the basement design aims for a balance between refinement and an earthy tactility, inspired by the highly textured original brick fireplaces in the bedroom and living area. Zimmerman felt that these rooms didn’t need to match the formality of the old upstairs spaces, but could find a different appeal with modern touches and natural materials.

Concrete basement floors became a canvas for various patterns of shape and color, like the diagonal checkerboard in the entry hall, stained with light tan and rusty red.

Pine planks, lightly whitewashed, warm up some walls and ceilings, including those that form a nook over the bed. Tiny LED lights overhead are like stars, and the nook’s lowered ceiling, says Zimmerman, provides intimacy even as it serves a practical function: hiding ductwork.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Meanwhile, the landscape was also up for a redo. Alloy worked with Water Street Studio on a plan that used a new stone wall to separate the lawn into two different levels, added new plantings and steps, and improved drainage. “We didn’t want too many steps,” says Zimmerman. Careful tinkering with the heights of walkways and walls, and the elevation of the garage itself, ultimately yielded easy flow through the landscape and a sense of connection between the upper children’s play lawn behind the garage, and the garden below.

The new garage is able to function as a pavilion thanks to sliding barn doors on the rear. “I thought, ‘We have a party yard, we need a party structure,’” says Williams.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Zimmerman worked hard to integrate the garage with the property overall. Its stucco exterior mimics that of the house, and Williams remarks, “It looks like it could have been a carriage house.” Yet Alloy did allow some details, like exposed roof rafters, to skew more casual than their counterparts on the house.

Not long ago, the great-grandson of the house’s original owner stopped by to chat with the Williams, and expressed admiration for the changes they’d made. “He loved the additions,” says Williams.

Zimmerman says the task of sensitively augmenting a historic house is one he relished. “This is one of the projects I’m most proud of.”

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