Sublime in its setting: A modern retreat converses with a rural view

Photo Courtesy Carter + Burton Photo Courtesy Carter + Burton

What sort of modern house might be at home in a cattle field?

That is just one of the many questions illuminated by Churchville’s Elk Run Ridge, designed by Jim Burton for clients Fred and Kathryn Giampietro. It is a house that embodies many contradictions, and does so gracefully. It’s a private retreat that can easily serve as the setting for a gathering of 150. It is the second home of an art dealer that eschews wall space in favor of windows. And it is a rigorously modern house that, from the road, might be mistaken for a poultry barn.

The union of opposites—modern and vernacular—is at the heart of the project. Rightly so, as the Giampietros, who collect fine art and furniture, wanted a house that would match their sensibilities while bowing to something larger: the rural landscape that spills out in every direction below the ridgetop site.

They envisioned a house sculpted from regional materials, harkening back to the Prairie School of architecture in its embrace of top-notch craftsmanship. To Burton, of Carter + Burton Architecture, this mandated creating an “instant heirloom”: a house that can stand for hundreds of years.

It also meant that the design should follow from the character of the materials the clients had selected. Their preferred palette is pared-down, but warm and earthy: lots of amber-toned wood, brown fieldstone, and buff-colored ground concrete floors. The house needs no ornamentation, because its form and materials are in themselves so arresting.

The space bleeds between inside and outside, thanks to the concrete floor that continues from inside to out, as well as fir ceiling beams. Photo: Stephen Barling

Hard-won simplicity

Elk Run Ridge sits across the road from a retreat pavilion owned by Kathryn’s family. In siting the house, Burton provided an unbroken sightline from the parking area to the pavilion, “bending the house out of the way.”

In fact, the volumes of the house are, as Fred put it, “deceivingly complex.” Rooflines slope up to the north, but also (depending on the wing) to the east and the west. Separate buildings are united under a single roof, creating a dogtrot breezeway, while two different roof structures cover a single section. Though the house at first glance appears to be nearly as simple as a rectangular barn with a shed roof, its form actually contains many facets, and passive solar principles inform specific angles and dimensions.

“I strongly felt that I wanted the house to have equal importance from all angles,” said Fred. “I didn’t want to feel like there was a front or back to the house.”

The basic scheme involves an open floor plan accommodating kitchen, dining, and living areas under a high, sloped wooden ceiling. The long walls are heavily glazed, while a massive fieldstone wall and fireplace solidly anchor one end of this soaring space. Behind the wall is the exterior dogtrot separating guest quarters and office—also, said Burton, a nod to vernacular traditions endemic to hot Southern climates.

Opposite the fireplace, behind the kitchen, is what Burton called a “core”: a long wooden box housing bathrooms, utilities, storage and other “introverted” spaces. Covered in a custom-made walnut basketweave pattern, the core also epitomizes the craft aesthetic at the heart of the project. It becomes a tactile and visual high point that animates many spaces within the home, even making a brief appearance on the exterior.

Wrapping around and above the core is the master bedroom, built from weight-bearing fieldstone walls that—in contrast to the generously sized windows of the common areas—admit light mostly through tall, narrow slits. Pools of sun, landing on the floor, create a rhythm down the hallway to the bedroom. It’s as though light, along with stone and wood, has become a material in itself.

Photo: Stephen Barling

Made by hand

“There’s a sense of place when we nurture craftsmanship,” said Burton. “People took a lot of pride in their work here.” That includes not only local artisans working in concrete, wood, and stone, but famed furniture maker George Nakashima and his daughter Mira Nakashima. Elk Run Ridge boasts numerous examples of their work, including a pair of chairs originally made for Andy Warhol.

Two-dimensional art is displayed sparingly. “The house was not designed for artwork,” said Giampietro. “You can’t compete with what you see out the windows.”

It was, however, designed for entertaining. The huge glass doors on both sides of the living area let guests flow in and out onto the porches and from there to the lawn.

“The porches are laid out for people to mingle,” said Burton. Circular posts emphasize the height of the porch roofs and match the landscape’s grandeur. Yet the house never feels cavernous. “The scale works for two, or for hundreds of people,” said Burton.

Since the house was finished in 2012, the Giampietros have made regular visits adding up to a couple of months of residence per year. Once settled at Elk Run Ridge, said Fred, “We don’t want to run to Harrisonburg or Charlottesville. When we get there, we feel like being there.”

Photo: Stephen Barling

A closer look

Staunton-based woodworker Walter Wittmann, whose business is Helvetica Designs, has been crafting furniture and other objects for three decades. At Elk Run Ridge, he contributed the basketweave pattern covering the “core” of the house, as well as the contoured front door.

Opposite the fireplace is the “core”: a long wooden box for bathrooms, utilities, storage, and other private spaces, covered in the same custom-made walnut basketweave pattern also seen on the home’s front door. Photo: Stephen Barling

How did you arrive at your design for the front door?

Fred had given me a picture from an artist active in the ’60s, known for stacked wood formations. This artist stacked up to 6″ deep of 1″- or 2″-thick boards, but we did not have that luxury. We achieved that look in 1 3/4″. The challenge too was that it has a flat panel inside, and we wanted the contour carving outside. That’s why the door ended up being 4 5/8″ thick, and almost 480 pounds. The whole door is made from Spanish cedar.

Photos: Stephen Barling

What was the process for creating the basketweave pattern?

The first sample was a band-sawn curve, designed to be cut out in shape, like making a puzzle piece. That looked too much like a log cabin. Bending wood is one of my specialties. That is a lamination bend, not a steam bend: a two-piece lamination of walnut with a 10′ radius. The weave repeats every 39 inches.

What are you working on now?

I work on so many different things. We have a couple of historical entrances going on in downtown Staunton storefronts. We’re basically redesigning and redoing something that somebody else had tried and didn’t quite work out.