July 2009: Richard Hewitt and the house-as-collection

July 2009: Richard Hewitt and the house-as-collection

Just getting to the house that Richard Hewitt is building for himself and his wife requires some work. The road starts out innocently enough, skirting a Crozet apple orchard, but quickly devolves into a rock-strewn, rutted beast which climbs a steep mountainside to the wooded spot that is Hewitt’s homesite. It’s here that the real work begins: Hewitt, the sommelier at Keswick Hall and an experienced contractor, is constructing a house largely of salvaged materials, and doing it almost singlehandedly.

 

Such conditions, of course, require ingenuity. For example, the normal procedure is to frame exterior walls, install windows, then add siding and trim. That takes more than one worker. So Hewitt built his exterior walls in sections lying on the ground, finished them right down to the paint and caulk, then jacked them up to vertical and attached them to each other.

The project also shows a love for historical detritus (perhaps honed when Hewitt spent time renovating houses in Portugal). The inside of the house resembles the Habitat Store (at which Hewitt is a regular customer): It’s stacked with porch columns, 40 French doors from Keswick that Hewitt’s using as windows, light fixtures and many other elements that will someday find their place in the scheme of things.

Hewitt has to be willing to take materials when they present themselves, not necessarily when he needs them. Take, for example, half of his roof shingles. “I was driving to Richmond on 64 and I was about 20 miles past Charlottesville,” he remembers. A palette of shingles had fallen off a truck, and the driver was busy trying to clean up the mess. Hewitt stopped to help and just happened to mention, when they were not quite finished, that he was looking for some shingles for his house.

The driver, of course, offered him the rest of his scattered stock, and drove off, leaving Hewitt to load as many as he could onto his pickup and then conceal the rest in the woods until he could come back. A police officer came along and questioned him as he was doing this. “You expect me to believe that?” he said in response to Hewitt’s explanation. “It’s too weird not to, isn’t it?” replied Hewitt. “Yeah, you’re right,” said the cop.—Erika Howsare

“People say, ‘I can’t believe you built this all yourself.’ I’ve tried hiring people. But if they’re good, they cost a lot. If they’re not, you spend all day following them around. Since there are two jacks [when raising walls] and there’s only me, I have to go side by side. The wall torques a little. So I have to redo a little caulk and paint.

“I just found this [three-part kitchen counter] at Habitat—it’s from the Virginia Store in Stanardsville. When they were moving it, they thought it broke, but that’s just how it is. The chimney pots are from a Harlow Powell auction. Those are my favorite thing.

“The lumber in the roof is from a Better Living truck sale. The ceiling wood is from a lady’s fence. She said it was all taken down; just load it up. You can’t resist that. That light [a heavy green-shaded chandelier with fringe] is from over the billiard table at Keswick. Those doors are from Habitat; I think they were from a church.

“I end up using 99 percent of what I buy. This is the stuff [lumber] that came from the ark in Crozet [built for the filming of Evan Almighty]. It was in panels. That was the only time I got stuck up here; I had a 24-foot U-Haul in the creek. The flooring is from a factory; those lights were in a gym in Ruckersville.

“I went a little crazy on Craiglist. I have this amazing corbel collection. They’re from all over the U.S., mostly New England.

“The plywood came from the [renovation of] the Jefferson Theater. That was perfect timing. But there were so many nails in it. [When I was loading it] I had no gloves; I was bleeding. I had to get a tetanus shot.

“If you’re patient, stuff sort of falls in your lap.”

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