A tale of two houses: In Belmont, two families decide between a rebuild or renovation

Belmont is born again (again)

The Frees and Keith-Hynes aren’t the only families trying to decide whether to rebuild or remodel in Belmont these days. While the neighborhood has gone through ups and downs over the years, it now seems to be on the upswing for good. (It shared the top growth designation with Venable in a 2010 Charlottesville Census.)

Abbott, who worked on Keith-Hynes’ new home in addition to the Frees’, has been active in Belmont since launching his own construction company with the tireless back-office support of his mother June a little over a year ago. He says he told a real estate developer who is a family friend to start buying property in the neighborhood in the early 2000s. But the developer said he’d seen it all before: The young people moving into the area would grow their incomes and families and then move out into the county. Abbott believes he’s since been proven right—he’d even go so far as to use the G-word when describing what is happening in Belmont.

A large porch is a prominent feature of 608 Belmont Ave. Photo: John Robinson
A large porch is a prominent feature of 608 Belmont Ave. Photo: John Robinson

“Belmont is now chic,” Abbott said while strolling down Belmont Avenue in his work clothes last month. “Gentrification has come to Belmont.”

Galvin would disagree, if only in concept. She says Belmont is growing into a neighborhood that is eclectic, rich in culture and diverse in incomes, ages, and cultures. That’s not gentrification, just diversification.

“Gentrification…is a wholesale displacement of people,” Galvin said. “That is not what is happening in Belmont.”

As idealistic as she is, Keith-Hynes’ decision to build a new home in Belmont was largely practical. She owns a real estate rental business, and the place next to her existing home at 604 Belmont (which was also at one time in her rental portfolio) needed repairs totaling more than she thought it was worth. It made sense to tear it down and start fresh. She just needed the capital to finance the deal.

Keith-Hynes continued to tap into her rental property resources to make the new home affordable. In addition to the teardown she expected to move into, she sold a property for her down payment and plans to cover her mortgage payments with the income from the home she is moving out of.

“Basically, it has taken three of my rental houses to make it all work,” she said. “That’s how I see it, and the values of the houses kind of make sense—three houses assessed in the $150K range making a house worth $450K.”

Still, Keith-Hynes’ ideals have largely driven the rebuilding process. She has taken a number of steps to limit the scale of her construction project (as well as save a few bucks), including working closely with a draftsman, rather than a full-fledged architect, to draw the plans for the house. Mike Ondick, who said he drew more houses on his own than most architects during the housing boom of the early 2000s, found it was easy to work with someone like Keith-Hynes.

“If I can’t get it right or close to right the first time, then the client is impossible to work with,” he said. “Meghan knew what she wanted.”

While Keith-Hynes was resigned to compromising on the size of her new home, she was not going to allow it to have all the unnecessary frills modern real estate developers have convinced consumers they need.

“She wanted a stripped down version with clean lines,” Ondick said. “She and her family are not material people.”

For one, Keith-Hynes wanted only one and a half bathrooms. (She got two and a half because the bank refused to provide a loan for a house it thought would be too much of a liability on the resale market.) She wanted only single vanities in those bathrooms, as well, and opted out of additional storage space in places where it wouldn’t be needed. She refused stainless steel appliances despite an “understanding” that a house like the one she was building would have them.

“I hate stainless steel,” Keith-Hynes said. “It’s so pretentious.”

There was no compromising on the front door at 615 Belmont Ave.—it had to be old. Photo: John Robinson
There was no compromising on the front door at 615 Belmont Ave.—it had to be old. Photo: John Robinson

Preservation and perspiration

Keith-Hynes knew building a new house at 608 Belmont made the most sense, but the last thing she wanted was an out-of-place monstrosity. Galvin believes that was the right idea.

“If a building goes in that is gigantic, out of scale, or completely ignores the front porch culture of Belmont, you are starting to create a chaotic environment,” she said. “I am not advocating classical detailing over modernism, but whatever goes in there should be sensitive to the context.”

Galvin says the Belmont neighborhood is largely oriented toward the street and walkability. The continuous sidewalk and alleys contribute to slow vehicular speed and pedestrian safety. As for the homes themselves, in contrast to the suburban design aesthetic, where the focal point is often a garage, Belmont homes are set close to the sidewalk and typically have a large front porch. They also tend toward a prominent front door and numerous forward-facing windows that give the impression (and practical effect) of having eyes on the street.

“The front façade tells people who walk the street that it is welcoming, and it is a form of self-policing,” Galvin said.

Free, a cinematographer who recently landed his first national release with Murph: The Protector, says in his profession, the way things look matters. When you’re shooting a film, people may think you should be able to make objects appear as they are not, but it doesn’t work that way. If the floor you’re shooting is dirty, it will appear dirty on film.

The appearance of homes is the same—it’s hard to fake it.

“The saying ‘they don’t make things like they used to’ I think is true,” Petrosky-Free said. “Our floors are original, sanded down, and exceptionally done. There is variation in the color of the planks that you can’t get in any other way.”

While Free says Abbott and Co. wasn’t necessarily the least expensive contractor he and his wife solicited for their renovation, it was the company that most valued reuse and preservation. When the couple widened a doorway from the foyer to the living room, Abbott and Co. used the original molding for as much of the new frame as possible before crafting extensions to complete it. They made sure to reuse the house’s original glass wherever they could —that’s an item it is almost impossible to recreate, according to the Frees’ extensive window research, as the glass starts to sag and create a wavy look that new glass doesn’t have.

According to Matt Ashworth, Abbott and Co.’s superintendent, working with the existing trim in an old house is an exercise in patience and organization—everything must be carefully labeled for the rebuilding process.

“We saved every bit of trim in that house and reused everything,” Ashworth said. “It can be difficult work. You have to take your time. You can’t just go through and rip things out.”

The Frees had to get creative in the kitchen, where the countertop has a quirky cutout that was created to preserve the placement of a window. Photo: John Robinson
The Frees had to get creative in the kitchen, where the countertop has a quirky cutout that was created to preserve the placement of a window. Photo: John Robinson

Creativity is also required. The Frees’ new home features a closet in the office (the previous version of the dwelling had no closets) that uses a door removed from elsewhere in the house. And in the kitchen, the countertop has a quirky, and somewhat inconvenient, cutout that was created to preserve the placement of a window.

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