Built for the centuries: A modern-day estate tapes classical traditions

Photo: Gordon Beall Photo: Gordon Beall

Of course the house takes advantage of the views; on this spot, even a campsite would do that. But the formal, palatial home that Dalgliesh Gilpin Paxton Architects designed for an Albemarle hilltop is about more—much more—than what’s outside the windows. The “V House,” as it’s known, sits not only at a physical high point, overlooking a magnificent vista, but at the culmination of its owner’s admiration for building as an art form.

The house is designed as an exercise in the practice of classical architecture beloved by Jefferson, and it is built as a monument to craftsmanship: a “house that can last for 300 years,” in the words of the project motto adopted by owners, architects and builders alike.

A central core flanked by two identical wings, V House reflects the homeowner's longtime interest in classical architecture. Photo: Gordon Beall
A central core flanked by two identical wings, V House reflects the homeowner’s longtime interest in classical architecture. Photo: Gordon Beall

That timelessness is impressive, and it informs every detail of the structure. Yet there is a surprising quirk in the story of how this house came to be. It begins with an antique circular dining table the owners acquired in Wales.

“The table set the size of the dining room,” says architect Bob Paxton. Because classical architecture is predicated on specific rules of ratio and proportion, the footprint of the dining room became the key to many other measurements. “That dictated the height of the ceiling and the scale of the rooms around it,” says the owner. “The scales of structures at the furthest corner of the property is related to the size of that [table].”

The round dining room sits within a cube forming the central volume of the house. It doubles as a library holding thousands of books, many of them relating to Virginia architecture. Photo: Gordon Beall
The round dining room sits within a cube forming the central volume of the house. It doubles as a library holding thousands of books, many of them relating to Virginia architecture. Photo: Gordon Beall

The round dining room sits within a cube forming the central volume of the house, and it doubles as a library holding thousands of books, many of them relating to Virginia architecture. “The spark of inspiration was to make the dining room and the library the same room,” says the owner, recalling one of the many contributions of architect Jay Dalgliesh, who passed away during the three-year construction process.

From that central core, the house is arranged with total symmetry, as two arcades curve away from the main structure to connect with dependencies on either side. It’s a scheme that the owner had specified after extensive study of historic classical forms found in his book collection. In two thick, neatly organized binders he gathered for 30 years prior to construction thousands of images of “prime examples of what we wanted to do”: everything from stone facades to interior window trim.

Photo: Gordon Beall
Photo: Gordon Beall

Yet one key element in the design could never have been employed by Jefferson or his forebears: a two-story wall of glass on the rear. “Not everybody has the willingness to try something as contemporary as this in a classical house,” says Paxton.

The huge southwest-facing windows let in the views of fields and woods that unroll to the feet of the mountains. And they allow for something even more timeless than classical proportions. At sunset on the summer solstice, the sun shines through the rear windows, along the central axis of the interior, and exactly out through the front doors.

Hidden volumes

Though the main house is plenty dramatic—suddenly appearing, as it does, at the end of a pin-straight drive just as one’s car rounds a bend—it’s even more impressive considering that that initial view actually obscures the house’s true size. Sited on a slope, the structure has hidden wings below the curving arcades.

“That allowed the house to read as a cube,” says the owner, “but in fact, it is broader on the lower floors than a visitor perceives.”

Photo: Gordon Beall
Photo: Gordon Beall

The house is home to just two people, but they wanted to be able to entertain on a large scale, and one of the hidden wings makes that possible. It contains a catering kitchen and a second living room and it opens onto a multi-level garden that permits guests to access the grounds and entertainment areas without going through the front door.

That’s the south wing, and although its twin on the north has an identical footprint, it has a very different function. Here, the owners themselves enjoy back-door access via a lower-level entrance meant for people wearing boots rather than black tie. “This is an active working farm,” says the owner. “[From here], you can go hunting and fishing and working on the farm without interrupting the formality.”

Photo: Gordon Beall
Photo: Gordon Beall

Larger than life

Materials at V House were chosen for their durability. “The exterior materials have extremely long useful life,” says the owner: limestone walls and trim, slate roof, bronze windows and doors. “Nothing on the exterior has a square inch of paint.”

Some interior floors are limestone, too, while others were crafted from white oak salvaged from the roof rafters of a 150-year-old barn on the adjacent family farm. Walnut trees taken down on this property provided many interior doors and, says one owner whose family has been on this farm for a century, “make the house personal.”

The interior rooms were designed not only to enact classical ratios but to house the owners’ collection of antique American furniture. The elaborate rooms—with their ornate moldings, heavily cased openings and luxurious finishes—demanded the highest level of craftsmanship from those involved in construction. In an engineering sense, too, there were unusual challenges, like the enormous curving stone staircase supported by a structural steel core.

Photo: Gordon Beall
Photo: Gordon Beall

“Projects like this don’t happen without passionate people,” says Paxton.

Stonemasons, to name another example, delighted in meeting the challenge of building two tall, slender pyramids at either end of the front courtyard. Dalgliesh had designed these just weeks before his death, and they solved the puzzle of how stone walls on three different levels could gracefully intersect.

Finished in 2013, the home seems to exist in a realm beyond the everyday—a plane on which beauty and achievement are larger than the scale of any single person’s lifespan. The enormity of the landscape outside is the only possible match for the ambition of this project, and was crucial to its inspiration. “I had identified the site many years before,” says the owner. “You could not see the view, but I knew it was there.”

Photo: Gordon Beall
Photo: Gordon Beall
The breakdown

Structural system: Steel frame with precast concrete plank floors and thermasteel composite wall panels

Exterior material: Limestone

Interior finishes: Plaster walls, reclaimed wood ceilings, limestone and reclaimed wood floors

Roof: Buckingham slate

Windows: Brombal thermally broken bronze windows

Mechanical system: Geothermal heat pumps with supplemental hydronic radiant heat

Construction: Alterra Construction Management

Posted In:     Abode,Magazines

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