February ABODE: Updating a Victorian gem in Staunton

Paula Rau’s only lived in her Staunton house for a short time—since fall 2010. But the century-old home embodies many more years of history than that. There was the house’s original incarnation, a single-family Victorian in the city’s oldest neighborhood, Newtown, which blankets a series of steep hills just west of downtown. Then there was its middle age, when like many of its neighbors, it was divided into two apartments.

 Paula Rau enjoys her light-filled kitchen, where the space flows around a large L-shaped island. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

When Rau bought the house in 2003, the downstairs tenant was an elderly woman who had lived there for 27 years. Rau was in no particular hurry to move and didn’t want to displace her tenant. As it turned out, it would be a half-decade before the woman, by then in her early 90s, moved out. Those five years allowed Rau to plan extensive renovations.

In some ways, Rau has returned the place to its roots by making it, once again, a single-family house, with just two bedrooms. But Rau, a retired professor of art history who specialized in contemporary art, wasn’t afraid to blend her taste with the old-fashioned bones of the house, updating it with an agreeably of-the-moment sensibility.

Once the path was clear, she moved fast. She’d lived for decades in a historic farmhouse outside town, renovating it gradually while raising a family. This time, she said, she was ready to just get the job done and enjoy the finished product.

Eighteen months of collaboration between Rau, architect Carter Green with Frazier Associates, contractor John Workman, and cabinetmaker Paul Borzelleca of Modernboy Workshop yielded a warm, understated renovation that respects the house’s past, but also provides her a practical home for the present.

Perfect balance

After living in the country, Rau was attracted to a walkable lifestyle near downtown Staun-

ton—and she wanted to downsize. “My farmhouse is more house than I wanted to be bothered with,” she said. “I wanted something more compact. I’m an avid gardener, but when you have 27 acres, it’s endless.”

Though Victorian wasn’t necessarily her favorite style, she did like many of this house’s historic features, including its double parlor. “It had two really Victorian fireplaces with bronze fireplace covers, and pocket doors,” she said. “There’s a balcony off the master bedroom with a view of downtown.” The kitchen, too, was bigger than many this age. “The kitchen did have an eat-in breakfast area. Lots from that era don’t.”

Still, she knew she’d modernize in many ways, both aesthetic and practical.

“My other house was from the 18th century,” she said. “It had a lot of history and I felt like a steward. But I live a more casual lifestyle. I didn’t want to have rooms closed up. I wanted to respect it, keep the architectural details and open it up more.”

That approach meant that, as rooms open off the central first-floor hallway, their doorways would widen to increase a sense of flow. Workman removed all the original woodwork, numbered and cleaned it, and milled matching new pieces where needed. Original doors and floors remain, lending a sense of the past.

Restoring the house to a single-family dwelling meant that the front entry could recapture its original stateliness, with a stairway angled around a two-story space and an arched opening into the hallway. The team added a second matching archway into the kitchen. From the wraparound porch, Borzelleca crafted a new front door, with sidelights and transoms, which echoes others in the neighborhood.

Artist’s touches

The team struck a playful balance of old and new throughout the first floor. In the front parlor, for example, walnut bookshelves by Borzelleca symmetrically flank the window and lend weight to the room—until you notice that they “float” over the baseboards.

The three downstairs fireplaces, which are one of the key period details, got selective updates. “Two had been maintained,” said Rau, with their bronze covers a typical light-green color. “I painted them darker, to keep the detail but make it less classical and frilly, to make it disappear.”

Built-in bookshelves by Paul Borzelleca flank a window in the front parlor. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

The third one collapsed when contractors tried to work on it, which Rau saw as an opportunity. “It enabled me to be a little freer,” she said. The fireplace now sports a custom soapstone surround, a casual counterpoint to its formal siblings in the other rooms. “I tried to use local materials where I could,” said Rau.

Soapstone, from the Alberene quarry in Schuyler, shows up again in the kitchen, in the form of countertops built by Borzelleca. He also crafted exquisite cabinets from a walnut tree cut on Rau’s country property.

A large, L-shaped island provides ample workspace and storage. “My friends all get together and cook a lot, and everybody’s in the kitchen,” said Rau. “So I wanted it to be open.”

Even with all the lovely new cabinetry, an antique takes center stage. Rau had inherited a long, multi-drawer oak cabinet from her grandfather’s drugstore. Painted ’50s turquoise and topped with white marble, it found a home along the back wall of the kitchen. New windows above perfectly match the width of this funky old piece.

“The new windows opened up this wonderful view of downtown and even the Blue Ridge Mountains,” said Rau, who was pleasantly surprised by the vista. “This room has light that I enjoy.”

A small detail links new and old in this room: the backsplash over the cooktop, made of tiny white marble tiles. “If I put glass tiles, it would have been really modern,” said Rau. “Their size is modern, but the marble ties it to the drugstore cabinet.”

Creative problem-solving

Rau praises the collaborative spirit of her team. “Everybody was good about helping me,” she said. “I did some things that were not standard.”

The house presented puzzles, too. “The hardest thing was to find a place to put a bath downstairs,” she said. “We looked at every nook and cranny.” They ended up removing steps to a hatch in the upstairs balcony, replacing them with a utility hall and a half-bath.

Green also reconfigured the upstairs layout, creating a large master suite with an adjacent space for closets and laundry facilities. From there, a narrow staircase leads to the third floor.

Previously unfinished, the attic is “a funky space, but it’s great,” said Rau. The only access had been via pull-down ladder. “With all the gables, it was hard to figure out where to put the stairs. John helped me figure it out.” Rau now uses the third floor for yoga, crafts, and overflow guest space.

The entry hall is a two-story space dressed up with an antique light fixture. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

There were other practical challenges. The house had knob-and-tube wiring, original plumbing, and no insulation. “It was a no-brainer to insulate it well,” said Rau, who had Workman tear out the old plaster and put in foam cellulose insulation. “It was important to do as many energy-efficient things as I could.”

Though the original windows stayed, the team added storm windows for better performance—but they modified their frames to make them less visible and allow installation of shutters in the future. “I tried to have a balance between the new, the practical, the green and the old,” said Rau.

Total package

“The quirky” deserves a place on that list, too. Rau’s eclectic style of decorating allows a place for everything from shaggy throw pillows to Picasso prints to four-poster beds. She keeps her jewelry in the tiny drawers of a cabinet where her father stored dental tools. Oriental rugs lend gravity to the rooms while offbeat furniture, like a bright red, modern wooden chair, lighten them up.

In the office (really one of the downstairs parlors), books pack built-in shelving and a clever piece of furniture lets the room function two ways. “I knew I didn’t want a separate dining room, and I did want an office I liked to be in,” said Rau—not one tucked away in an upstairs corner. So she asked Borzelleca to build her a combination desk and dining table. Made from the same salvaged walnut as the kitchen cabinets, the desk has a fold-down leaf on one end, and sliding legs. “When I have parties or Thanksgiving, I have this nice table, but most of the time, it’s an office.”

Rau, the onetime director of a local art center, uses all available space to show off her collection of modern paintings and prints. Her house’s tall ceilings and wide hallway give it a sense of graciousness that makes the house feel much larger than it is. The home shows off both the collaborative spirit of the renovation team and Rau’s long experience with old houses.

“It was a real pleasure to buy this and remodel while I wasn’t living in it,” said Rau, “and have an idea of it as a whole.”

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