High-altitude house: Restoring the spirit of a midcentury gem

Photo: Andrea Hubbell Photo: Andrea Hubbell

The driveway is so steep it seemed like a no-go.

On the day in 2009 when he first visited, “I drove up the driveway and told myself ‘Whatever’s at the top of this I can’t buy it,’” remembers the owner. “But then I got up there and thought, ‘Oh, I do have to buy this.’”

The house is a rarity in Virginia: a midcentury-modern artifact that captivated the owner’s California-honed sensibility. And the view’s not too shabby either. The driveway is so formidable because it switchbacks up a mountainside to a site near Stony Point. The house looks down and across Charlottesville, then out to the Ragged Mountains and the Blue Ridge.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Built in the late ’60s or early ’70s (records are unclear), the house had vertical cladding, inside and out, made of old-growth redwood. “It’s probably two to three thousand years old,” says the owner. Seeing that previous owners had painted every inch of the redwood, he began to see this house not only as a potential home for himself and his family, but as a project. “I’m really a lover of wood. I wanted to get back to that original source of the house,” he says. “It took nine years of slow work to do that.” Local craftsmen Mark Bibb and Robert Chico undertook the painstaking restoration of the redwood siding and woodwork.

Originally designed by Joshua Harvey, an architecture professor at UVA, the house now seems to radiate the spirit of the modernist ideas that birthed it. Long, low horizontal lines define its flat-roofed profile. Large expanses of glass—some of them meeting at corners with no interruption—bring in the outdoors. Ceiling lines and planes carry through from inside to outside. At every opportunity, the house seems to suggest that people and sightlines freely flow between indoor and outdoor spaces, a la iconic homes like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

“It seems that the original intent of the house was that you’re just surrounded by the warmth of the redwood, and you really want the aesthetic elements of the inside of the house to go away so your eye goes to the view,” says the owner. The restoration, then, would focus on removing interior distractions.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Over the four decades or so the house had been standing, there had been some dubious updates, like the white ceramic floor tile—“very 1980s,” says the owner—which covered the original concrete. Now, 24″x24″ black slate tile, its size mirroring the openings in the wooden trellises outside, recedes from one’s attention to allow the views to come forward.

Other major updates happened in the kitchen and bathrooms. Charlottesville firm STOA designed a new kitchen layout, including redwood-veneer cabinetry built by Dan Hunt, and absolute-black granite countertops—both of these choices, again, being intended as visually quiet.

“The house is really laid out well in that there are public spaces but they feel very peaceful,” says the owner. “And every bedroom has a view and a relationship with outside, so you have your own private world in each bedroom.”

In truth, although the mountain view is a constant presence in the interior—all three bedrooms, kitchen, and dining spaces line up along the west side, drinking in the vista through floor-to-ceiling glass—the structure itself carries plenty of calm, dignified interest.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Zones are lightly defined by changes in ceiling height, a few steps up or down, and occasional redwood-clad columns. A modern wood-burning fireplace flush with the wall offers an elegant sense of shelter and warmth. High, narrow clerestory windows, a contrast with the acres of west-facing glass, create a sense of play between hiddenness and openness.

The renovation lets the house itself shine while improving certain details—like the master bathroom tub, which had been a 300-gallon behemoth. “It was really beautiful, but there wasn’t a hot water heater on the planet that could take that on,” says the owner. Instead, local craftsman Kierk Sorensen made a more modest, but still spacious, soapstone tub.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Anyone soaking there would look out over a newly added pathway that circles behind the house, lined with Corten steel planters. Simplicity reigns outdoors as well as indoors—the owner actually took out some overly traditional plantings that were cluttering the view—but large oak and maple trees, and smaller Japanese maples, provide softening shade for the west-facing patio, most of which is really just a grassy pad.

Two guest houses, a cottage, and a pool beef up the main house’s relatively modest square footage, but the owner—who recently put the property on the market—says that the original house was what he and his family loved. Asked what it was like to dwell on the mountaintop, he talks in detail about watching sunsets and thunderstorms (“Sometimes you can see those storms split in half and go off in different directions…”) and the wildlife—deer, turkey, bear—that regularly wander through the yard.

“When I got there I said, ‘I bet I’ll become desensitized to this view and tune it out,’” he says. “What the truth ended up being was that every night I’d walk outside and say, ‘I can’t believe this view.’”

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