Home again: Taking a downtown office building back to its residential roots

Though it was unclear where the home’s original kitchen had been, the Starsias located it in a rear corner of the house. Designer Karen Turner created a beautiful gathering space with luxurious elements—granite countertops and double ovens and triple crown moulding in the adjacent dining space and elsewhere downstairs. Photo: Stephen Barling Though it was unclear where the home’s original kitchen had been, the Starsias located it in a rear corner of the house. Designer Karen Turner created a beautiful gathering space with luxurious elements—granite countertops and double ovens and triple crown moulding in the adjacent dining space and elsewhere downstairs. Photo: Stephen Barling

The house in downtown Charlottesville had lived many lives. Built in the early 1900s, one of a number of similar foursquare houses on its street, it had served for decades as an office building before Gerald and Marianne Starsia first saw it in 2014. And though the couple liked the structure right away, they also realized that far-reaching changes would be required to transform it back into a house.

Those included the big-picture stuff—floor plan, entrances, staircase layout—and many, many details from crown molding to porch paint. Throughout the project, the Starsias took as their watchword the idea of restoration. “We wanted to put this house back the way it was,” says Gerry.

Photo: Stephen Barling

The couple had lived on a farm in Ivy since 2001, and their two sons had grown up there. Moving to town after Marianne retired from teaching was a way to plug into a ready community and to downsize and simplify. At first, says Gerry, “We were looking at condos.” But they decided that a house downtown would do more to connect them with neighbors. “This is part of the fabric of the community,” says Gerry, who’s on the faculty at UVA’s Curry School.

There was another reason not to downsize too far: “We needed this to be a good family nest,” says Marianne.

Situated on a busy downtown corner, the brick house has a solid, generous appearance without being fussy. Years of use and remodeling had left it carved into a number of small offices, necessitating multiple entrances—every side of the house had one—and leaving the spaces cramped. “They tried to squeeze as much square footage as they could,” says Gerry. An air-handling unit loomed over anyone entering the front doorway, and the staircase had been enclosed. There was no kitchen.

Photo: Stephen Barling

Even if the house had never been altered, it wouldn’t have served a contemporary family; it had too few bathrooms and closets. So the Starsias and their architect, Bethany Puopolo, needed to balance respect for the original structure with modernization.

Though the Starsias hoped for a first-floor master suite, the square footage didn’t easily allow it. “That’s the one compromise we made on lifestyle,” says Gerry. “We didn’t want to do an addition; we decided to stick within the footprint and make it fit.”

In return, they gained more generous entryways at the front and rear. “We reworked the front stair back to its original layout,” says Puopolo—a 90-degree plan—“and the back entry to only one level from split level, which made both entrances more light-filled and gracious.”

In the living spaces that flank the entry, the couples’ treasured items take center stage, as in the den, where built in shelves house books and provide a display space for a work by Denver-based artist Michael Duffy. The adjacent living room functions as a slightly more formal space. Photo: Stephen Barling

During construction, contractor Alexander Nicholson found marks on the front hall floor that indicated where the bottom newel post had originally stood, cocked at a 45-degree angle. This discovery, along with treads from a salvage yard, original balusters that had long ago been removed and stored in the attic and new decorative brackets allowed the staircase to reclaim its original importance to the house.

Though nobody knew where the original kitchen had been, it seemed clear that it should occupy one particular rear corner of the house, and designer Karen Turner helped the Starsias work through plans for that space. They settled on a U-shaped cabinet layout with a center island, all topped with Virginia Mist granite countertops. A special touch is the way the salvaged pine flooring lays at an angle. The fireplace makes the room an irresistible gathering spot, and Marianne enjoys the convenience of cooking from recipes displayed on the smart TV above the mantel.

Though there are plenty of luxurious elements here—a six-burner stove, a prep sink and double ovens—the couple did not choose Turner’s highest-end options for the room. “We did scale it back, so as not to overshadow the house,” says Marianne.

“This is not a high-design house,” says Gerry. “It has pine floors, simple doors.” In some places, though, the team did up the ante a bit—adding triple crown molding in several downstairs rooms and wainscoting in the front entry. “Those rooms needed to have a little something,” says Marianne, who has a background in interior design.

Photo: Stephen Barling

A new bank of closets downstairs makes the house more livable, and built-in shelves in the den accommodate many books and treasures while allowing display space for several paintings. Marianne chose Benjamin Moore’s Almost Black to give this room an ultra-cozy atmosphere.

Throughout the house, original elements have been restored and honored. Original windows, for example, are still here, stripped of many old layers of paint and fitted with new lead weights. Radiators were sandblasted and repainted, and reinstalled in spots that made better design sense. Transom windows above interior doors, and the old-fashioned hardware that opens them, were cleaned up and are functional once again. Original trim was replicated where needed.

Particularly where exterior details were concerned, the team needed to accommodate the guidelines of the Board of Architectural Review, since the house sits in a historic district. A side porch, added in the 1950s, had two curved staircases descending to street level. “It didn’t match the house,” says Gerry. Puopolo, like the BAR, felt some affection for the stairs nonetheless, but in the end the compromise was to leave the porch but make it inaccessible from the street by removing the steps.

At the rear, a small covered porch grew into a large screened porch, making it more usable and providing a roomier entry. Landscape architect Anne Pray designed hardscapes and plantings to complement this and the front entry, where another porch makes for an impeccably classic façade.

As they’d hoped, the Starsias have found city life to be agreeably sociable. From this perch, they have a front-row seat to the goings-on of downtown, and a comfortable one at that.

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