Little big house: A Charlottesville reno grows in scope—and charm

Photo: Peter LaBau Photo: Peter LaBau

It started small.

When Brad and Cathy Coyle decided to buy a house in the Lewis Mountain neighborhood, they knew it needed some work. But they thought it would be mostly a vacation rental property, plus an occasional weekend pied-à-terre for themselves, and they figured the scope of work was minimal. “It was just a paint job we started with,” jokes Peter LaBau of Goodhouse Design, the Charlottesville architectural firm that ended up overseeing a major renovation on the property.

LaBau’s statement is an exaggeration, of course, but in the beginning the Coyles had cosmetic updates in mind for what had previously been a long-term rental—refinishing floors, repainting, and so on. Still, the couple, who are based in Northern Virginia, found themselves settling into the place more than they’d expected to. “We both went to school here,” says Cathy, “and our kids have all gone here. We always enjoyed spending time in Charlottesville.” 

Attracted to the property by its 1930s character (LaBau calls it “colonial-meets-arts-and-crafts”) the Coyles gradually developed a clearer vision of what the place’s potential might be, and little by little the scope of work expanded. “It’s funny how incrementally it happened,” says LaBau.

There were some real downsides to the house and landscape. One of the biggest was a dark interior, the result of both a closed-off floor plan and untended plantings outside. “The front door was just a door, with no sidelights,” remembers Brad. “It was overgrown with bamboo, and there were bushes that came all the way to the back door.”

In the cozy-comfy living room, the geometry of the coffered ceiling, boxy blue club chairs, and cube-shaped side table impart an embracing, structured feel. Photo: Peter LaBau

“I was impressed these guys could see through it,” says LaBau of his clients. 

Another problem was an outdated kitchen that, like many built in the early 20th century, was quite separate from the rest of the house. “Back then, the kitchen wasn’t something you wanted your friends to see,” says LaBau. Removing the wall between kitchen and dining room would help connectivity, but the rooms would still be tiny. “We took a stab at what could we do within the footprint we had,” says LaBau, “but there wasn’t enough room.”

Thus an addition became part of the project—initially, just a small bump out to make for a more generous kitchen. That led LaBau, Goodhouse co-principal Jessie Chapman, and their clients to start rethinking the entrance to that part of the house. 

“We figured the back door would get used most”—being handy to the parking—“so we considered the sequence to get from the car to the kitchen, through a mudroom,” says LaBau. Now, the door opens into a spacious mudroom with a laundry closet. The refrigerator lives here too, right next to the kitchen doorway.  

Punctuated with a starry chandelier, the main bedroom feels a little bit country, with plenty of space and a rustic board-and-beam ceiling. Photo: Peter LaBau

Still, the addition—around 300 square feet total—had one more job to do: accommodate a bathroom that would allow an existing family room to function as a first-floor master suite. What’s more, the landscape around the rear entrance started to look inadequate, too. The back door wasn’t particularly convenient, being hemmed in by a retaining wall that held back a steeply sloped yard.

So in the end, the scope of work included removing the overgrown plantings, regrading the backyard, relocating the retaining wall, and adding a patio. While they were at it, the team redesigned the front porch to make it deeper and more usable.

“This is the result of thousands of decisions,” says LaBau: “improving one thing, and the thing next to it doesn’t look right.” 

“I don’t think there’s a square inch of the property that hasn’t been touched,” says Brad.

Bracketed by the back of the house and a substantial stone wall, the well- furnished patio is like an outdoor room for entertaining and relaxing. Photo: Peter LaBau

To achieve the transformation from dreary rental to light-filled home meant plenty of modernizing, of course, but LaBau says the house itself—with its many charming historic details—provided all the design precedent he and Chapman needed.

“All the clues were there,” says LaBau. “We had so much to work with—molding profiles, cabinetry styles…” The Coyles loved the details in the main living area, including a coffered ceiling and arched doorways. Adding a heart-pine mantelpiece to the fireplace was enough to spiff it up. The design called for a small den off the living room, contiguous with the larger space; the little room let in a flood of natural light and gained the Coyles a bar and seating nook.

In the revamped kitchen, the team brought in details from the dining room to make the newly combined space feel like a whole. “We replicated these ceiling beams coming across to make it feel like one space,” says LaBau. New oak flooring matches the old exactly, and wainscoting carries seamlessly into the new kitchen.

A peninsula topped with marble provides space for bar stools, and Shaker cabinets blend with subway tile that travels all the way up the rear wall, which features a symmetrical arrangement of open shelving and operable windows. A former utilities chase, now unneeded, was recaptured as built-in shelving which, with its arched frame, looks as though it could have been original to the house.

“It didn’t need to be gigantic,” LaBau says of the kitchen. Indeed it’s not, but its continuity with the dining room makes it feel plenty spacious.

In the master bedroom, a sophisticated cottage feel prevails—quite a change from its utilitarian origin as a garage. Converted into a family room by the previous owners, LaBau and Chapman took it to a new level for the Coyles by vaulting the ceiling. Cathy suggested adding built-in cabinets above the window in the gable end, and completed the bedroom transformation with a blue grasscloth wallpaper she’d had her eye on for a while.

The kitchen is highly functional and unfussy. The wood-floored hallway serves as a hub for the bar, hallway to the dining room, and staircase to the upper rooms. Photo: Peter LaBau

“We were adamant about keeping the radiators in here,” says Brad, who likes preserving historic details where possible. Still functional, the radiators provide a comfortable heat that makes the HVAC system unnecessary in the cooler months.

Upstairs, a pair of bedrooms stayed as-is, but the shared bathroom got an update in a similar palette to the two downstairs baths: white marble, grays and blues, and vintage materials like hexagonal floor tiles and chrome. “I wanted to keep it bright,” says Cathy.

Though it remains traditional, the house’s exterior is significantly refreshed with new siding—clapboard in places, board-and-batten in others—and new double porch columns that lend formality and “a stronger presence,” LaBau says. The rear patio, which replaced a narrow walkway, has room for a dining table and fire pit.

The Coyles are still in their first year of using the property after the 18-month renovation, and they’re spending more time there than they expected to. “It was a weekend game-day house,” says Brad, “and now it’s expanding into weekdays.”

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