Meaningful design: For Cathy Purple Cherry, architecture is more than aesthetic

Among Cathy Purple Cherry's projects is a three-story contemporary home featuring a selection of natural materials. Photo: David Burroughs Among Cathy Purple Cherry’s projects is a three-story contemporary home featuring a selection of natural materials. Photo: David Burroughs

Architect Cathy Purple Cherry started her practice, Purple Cherry Architects, in a 1,000-square-foot home with two children underfoot and two employees. Back then, as now, her focus was custom, luxury residential projects—the kind you’d see featured in home and garden magazines—and over the next few years, she hired more employees and expanded the work space to a 4,500-square-foot office on the gateway road to Maryland’s state capital building.

Photo: David Burroughs
Photo: David Burroughs

“The firms’s growing reputation in the community ultimately led to all kinds of design opportunities,” says Purple Cherry, “from residential to commercial work and restaurant to nonprofit work.”

In 2007, she broadened her focus. Drawing on her experience as the sister of a brother with Down syndrome and the mother of a son with autism, she launched Purposeful Architecture, an offshoot project that focuses specifically on creating spaces for people with special needs—keeping in mind things like sensitivity to colors or distractibility.

Currently Purple Cherry is working on building up a Charlottesville client base as she and her husband prepare to retire down south. We asked her about her practice—how it got started and what’s up next.—Caite White

Why architecture?

My mother was an artist. My father was an engineer. I always loved art and design since I was a little girl. I remember saving magazine and newspaper images in the old print days. I love the blend of art and math. This is architecture. I am passionate about both the outside of a building and the inside. I am committed to creating architecture that creates inspiration and serenity.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

I was born in Virginia and lived in the state until I got married at 20. I have lived and practiced architecture in Annapolis for three decades, but my family roots are in Virginia. I am a mountain girl. I have been to the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge mountains hundreds of times; my heart belongs to Virginia. So, my husband and I decided to build our second home, and eventual retirement home, near Charlottesville. I am inspired by the landscape and excited by the beautiful estates in the area.

This classical shingle-style home comprises two traditional elevations with a connecting center hall. Photo: David Burroughs
This classical shingle-style home comprises two traditional elevations with a connecting center hall. Photo: David Burroughs

What was your childhood like and how did it lead you to design?

I was the sixth of eight children. I was born with fine arts ability. I began taking painting classes after school in the first grade. When I was in high school, I took AP art at the community college and painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. With my mother being artistic, we were always doing arts and crafts in the home. What led me to architecture was the fact that my mind is also strongly mathematical and builds things three-dimensionally. I love assembling beautiful millwork in my mind. I believe well-done architecture can influence positive emotions in our living environments.

Tell us about your college experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder for two years. Then I met my husband on a trip home. So, I stayed, got married and finished my degree at the University of Maryland in College Park. Because I was married while in the architecture program, I completed most of my studio projects at my home literally in the middle of the night. The pattern of working very early hours (3 or 4am) before my family woke up continued until about three years ago for over 25 years. While I was in school, computers were just becoming a part of our world. The architecture studio computer was the size of four refrigerators put together!

There was one teacher that I remember fondly. Ralph Bennett gave both pragmatic and constructive feedback in the studio and was able to see my talent and have faith in me.

Photo: David Burroughs
Photo: David Burroughs

On process: How does it begin?

For me, the process begins with a conversation with my clients. I ask and learn incredible details about their interests, their likes, their patterns, their desires and their wishes. During this conversation, I sketch in front of my clients while discussing possible room relationships and views, and discuss how these influence conversations, function and circulation patterns. We review imagery so that I can understand influencers and personal likes. After this initial project kickoff meeting, I freehand sketch small-scale plans and elevations. Because I see in my mind the minutest detail, you can see my small-scale sketches reflect these elements. And because I think three-dimensionally, you can see in my two-dimensional sketches that I already address roof lines and elevation decisions even though I have not drawn either.

What inspires you?

There are many things that inspire me, but the most significant things are elements in nature, beautiful details, historical fabric, my children and my faith. My older brother John was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. I would say he had a lasting impact on my perspectives. I remember watching how he maneuvered around the built environment and being sensitive to the things that could be improved to help him. This was all before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was adopted. Then my husband and I adopted our first child, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5, from Russia. Again, my design sensitivities to the built environment became even more honed. I think both of these influences made me more cognizant to everything in the environment.

This waterfront home on the Chesapeake Bay combines living room, dining room, kitchen, eating nook and butler's pantry. Photo: David Burroughs
This waterfront home on the Chesapeake Bay combines living room, dining room, kitchen, eating nook and butler’s pantry. Photo: David Burroughs

What are you working on now?

We are excited to be doing many beautiful custom home estates. Each is stylistically very different. We are designing a large French provincial home, a contemporary city condominium, a new seven-structure $25 million Georgian estate, a Nantucket jewel box on a lake in Wisconsin, as well as several other custom homes. We are blessed to be working on projects from the very beginning of conception to the very end of the project, including interior furnishings. My firm focuses primarily on custom residential estates. I personally am also a special needs architect and consult on living and learning environments across the country. Purposeful Architecture is my studio focusing on this work. We also recently completed the new 14-bed Hospice of the Chesapeake for our community.

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