If anyone needs an object lesson in the power of positive thinking, look no further than Katharine “Boo” Dulaney. In 2014, after she’d lived in her Western Albemarle farmhouse for 63 years, she lost her home to a fire. Did she consider moving to town, maybe a little apartment, something easy to care for? “Never for a minute,” she says.
“When I first saw Boo [after the fire],” says architect Anne Gibson Mark, “she said ‘It’s so wonderful; I don’t have to sort through a thing. I can start over.’”
Tragic though it was, Dulaney saw opportunity in the loss of her two-over-two 1840 farmhouse. She would stay on the site and build a new house, better in some ways than the old one. The spot offers a grand view over a meadow to the mountains beyond, but the farmhouse had been “in the way of the view,” she says, not offering many chances to actually see it. And, like most houses of its kind, the farmhouse had an interior chopped into many small spaces.
Dulaney had known Mark for a long time, and Dulaney says when she faced the prospect of building from scratch, she thought, “I know I want Brucey,” using Mark’s longtime nickname.
“Boo told me that she really would be perfectly happy if she could pitch a tent,” says Mark. Dulaney is in her element when outdoors, an avid hiker, birder and naturalist. Mark and her colleagues at Johnson, Craven & Gibson Architects lobbied for an actual house—modest in size at two bedrooms and 2,100 square feet.
The main requirement, apart from connecting with the landscape, was one-level living. There was also a prized walnut tree in the driveway that everyone felt should stay. Along with various other site requirements, it made for what Mark calls “a real puzzle.” To fit the house on the site, she and her colleague Duncan Morton designed it as a series of rooms strung along a curved spine.
“We thought she would want more of the older farmhouse style, but it’s a more modern plan,” says Mark. The main living/dining space is one open room, lit by lots of glass, with a ceiling that slopes up toward the view and a row of clerestory windows. The entrance, too, feels contemporary in the way it emphasizes its concavity.
Yet there are, in fact, many references to older vernacular styles. “We kept the passive solar aspects of the old farmhouse,” says Mark, “the cross-breezes and deep overhangs.” Dulaney had always lived without air-conditioning and knew these strategies worked. A porch roof protects the western-facing wall of glass from summer sun, and gives that façade a more traditional style, too. At the same time, metal-cable porch railings place the exterior in the present.
“Boo wanted white siding; we couldn’t get her to budge,” says Mark, smiling.
“I like white houses with green shutters and doors,” explains Dulaney.
The marriage of modern and traditional is carefully articulated in all the details, inside and out. Red-oak flooring looks standard until you notice the places where it reveals and highlights the curving form of the house. Built-in storage along the hallway is in a plain traditional style, but as Dulaney says, it reflects a modern way of thinking. “I’m not hurting for space,” she says, remembering how limited the closet room was in her old house.
Mark specified a unified palette of white walls (in a shade “slightly warmer than stark white”) and natural materials that would blend with the character of the site. “We wanted to be consistent, since you can be in any room and see other spaces,” she says.
The long acquaintance of these two women is evident in the way the house design embodies Mark’s concern for Dulaney’s daily experience. There’s a place for her to play piano, under a lower flat ceiling that provides better acoustics. She has space for storing her knitting supplies and a place to practice the recorder. The kitchen and mudroom are pleasant and easy to use.
Dulaney’s love for the outdoors is honored throughout the house. “Every room has the view, and a way to get out,” says Mark. At one point during the design process, Mark removed a stairway to the basement so that the space could be used as a “breakfast gallery” instead—a nook where Dulaney can sit at a small table, looking out the big windows at the birds who visit her feeders.
There’s even a persimmon tree growing through a corner of the rear deck, which contractor Ovation Builders constructed around its trunk.
With the circular drive and open plan, Mark provided for another of Dulaney’s needs: her frequent visits by friends and family. “I can accommodate my stepchildren,” says Dulaney. “It’s kind of a party house.”