The new traditional: In one Scott Weiss house, the Southern vernacular gets an update


A freestanding fireplace made of soapstone from the Alberene quarry in Schuyler helps delineate the living and dining rooms. Photo: John Robinson A freestanding fireplace made of soapstone from the Alberene quarry in Schuyler helps delineate the living and dining rooms. Photo: John Robinson

Sometimes, inspiration doesn’t look the way you expect it to. In 2008, Rhonda Matthias was gathering ideas for a new house she and her husband, Cary, planned to build. They had the land—a four-acre parcel in rural Goochland County—and they thought they wanted a “traditional farmhouse,” something with two stories.

The house features a deep wrap-around porch along three of its sides, lending a Southern quality that’s both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Photo: John Robinson

“But we couldn’t settle on exactly the look we wanted,” Rhonda said.

Then she came across a photo of a one-story house with a wraparound porch. It was distinctly Southern, like something out of the Lowcountry. “I showed it to Cary and he loved it too,” she said. “There was no going back once we realized we wanted the wraparound porch, to take advantage of the views we have here.”

Through Rob Carter, who’d eventually become the contractor for their project, they met Crozet-based architect Scott Weiss—and he turned out to be very well-suited for their Southern-flavored vision. “A lot of what I like comes from Florida beach houses,” he said.

The couple had lots of specific ideas about their new home. “We knew we wanted this big open living space, like so many houses have these days,” said Rhonda. “But we wanted the kitchen to not be central. There’s all that noise in the kitchen.”

Weiss designed a floor plan that keeps the kitchen handy but still quite separate from the living area.

While firmly rooted in tradition, the three-bedroom Matthias house is clearly of contemporary vintage. Topped by a steeply pitched roof, the one-story house boasts very high ceilings over the common rooms. Triangular gable windows punctuate the wood-clad ceilings, adding light and drama. Another modern touch is in the dining area, where Weiss created an open structure of beams and built-ins to suggest an enclosure around the table. “I wanted it to feel more like a room,” he said. “Plus it creates zones of travel on either side”—de facto hallways leading to bedrooms.

Outdoor life
While various ideas came and went during the design process, the wraparound porch—running along three sides of the house—remained key. The main entrance is found on one side, allowing a large stone fireplace to dominate the front porch. Its mantel is made from a cherry tree found on the property.

A steeply pitched roof makes way for very high ceilings, like in the dining area, where architect Scott Weiss created an open structure of beams to suggest an enclosure around the table. Photo: John Robinson

From here, pastoral views roll away to the horizon, and wide steps—a “stairway to nowhere,” as Weiss put it—lead down. It’s clear that the seating out here is not just for show. “The really deep porches are usable even when it rains,” said Rhonda. “I love to be out there with a book when it’s raining.”

“Any porch I design has to be that deep,” said Weiss, who left roof rafters exposed over the porch à la the beach houses he loves. In the Southern tradition, deep porches not only provide practical outdoor living space but help protect the indoor rooms from summer sun. The Matthiases attest that their verandas do keep things cool, furthering their goal of an energy-efficient dwelling.

“One key thing was making sure the way we put the house down on the land takes advantage of the sun,” said Rhonda. “It does exactly what it’s supposed to do.” In winter, the low sun helps warm the house, while in summer, deep eaves keep things shaded inside.

Fire and stone
The interplay between indoors and out, heat and cold, continues even in the heart of the house. A freestanding soapstone fireplace helps delineate the living and dining areas and radiates heat even hours after a fire’s gone out.

“I had wanted a masonry heater,” said Cary. “We were visiting a friend in Alabama, and there was a soapstone sculpture. He said it came from Virginia.” This was how the couple learned about the Alberene quarry in Schuyler, which eventually supplied most of the stone for their fireplace.

It’s flanked by built-in bookshelves that also serve as columns to support the beam structure over the dining table. “These corners needed to be substantial since they were floating in the room,” said Weiss. The whole arrangement provides quiet spatial interest, allowing a custom cherry table (and whatever is served on it) to take the spotlight.

The kitchen has the same sense of understated style, with quartzite countertops and black distressed-finish cabinets. Tucked behind it is a breakfast nook lined with windows and more built-in shelves.

After nearly three years in their house, the Matthiases are still making improvements to landscaping and planning future projects (finishing the basement, for one). But they also revel in the many pleasant spaces in and around their home—like the screened porch off the master bedroom. It’s not just a place to get outside.

“Three seasons a year, I can open the French doors to the screened porch [at night] and you feel like you’re camping in your own bed,” said Rhonda. “You get the full choir of coyotes.”

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