Wonder wall: An expansive pine façade melds beauty and functionality

The simplicity and uniformity of the wall enhance the other primary quality of the apartment, namely, openness. Photo: Virginia Hamrick The simplicity and uniformity of the wall enhance the other primary quality of the apartment, namely, openness. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

There’s an air of mystery about the renovated third-floor apartment on the Downtown Mall. A wall of rough-sawn reclaimed white oak treated with bleaching oil runs nearly the entire length of the main room, interrupted only by the rectangular opening that accommodates the black-glass stovetop, kitchen sink, and counter space for food prep.

A gentle push unlatches sections of the wall, which open to reveal key elements of the apartment, such as the bathroom. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

It’s a bold design feature, the materiality of which is complemented by the plank floors, also reclaimed white oak but smooth and stained slightly darker. Scanning the wall, a visitor can’t help but think, where is everything? The bathroom, pantry, dishwasher, cabinets, refrigerator, freezer, and drawers to hold silverware and cooking utensils? Also, what about the HVAC ducts, utilities, and wiring that makes this place work?

Architect Jeff Bushman smiles slyly. He presses a section of the wall and a door pops open, revealing the fridge and freezer. I’m starting to get it. “Where’s the bathroom?” I ask. He nudges another panel. It unlatches with a click-click and swings open to a bright, spacious bathroom with a glass-walled shower. “We needed the central wall to be functional,” says Bushman, of Charlottesville’s Bushman Dreyfus Architects. “But we didn’t design it just to hide things. It fits with the clean, pared-down look we wanted.”

The simplicity and uniformity of the wall enhance the other primary quality of the apartment, namely, openness. The floor-through view is uninterrupted from the front, which overlooks the mall, to the back, which faces Water Street. The staircase leading to the loft bedroom is made of perforated steel, a porous barrier separating the dining area near the rear of the apartment from the assemblage of living-room furniture up front. In the bedroom, six light wells open up the peaked ceiling, offering a leafy, eye-level view of tall oaks on the mall.

The view is unfettered from the rear of the apartment, which faces Water Street, to the front, which overlooks the Downtown Mall. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

The thoroughly modern feel of the space runs counter to the historic nature of the building. Constructed in 1843 at 118 E. Main St., it and its neighbor, 114 E. Main St., are the oldest structures on the mall. Bushman says the apartment building required “a deep, frame-up restoration,” but he was proud to have done it. “We stripped everything back to the bones, so you could see all the original brick,” he says. He points to the exposed red-brick wall beside the staircase that connects the small entry space and the main floor. “That, right there, is your truth wall,” he says. “It’s an important part of the story.”