Invoking an Ideal
Text by Joseph Giovannini/Photography by Durston Saylor
When the New York firm Ike Kligerman Barkley was commissioned to design a house in the Virginia horse country, several considerations pulled the architects in complex and contradictory directions. Thomas Jefferson, Monticello and the Palladian tradition of plantation houses still weigh heavily on the collective architectural psyche. Yet in the more specific context of the Green Springs Historic District, a protected agricultural landscape, most buildings are modest farmhouses. While the house had to hold its own on a 1,000-acre site within the historic-land trust, it couldnt overwhelm empty nesters who were retiring from New York to live in a landscape they had no intention of dominating. We wanted something that would fit in with the area, says Renée OLeary, the client, a professional designer who did the interiors. She and her husband had worked previously with the architects on their home in Connecticut (see Architectural Digest, August 1999).
The land, then, with rolling hills, pasturage, native cedars and a 10-acre lake, looked innocentand large enough to handle just about anythingbut it was actually a multivalent site charged with conflicting expectations. Fitting it into a context polarized between manor and farmhouse meant multiplying its architectural personality. The big house had to be small, underbuilt for a very large piece of land, and it had to be significant yet discreet. We wanted to do something appropriate, something that would sit lightly on the land, says Thomas Kligerman, one of the firms three partners. The clients needed a horse barn, one that could also shelter the cats and dogs the couple foster.
It was the first house of any size in that area since the 1880s, so we felt a lot of pressure to build something worthy of the setting, says partner-in-charge Joel Barkley, who was born and raised in the South and who seemed to breathe a southern accent into the project. Complicatingand enrichingthe task was the ruin of Hawkwood, a pre-Civil War Tuscan-style house designed by the eminent New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis. Its just across the road, so theres a direct visual connection, Barkley adds. Since its a ruin, theres a kind of romantic sense here, a nostalgia, that I wanted to pursue.
The stable adds another chapter to the narrative on the property. The geometrically abstract, acutely triangular structure houses the tack and feed rooms and 28 stalls for Renee OLearys horses, as well as a spiral staircase that leads up to an apartment for the groom, in the gable, where theres a steep, 60-degree pitch. The architect ties the barn visually to the main house via the standing-seam Galvalume roof and the spanking-white paint.
Despite the ramble of exterior shapes in the main house, its interior flows with ease and logic. A tall, impressive entrance hall with a black-and-white checkerboard marble floor leads straight onto a library centered on a dignified escutcheon of white molding celebrating the view through a tall window. To the left lies the master suite and to the right the living room, with the dining room beyond. All the public rooms, along with the master suite, are on the first floor. The other three bedrooms are on the second floor. When the couple have no guests, its basically a one-bedroom house on the first floor.
In every job I do, I try to think of three adjectives to describe my intentions, and here they were stylish, comfortable and authentic, says OLeary. She stressed comfort and informality because the couple keep the doors wide open 10 months of the year, and the free-range dogs drop by on casual visits and roam through the house. In this historical context of Virginia, you have to look twice to realize that the designer cuts the edge with contemporary pieces, such as the dining table with a plaster top and a patinated-steel base. Despite the traditional chairs, the lines overall are clean and softly up to date, eased by natural materials.
OLeary characterizes the style as warm modern, and her palettepumpkin in the living room, Clydesdale brown in the library and eucalyptus in the dining roomindeed warms the interior. Once we realized the outside was going to have columns, that itd be a white house with black trim, I knew wed have a lot of color inside, she explains. I was interested in the contrast.
In addition to the multiple architectural personalities, there were the multiple design voices working in concert from the beginning. We picked our focal points and tried not to have too many things to look at, adds OLeary. I asked Joel whether he designed from the outside in or the inside out, and he said that it all came up together. Thats how we did the whole house. The exterior, interior and the décor all came up together.