Home of Distinction: Romancing the Cottage

PRESENTED IN WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH MAGAZINE

by Marimar McNaughton

The earth is round, but the world is full of seductive edges and remote corners where man wrestles the odds of nature to carve a niche for himself, on distant seaside islands steeped in privacy, where his true visionary genius may come to repose.

Chadsworth, a cottage on the extreme north end of Figure Eight Island, on a site, which the owner says, was at one time heavily treed with live oaks ravaged by hurricanes, is one of those rare private villas where a world traveler retreats behind the façade of an Anglicized Palladian mansion embedded into the fragile barrier island landscape.  The landmark dwelling is at once a prominent navigational aid for mariners traveling the Atlantic and a soft landing for homeowner Jeffrey Davis.

Chiseled from classic architectural styles passed down through the ages, Chadsworth’s exterior represents Davis’ lifelong fascination with Greek and Roman forms, from which he has fashioned a thriving enterprise as a designer and manufacturer of classic columns – a profession and a passion that sends him around the world.

He returns to eastern North Carolina, where he has longstanding family ties and fond memories, to unpack his bags in a home framed by formal highbrow lines, charmed by vernacular coastal Carolina traditions.

“It’s comfortable, it’s traditional, it fits my personality,” Davis says.

The centerpiece of his home is a collection of antiques handpicked during continental and global forages.

“The furniture that I’ve been collecting for over 20 years is all from the early 1800s, whether it be Biedermeier, or First Empire, New York or Regency . . . I collect these things,” Davis says.  “I wanted that period and that type of furniture, and I think that was a starting point.”

The challenge was how to create a context for the furniture in a beach cottage setting.

“I like to live with my antiques.  There’s nothing in here that you can’t sit on, you can’t touch, you can’t do something with.  My dogs jump on every single thing in the house, kids do too,” Davis says.

When it was time to design his permanent home, Davis recruited a trusted colleague, Christine G.H. Franck, who, like Davis himself, sits on the board of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.  With a combined 25 years of tenure, the pair teams up with other design professionals, working tirelessly, teaching and traveling, to spread the mission of the institute, which is dedicated to advancing the practice and appreciation of the classical tradition in architecture and allied arts.  Franck, for her design work on Chadsworth Cottage, also received a coveted 2007 Palladio Award, named in honor of Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, for her outstanding work in traditional design.

“One of the things that we were faced with early on was the parameters of building here,” says Franck.  “The fact that we had to elevate the first floor as high as we did to 13.5 feet finish flood elevation . . .given that, we then looked at all the different options.”

Those options were Palladian villas, English villas and American Federal houses that Franck says are based on Roman precedents, elevated on a high base.

“We made that decision fairly early on, so that the overall design direction for the house was going to be in this Anglo-Palladian tradition,” Franck says.

“Jeff was also very clear about wanting the house to have a sense of character and place to eastern North Carolina.  He didn’t want it to look like it should be anywhere other than her,” she adds.

The bows to eastern North Carolina can be found in the details, like distinctive black shutters and window sashes derived from tar-based glazing compounds used in coastal settings to prevent rot.  Corner pilasters, vented soffits, blue porch ceilings, figurative “bundled wheat” balcony spindles and the interior stair hall were borrowed from historic sites in nearby New Bern.

Franck’s brilliant design blends formal and informal interiors that reiterate Davis’ love of symmetry and balances his gregarious lifestyle with a need for solitude – entertaining as many as 300 guests on the lawn, hosting intimate family gathering at holiday time or private dinner parties in the grand hall and the dining room, or retreating to his singularly quiet balcony, where he looks over the Rich’s Inlet sand spit, and idyllic windswept vista – savannah, white sand and feisty surf.

Very public spaces, like outdoor showers, and very private places are stacked within the footprint of the three-story, three-bedroom, three-bath home from the ground level to the attic dormer windows that crown the hipped roof.

Supported by load-bearing columns, representing the lowest to the highest orders of classical architecture, incorporated into the fabric of the house, both the interior and exterior column forms rise with each successive function.

“The classical orders have a hierarchy to them,” Franck explains.

“The Tuscan order on the porch columns is a strong order, and it gives this house the sense that it’s projecting strength out over the water.  The (interior) Ionic capitals downstairs are from the Erechtheum, which is a small building on the Acropolis.  The Corinthian order is the highest of the orders, if you will,” she says, admitting that there are at least three schools of thought that define classic columns and their origins, spurring much debate historically.  Undisputedly, the Corinthian columns in Davis’ master suite were inspired by the Tower of the Winds from Athens, Greece.

“The Tower of the Winds capital and the Tower of the Winds border that you see in here is what started my company,” Davis says.  “It’s the first column that I actually built . . . and it’s the column that built this house, literally.”

“Sometimes I think it’s important to create a fiction, if you will, for a house,” Franck says.  The fictionalized story she weaves of someone who lived along the Carolina coast, who might have been involved in the trade industry, who brought back some tiles from Holland, picked up a cane chaise in India, a First Empire day bed from one of Napoleon’s castles, an 1832 Biedermeier dining table from Austria and a writing desk from Germany, and brought them home to his island retreat, is not far-flung from the truth.

To lighten the intensity of the antiquities and the treasures, Davis and Franck collaborated on a window treatment used throughout the house, combining wooden plantation blinds with sheer, diaphanous drapes.

“Part of what we were going for,” Franck says, “was this kind of Caribbean . . . almost trade-oriented house . . . where you get the blinds, you get the breeze coming through the windows, you get the slats of light . . . a lot of this is to downplay the formality of the furniture and to make it a comfortable light, air-flowing house and place to be in.”

Embellishing that fiction is the Chadsworth name.  Davis says, “I wanted a name that sounded old, as if we’d been in business for hundreds of years.”

From the north end of Figure Eight Island, the visionary genius gazes out to sea.

“I love this porch out here.  The columns, and the view, it’s absolutely gorgeous,” he says.  Chadsworth, his cottage, appears as if it had always been there, his homeplace for hundreds of years.

 

New Old House Magazine | Chadsworth Cottage

CHADSWORTH COTTAGE

Classical elements create the perfect new old house in Wilmington, North Carolina.

By J. Robert Ostergaard  |  Photos by Erik Johnson

The 20-foot columns and classical façade of Chadsworth Cottage make it a Figure Eight Island landmark. Designer Christine G. H. Franck combined Greek Revival, Federal, and Palladian elements to create this waterfront villa for client Jeffrey L. Davis.

The 20-foot columns and classical façade of Chadsworth Cottage make it a Figure Eight Island landmark. Designer Christine G. H. Franck combined Greek Revival, Federal, and Palladian elements to create this waterfront villa for client Jeffrey L. Davis.

Some houses speak to us. Their voices are honest, eloquent, and deeply resonant. They communicate in a language that is grounded in our architectural history and an authentic local dialect.

Approaching Figure Eight Island, off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, is such a house: Chadsworth Cottage. It’s the waterfront home of Jeffrey L. Davis, the founder of Chadsworth’s 1.800.Columns. Its designer, Christine G.H. Franck, is fluent in the classical language that informed its creation. “My primary goal with anything I design is to ensure that it just feels right,” says Franck (a frequent contributor to New Old House). “The language that you use to express the design ideas is an important part of what makes a building feel right, as if it’s supposed to be there.”

Looking at the completed house—and how right it feels—it’s hard to believe that Davis initially considered building a poured-concrete structure, thinking it more likely to survive a hurricane. But because Davis is also a board member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, it’s not surprising that he chose a classical model for his new house instead. With the help of a local engineer, he drew up a rough design of a 40′-by-40′ cubic house with four columns on the waterside and a big double-story portico. “When deciding what side of the house to put emphasis on, I chose the waterside; I could envision boats coming down the Intracoastal and seeing this villa rising from the sand,” Davis says. “I also knew this house was going to be all about the details. So very early on I realized I was going to need Christine.”

As one ascends the 10'-wide, three-story staircase from the entry below, the view through the central corridor leads the eye out to the water and the broad horizon. The transverse arch has a historic precedent in this region of North Carolina.

As one ascends the 10′-wide, three-story staircase from the entry below, the view through the central corridor leads the eye out to the water and the broad horizon. The transverse arch has a historic precedent in this region of North Carolina.

For inspiration, Davis began sharing photos of favorite Federal and Greek Revival houses with Franck. But because building codes specify that waterfront homes have an elevated first floor and breakaway construction on the lowest level, a Greek Revival, which sits on a low base, would not be possible. “Jeff was also pulling photos of Palladian villas,” Franck says. “In the end, the direction that made sense was a Palladian villa, with its elevated high base and Roman temple front. We weren’t interested in the house being a strict interpretation of a particular period. We were more interested in letting the classical language and the traditions of the place inform the design project.”

As one ascends the 10′-wide, three-story staircase from the entry below, the view through the central corridor leads the eye out to the water and the broad horizon. The transverse arch has a historic precedent in this region of North Carolina.

Because Davis wanted Chadsworth to look like a surviving remnant of the island’s past, Franck tied the house closely to local tradition, looking specifically to houses in nearby towns like New Bern, North Carolina. “There was not any attempt to be wholly evocative of any time or place in North Carolina,” she says, “but there are specific quotations in the house.” For example, the railing around the southern balcony is based on a bundled wheat design from the historic John Wright Stanly House in New Bern. Full pilasters at the corners were used rather than thin corner boards as “a nod to the late Federal/early Greek Revival tradition in New Bern,” Franck says. “Because much of the Federal-style architecture in New Bern was built rather late, elements of Greek Revival began to sneak in.”

Franck created a tranquil master bedroom with views of the water and a classically styled fireplace. She reupholstered Davis's Biedermeyer sofa in a durable Schumacher fabric as a counterbalance to its formality.

Franck created a tranquil master bedroom with views of the water and a classically styled fireplace. She reupholstered Davis’s Biedermeyer sofa in a durable Schumacher fabric as a counterbalance to its formality.

Inside, the staircase details were inspired by another historic New Bern house, and the elliptical transverse archway on the first floor has a local precedent. “That’s part of the poetry,” Franck says. “Connecting with the place and connecting with a time, so 100 years from now, someone might recognize that some elements came from somewhere else, just as someone would notice today when looking at an old home.”

Of course, the very forces that would make it unlikely an old home might have endured on Figure Eight Island through the ages—hurricanes, high winds, and flooding—were the very forces Franck’s design would have to address if Chadsworth Cottage is to survive into the future. The house is grounded to the site using an interlocking grid of wood pilings that were driven 16′ into the sandy soil and nearly 50 concrete grade beams.

“The engineering is a marvel in itself,” Davis says. “I rode out Hurricane Ophelia in this house for 16 hours, and it was solid.” As protection against both hurricane-force winds and everyday sun, Franck specified Bermuda shutters for the southern windows and found a company that produced PVC shutters that looked as good as traditional wooden shutters but would be more durable in this harsh environment. Franck also turned in part to local builder Jim Murray of Murray Construction for guidance. “All they do is build along the coast, so they have a tremendous body of knowledge,” she says. “When I insisted on wood windows, for example, they explained that during a hurricane, the blowing sand literally sandblasts off the paint, so based on their experience a clad window was best.”

Franck allotted the space at the front of the house for service elements, such as the kitchen and laundry room.

Franck allotted the space at the front of the house for service elements, such as the kitchen and laundry room.

Creating the open floor plan that Davis envisioned posed additional challenges. Considering the dimensions of the house, Franck knew that a truly open floor plan would make it appear that the interior ceilings were lower than they are. Her solution was to run three rooms across the waterfront side of the house—a dining room, a large hall, and a living room—painted in the same color and separated only by column screens. “So you have a living room and dining room in the traditional sense, but they are open to each other and you really occupy those three rooms as one room,” she says. “This way it feels vast because the proportions are better and it picks up on the horizon line outside.”
Another of Davis’s expectations was that the house be built economically using—as much as possible—stock materials. He wanted to demonstrate that building a classical home needn’t break the bank, that it was something anyone can not only aspire to but also achieve. The exterior columns—from Chadsworth’s 1.800.Columns, of course—are in the colossal Tuscan order and made of fiberglass. “It’s a great material to use,” Franck says, “especially when you are talking about 20′-high columns and a beachfront environment. And the Tuscan exterior says ‘This isn’t going anywhere.’”

The living room's club chairs and caned chaise are new pieces chosen for their beauty as well as their durability.

The living room’s club chairs and caned chaise are new pieces chosen for their beauty as well as their durability.

Franck then designated a hierarchy with regard to the orders of columns: Tuscan for the exterior, Ionic for the column screens on the first floor, and Corinthian in the private quarters upstairs. “These are based on specific Grecian models, and the entablatures are a rendition of those Grecian entablatures, but it’s not a temple on the Acropolis. It’s a house, so the details are scaled down appropriately.”

Matters of scale became a primary concern when it came to the interior millwork. “Stock millwork profiles don’t give you the projection or depth that you would like to have in a room that has 10′ ceilings and 8′ doors. You really want something heavier and beefier,” Franck explains. She employed a variety of innovative solutions, including using millwork upside down and combining stock pieces. In the end, the millwork was a combination of half stock and half custom milled. “The primary generator of the house is just simply the classical language working through specific problems that need to be addressed,” she says.

Franck’s confidence in the power of the classical language was put to the test when a question arose regarding the siting of the septic system. Because of the lot’s small size and proximity to water, there was no room for a traditional leach field, so Chadsworth Cottage required an aboveground biofiltration system installed directly in front of the house. Franck was undeterred. “The interesting thing about these sorts of problems,” she says, “is that they are opportunities for design solutions.”

The outdoor shower is a must-have in this beach environment.

The outdoor shower is a must-have in this beach environment.

Her remedy was to construct a pergola covered in wisteria and jasmine that both disguises the septic system and enhances the classical aesthetic. Moreover, the pergola enriches the way in which visitors first encounter the house. “What it does from a design standpoint,” Franck explains, “is that when you arrive from the land side of the house, you have a very constricted approach that heightens the excitement as you pass through the lower entry, rise through the stair hall to the first floor, and turn to see the whole view open up to the landscape and the ocean.”

In the end, Chadsworth Cottage is a model of how a talented designer uses the classical language to solve site-specific problems, accomplish her client’s desires, and remain true to a sense of place and a sense of history, with the result of a new house that faithfully embodies a traditional style. “Moreover,” Franck says “Chadsworth Cottage is a testament to the power of Davis’s vision of a house with that ineffable Southern quality of comfort, good taste, and most importantly, hospitality.”

 

J. Robert Ostergaard is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Published in: New Old House

 

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