That August day when an earthquake rocked Virginia, Art Webb came home to find a note from the cleaning crew. He jokes that he should have framed it.
“It said, ‘We were here during the earthquake, and for a glass house, it did pretty well.’ ”
There’s a lot more steel in Art’s house than the cleaners might have realized – and stone, and wood, and sweat and frustration. But despite its beginnings as a 1972 ranch with a dark rabbit warren of an interior, and the three years of sketching, planning, permitting, building and rebuilding that turned it inside out, it feels like a light, bright house of glass that flows effortlessly toward the Lynnhaven River.
But of course, that effortless feeling didn’t come easy.
From the beginning, the house nagged at him. Art, president and CEO of the marketing company BCF, looked at about 50 houses. The one-story toward the back of Virginia Beach’s Chesopeian Colony, filled with shag carpet and orange wallpaper, stuck in his mind. “I saw this one early on and really liked it,” says Webb, now 51. “I kept coming back to it.”
It had problems. But Art, an inveterate sketcher, couldn’t resist redrawing the house in his mind.
“This house definitely has good bones,” says Gerrie West, the architect who worked with him to redesign the house. “Not good finishes, but good bones.” So in early 2007, Art bought the house and tore it down to its bones. From the front, there are distinctive elements that are nearly unchanged. A front patio and wall were redesigned, but the maple tree they enclose is intact – Art insisted that his builder work around it. The garage windows, which follow the roofline, remain. The footprint is the same.
But Art “popped the roof off,” as he puts it, creating a loft and a far airier living room that leads out to an extensive deck and a backyard that slopes down to the river.
“I love the outdoor space the best,” says Melissa Webb, his wife. “And the kitchen – the kitchen’s just great.”
In fact, their first date included a discussion of kitchen-tile samples, early in the renovation process. As they dated, the work continued, and although Melissa marveled at how long and involved the process was, she says it was thrilling to see Art’s plans take shape. “His artistic vision – it’s just amazing to live in it. “
Art had a very specific vision for the house, and getting the details right wasn’t easy.
That kitchen tile they had looked at? Not quite right. Art decided to lay pale pebble tile on the floor – smooth rocks that come embedded in a mesh, then are surrounded by grout. The effect is of a floor of smooth river stones.
“I never really understood the floor until he took me fly-fishing,” Melissa says. “It is the bottom of a riverbed.” On the walls, blue glass tile ripples like a stream, and simple, elevated cabinets and floating shelves provide storage – a look Art cheerfully admits he stole, in part, from a catalog. The room blends the clean, cool, industrial look of stainless steel appliances and unadorned white cabinets with organic touches – the pebbled floor and wood-trimmed windows – that give it warmth.
Those warmer touches were something Gerrie encouraged, even though Art’s initial impulse was to go with a more spartan look. “Gerrie did an amazing job of keeping me on track,” he says. “This home doesn’t need any more metal. Were it not for Gerrie, this home would have been much colder.”
It also would have fallen over, he admits. Gerrie had to be “that mean old architect,” as she puts it, who warned him when what he envisioned wasn’t structurally sound or financially reasonable. But the vision was his, she says.
“I consider myself more of a facilitator of Art’s vision,” she says.
“Oh, that’s not true,” he interjects.
At times, Art had to facilitate his own vision.
He wanted the center of his kitchen to be a circular island with a steel top and round shelves beneath it, stabilized by metal tubes. He drew it over and over and heard, no, it can’t be done. Finally, he decided that if he could draw it, he could do it. He commissioned a metal fabricator who builds galleys for the Navy to make the steel top, which has an embedded cooktop. A local tile and marble company built the slabs underneath it, which serve as shelves. He ordered the tubes online, and the pieces were assembled there in the kitchen – and then, when Art realized it was in the wrong place, it was moved over and assembled again. “It’s just like a big ol’ layer cake.”
His attention to detail pays off all through the house. Downstairs, two bedrooms (for his children, Olivia, 9, and Harrison, 12) are small but playful. The children’s own art decorates their walls; the floors are bamboo. Built-in shelves display prized possessions. And both rooms have a reading loft tucked above the closet, lined with pillows and accessible via ladder. Another ladder, which recedes into the wall, leads up to an open area above the bedroom hallway. It’s part play fort, part storage area.
A half-bath at one end of the hall has wood-tone details; a full bath at the other is nicknamed “the bubble bath,” with a deep tub, round glass tile and round mirrors bubbling up toward the ceiling.
Across the hall, a master bedroom and bath open onto the deck and hot tub. Like the children’s rooms, the master features a Japanese-style sliding door with opaque panels, and it’s simple and clean, with space to display some carefully collected treasures. Here, a few Hot Wheels from the year Art was born, a vintage toy, and old lunchboxes share space with a bit of found art from those renovation days – an undulating fish sculpture that one of the HVAC contractors made out of a spare bit of sheet metal. A sleek rectangular fireplace anchors the center of the wall.
The master bath has a hidden bit of foresight. Although he was single when he bought the house and began working on it, “I wasn’t going to be single forever.”
Behind the bath is an extensive walk-in closet. And on one wall of the bathroom, Art added what seems a purely decorative element – four square mirrors. They are medicine cabinets, providing a wonderland of space for a woman’s toiletries. Just in case.
Just as Art tinkered with his plans for the roof, which was raised, then lowered, then raised again as the plans were drawn, he tinkered with his plans for the loft as he redrew his life. A steel and wood staircase, custom-built, climbs to the loft, which was originally open, with exposed metal ductwork across the top and cabinets running its length. Now the space is enclosed with curving walls topped by a row of transom windows, to create bedrooms for Melissa’s children, Olivia, 15, and Alex, 17.
With the loft now enclosed, it’s the living room that serves as a hangout space and music room. A tall grandfather clock – curves and dark wood in a bright space dominated by straight lines – hugs one wall. A piano holds down the corner, surrounded by instruments including a ukulele and the old Gibson guitar owned by Art’s father. A television is mounted on a sliding stand, Art’s own design, next to the fireplace. “That TV stand is another one of those things I couldn’t get anyone to do,” he says. Now he knows why. “It’s amazing how long it takes you to do stuff when you do it yourself.”
The real star of the room, though, is the view through the back of the house, dominated by glass doors and windows overlooking the deck, the backyard and the Lynnhaven River. Art – an Eagle Scout – brought much of his love of the outdoors inside the house (including a pebble-tile wall in an upstairs bathroom that almost asks rock climbers to scale it), but also wanted to open his house to the outdoors. The casually furnished deck steps down to a backyard that invites wandering. A streambed, dry unless it’s handling runoff, snakes through the back, and a trail, planted with woodland shrubs and flowers, meanders across it and down to the dock. And a hint of the overachieving Scout sits out here; at the top and bottom of the short path are wooden trail markers carved with a “WT” – Webb Trail.
By the time they finished the house in late 2009, Art and Gerrie were able to finish each other’s sentences, too. “I think we both went through withdrawal when we finished it,” she says.
But no house is ever entirely finished. Even now, he says, “we’re still kind of moving in.”
He keeps leaving the house, for both work and vacation, to visit places he so enjoys – Yosemite, Aspen – but it’s a restful place to return to, full of hints of those places, from remote fly-fishing streams to laid-back West Coast beach houses. Art, a Missouri farm boy and descendant of Daniel Boone, says he’s quite pleased that there’s nothing especially “highfalutin’ ” about where he lives. “The thing that kept us going is knowing that Art would never want to move out of here,” Gerrie jokes.
And that made it worth the wait and heartache, Art adds. “It was a long labor of love.”