Play Dress-up

Welcomed into the fold, with a new take on the world.

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The impending birth of a niece led Meghan Wilkens to craft ocean charts into a dress for the baby’s wall – a touchstone of her identity in an extended Navy family. Wilkens, herself an officer based in Norfolk, folds maps and other ephemera, new and old, letting the paper itself guide her. She uses no patterns or ruler; each dress design is different. There are sailboats, too. Custom also available. $95 and up.

Photograph by EJ TOUDT


Small Spaces


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Making a smaller space work takes vision and willpower. We looked at three spaces – all 1,200 square feet or smaller – and found three very different takes on space, light, volume and the magic touch of reclaiming the old to bring in the new. Here are those three wonderful and artistic homes, and the owners who made them work gracefully.

photography by ERIC LUSHER

The room, with its white bare walls and dark alcove kitchen, was a blank canvas when Wendy Umanoff first saw it.

She liked the high ceilings, the clean lines and the light – all that light – pouring through its 12-foot-tall rectangular
windows and into its 1,100 square feet.

The space felt like her – open, reaching, ready for new stories. She saw its potential to be calm and inspirational, a place where she could become that, too.

In truth, Umanoff knew that the loft off Franklin Street in downtown Richmond would be her new home before she ever laid eyes on it. She knew, she says, the minute she saw the ad on Craigslist.

An artist who designs light fixtures, she imagined it as she steadied her fears and prepared to move out of her house of 24 years.

A year earlier, Umanoff and her ex-husband had agreed that it was time to sell the 3,000-square-foot home where, after the divorce, she’d continued to raise their son and daughter.

Umanoff sifted through her eclectic artwork collection and 24 years of her life as mother and wife. She parted with her beloved dining room chairs, but the wood-carved statues of a man, a woman, a boy and a girl – the ones that after the split, she would occasionally find repositioned by one of her children – those would come with her.

She filled box upon box and thought about the New York City loft where she and her husband had lived before they had children.

“I loved it. I thought that’s where we would live the rest of our lives,” she says. “It’s always been my vision to go back to loft living.”

With her flowing dark hair and her casual aesthetic, Umanoff radiates energy and ideas. She sees the world as endless creation, using birds’ nests and letters of the alphabet as building blocks to texture her space and collecting reclaimed objects to use in her lighting designs.

Everything is a metaphor, a piece of something bigger, something that will give pause.

Her lighting fixtures are large, rugged pieces, designed with old pulleys, brake rotors or truck coils housing exposed bulbs. They are raw yet soothing, creating playful shadows, and are emblematic of her design approach – influenced by her father, a midcentury furniture designer.

The loft was just another expression of her vision. To use the space for both living and work, she needed defined areas while remaining faithful to the airiness and sense of freedom the space gave her. “You need plenty of room so you don’t get stuck,” she says. “Allowing flow allows creativity.”

The living room was the center of the space, opposite the kitchen and separating the work and sleep areas. She put her bed on the windowless wall farthest from the door, fastening old shutters as a screen. A small bright rug accentuates the dressing area; a multi-tiered bakery rack, filled with favorite items and small works of art, gives the area some shelter.

A large pink patchwork rug defines her work space by the entrance, and the kitchen island from her old house – an old desk – doubles as a work table and a dining table.

Almost everything in the space is reclaimed. A section of an old wood banister serves as a picture shelf; a ladder with shelves added leans against a wall, celebrating the height of the ceiling. “I like using familiar objects in unfamiliar ways,” she says. “How far you are going to push yourself to do something different?”

It’s also about storytelling, she adds: “Most things I am attracted to have a prior history.”

Yet the centerpiece of her living space is a contemporary turquoise leather sofa – a declarative shock of fresh color.

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“I decided this was going to be the ceremonial piece for me. It’s the first piece I bought on my own to declare my sense of freedom.”

 Story by story, layer by layer, Umanoff filled each corner. She mixes found objects and art, messages with metaphors: a book by mythologist Joseph Campbell piled atop the The Catcher in the Rye, and another, Love and Will, because she likes the words. She likes the creative power of letters, and litters the letter U throughout the room in various forms. Painting and drawings hang high and low on the walls – wherever she can find space. Three of her own paintings peek out from below the windows behind two chairs that look like ones her father designed.

Beside her bed is a photo of a dark, foggy pier in San Francisco.

“This was my symbol of fear,” she says, “and now I feel really good about it.”

 After the divorce, Umanoff says she was negative and unsettled. But these days, she feels still and content. Her space has become a respite, a place that soothes and inspires. And she has grown her business. “This time in my life is all about reclaiming who I am as a person, re-meeting myself, getting to know who I am,” she says.

“What this did was offer me a huge sense of freedom. Freedom is open space. This has just allowed me to be more creative.”

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Oh, you must come here at night!” Charles Powell exclaims over the telephone. “It’s just lovely!”

Stepping into the modern rectangular, third-floor apartment near the Oceanfront that he shares with his husband, one is struck by the brightness that stretches back past an open kitchen, through the dining area and finally the living room wrapped in windows and flanked by lush green plants.

Even at night, the space that Powell and his business partner designed is incandescent with recessed lighting and a ventless gas fireplace that sets the place aglow. Low, midcentury modern furniture and selectively chosen artifacts adorn the flowing room.

It is defined by the light, by architectural form and – as Powell likes to call it – the distinct volume of the space. “Look at this window,” he says, pointing to one of three 7-foot-wide fenestrations that embrace the living room. “Now honey, that’s a window.

Each area of the long rectangular space is identified by architectural details. Limed oak cabinets beside an old stainless steel restaurant counter and sink unit form the kitchen wall, while a stove hood hangs over the center island like an exclamation point.

Beyond the kitchen, a wood dining table with scroll-carved legs – it was from Montgomery Ward and was delivered “by horse and cart” to a pig farm in Norfolk, Nebraska, he says – sits diagonally, moving the visitor forward toward the living room, with its windows and greenery and a door at the far end that he likes to keep open to the large balcony.

The ceiling in the dining room and living room rises a few inches higher – a rectangle within a rectangle – just enough to designate a new area. The floor is a clean off-white material that could be stone or paint or colored concrete.

“The moment you step off the stairs, it’s the same flooring throughout,” Powell says. “It’s – look at me, please – it’s linoleum!”

“It creates visual noise,” he says.

The doors off the main space – to the bedrooms and closet – are nearly all frosted glass. This way, Powell says, even when he wants to keep those doors closed, they can still transmit light.

Behind them, his sense of luxury continues. A rain showerhead patters – “it speaks to a fountain” – and the electronic toilet is also a bidet that sits in its own separate water closet.

The high-end finishes were important to Powell, who, as a high-end designer for wealthy clients, has come a long way from his boyhood poverty.

“I grew up on welfare,” he says. “Our clients are mostly one-percenters. We are always having to create huge spaces.”

“How do you create a small space that makes it luxurious? Volume, floor space and light.”

His 1,125-square-foot home has him intoning the Russian word svoboda.  It means, he says, the freedom to choose within the constraints afforded you.

Wendy Umanoff, Small Spaces, Interior Design, Richmond VA, Richmond, Fan, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Small homes, Small Interiors, Small Spaces, Charles Powell, Hampton Roads, Interior decorator, Home Decor, Bruce Besley, Freemason Norfolk

Wendy Umanoff, Small Spaces, Interior Design, Richmond VA, Richmond, Fan, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Small homes, Small Interiors, Small Spaces, Charles Powell, Hampton Roads, Interior decorator, Home Decor, Bruce Besley, Freemason Norfolk

It’s easy to imagine the red brick home nestled at the end of Freemason Street as the carriage house it once was.

The large garage opening is sealed in with a clean black planking, as is a doorway at the very end, where the cobblestone street gives way to a glorious view of the Elizabeth River and the Portsmouth naval hospital on the opposite.

Inside, history washes over present day.

Owner Bruce Besley says he felt it instantly when he walked in here nearly six years ago. When he bought the two-story, 1,170-square-foot home, his furniture – mostly antiques – fit as if it had been made to be here.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “I put in my stuff and it worked perfectly. Everything fit great.”

But it wasn’t just the updated layout that spoke to him – the formal entrance hall, the spacious central living room with high ceilings and refinished hardwoods, the modern kitchen with a wall of windows that capture a magnificent and changing view of ships and the occasional cownose ray.

It was also the past – embraced with artful attention to detail – that captured Besley’s heart and imagination.

The home was restored 17 years ago, adding a wide, turning staircase at the back of the living room and creamy white wainscoting punctuated by a stately Federal-style fireplace.

A windowed alcove, perfect for Besley’s antique desk and hutch, contains another layer of history. The building served as an auxiliary firehouse in World War II and he has a black-and-white photo of six men sitting in that very corner around a pot-bellied stove, laughing and “chewing on stogies, waiting for the bell to ring.”

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Double barn doors still hang on their original rail, tacked back against whitewashed brick walls to frame the living room doorway and anchored by the baseboard molding that continues right over the doors as it runs along the walls. They, along with the rough original plank-and-timber beam ceiling – the underside of the floor above – are also painted white. And Besley has discovered that if he leaves the light on in the master bedroom above, he can see specks of light peeking through the floorboards.

His fascination with history and his love of the sea fit the space. Old paintings and framed maps grace the walls and his shelves hold a mix of history books and old wood statues like the carved southeast Asian warriors that his father, a former cargo pilot in the Air Force, brought back years ago. A giant model sailboat fills the stairway window overlooking Freemason Street.

Upstairs, the former hayloft is now a contemporary bedroom with cathedral ceilings and inset lighting. Glass doors open to a large balcony overlooking the river.

Even in bad storms, when water leaks through the kitchen windows and the river rises to near-threatening heights, Besley loves his oasis. At sunset, with the light bouncing off the river and into his unusual home, he sits listening to the whoosh of the water as barges go by, crashing against the brick like beach waves.

“I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon,” he says.

Gift Guide 2013

Distinction Magazine Gift Guide, Gift Guide 2013, Gift Guide, Holiday Gift Guide, Gifts for the Baker, Gifts for the home chef

The kitchen truly is the heart of the home.

So for this giving season, we’ve compiled an assortment

of gifts that are perfect for equipping the kitchen.

Some are timeless; some are just plain cool.

All are sure to nourish the souls of friends

and family during this season – or any season.

photography by TODD WRIGHT
styling by WENDY UMANOFF


Every baker – from novice to very experienced – needs some really good basics. Here are our favorites.

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Mauviel M’passion copper mixing bowl

Beautifully designed and especially useful for whipping egg whites:  The unlined copper helps make them more stable, and the perfectly round bottom allows for more thorough mixing. 4.9-quart bowl, $99.96. Sur La Table.

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Mrs. Anderson’s Triple Action Apple Machine

This efficient gadget will peel, core and slice apples in one step. Perfect for prepping apple pie or applesauce. It also peels potatoes! $26.98. Kitchen Barn.

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Marble pastry slab and rolling pin

A must for working with delicate pastries and doughs; the cold marble keeps dough at an optimal temperature. And because your dough doesn’t stick, you won’t need to add extra flour. 16- by 20-inch pastry board, $39.95. Rolling pin, $24.95. Sur La Table.

 Gift Guide, Holiday Gift guide, Distinction Magazine Gift guide, distinction Magazine, Gift Guide 2013, Gifts for the baker, Gifts for the home cook, Home Chef Gifts

Emile Henry pie dishes

The signature clay used in these dishes helps distribute heat evenly. Pie crusts brown beautifully and fruits stay moist inside.  This bakeware is gorgeous at the table, too. It’s available in many colors, but we like cerise for the holidays. 11-inch, $49.95;4½-inch, $19.95. Sur La Table.

 Gift Guide, Holiday Gift guide, Distinction Magazine Gift guide, distinction Magazine, Gift Guide 2013, Gifts for the baker, Gifts for the home cook, Home Chef Gifts

Mason Cash mixing bowls and pudding basins

The classic English mixing bowl! You may have seen Mrs. Patmore use these bowls in her kitchen at Downton Abbey.  The pattern on the outside helps cooks get a firm grip, and the bowls are just the right shape and depth for beating or kneading.  The pudding basin is the perfect companion to the mixing bowls. Their simple design shines in any dining room or farmhouse kitchen. Oval baker, $9.95; mixing bowls, $12.95 to $29.95. Kitchen Koop.

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iSi Mini Cream Whipper

A simple and easy way to whip and dispense real cream! Fill the can with chilled cream, screw in an air cartridge, shake, dispense:  You’ll have real whipped cream without the beaters, bowls or mess. $59.95; set of 10 cartridges, $14.95. Williams-Sonoma.

 Add a dash of color and functionality to any kitchen.

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Le Creuset cookware

Perfect for stews and braising, they’re beautiful for stove, oven, table. Oval French oven, $269.95 to $314.95; 2¾-quart soup pot, $139.95. Sur La Table.

 Fletchers’ Mill/Vic Firth wooden salt and pepper mills

These gorgeous gourmet mills are handmade in Maine from fine hardwoods. We love the variety of styles and colors. $49.98. Kitchen Barn.

 Gift Guide, Holiday Gift guide, Distinction Magazine Gift guide, distinction Magazine, Gift Guide 2013, Gifts for the baker, Gifts for the home cook, Home Chef Gifts

Silicone utensils

These won’t scratch nonstick cookware and bakeware, they resist stains, and they’re heat-resistant up to 212 degrees. $10.98 to $16.98. Kitchen Barn.

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Core Bamboo bowls and Yves Delorme towels

These bowls, of organically grown bamboo, come in lovely colors. Bucket bowl, $49.98; flower bowl, $39.98. Kitchen Barn. A handy accent is the Yves Delorme Chef Corfu tea towel, $35. Yves Delorme.

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 Jars Cantine dishes

We love the richly colored crackled glaze of these plates. They’re modern with a touch of old-world France. Set of four salad plates, $107.95. Set of four dinner plates, $119.95. Williams-Sonoma.

If steel and iron are more their thing, have a look at these ideas.


Shun Hiro chef’s knife (foreground)

Handmade in Japan, this knife is perfect for everyday chopping, slicing and mincing. Made of 65 layers of steel, including Damascus steel, the storied metal of warriors. The handle is made of Pakkawood and inlaid with a mosaic Samurai family crest. $299.50.  Williams-Sonoma.

Kikuichi long slicing knife

This traditional Japanese knife is hand-forged of pure carbon steel; the handle, of birch wood and water buffalo horn. Gorgeous! $224.50.  Kitchen Barn. Vintage French cheese board, $159. Williams-Sonoma.

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Stainless steel stovetop smoker

Infuse your foods with smoke flavor right on the stovetop with this handy smoker from Camerons, recommended by Cook’s Illustrated. It can also be used as a steamer! $59.95. Sur La Table.

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Lodge cast iron skillets

Cast iron skillets are great for searing steaks, frying bacon and baking biscuits – and many cooks swear by them for their best fried chicken. 10-inch skillet, $24.95. Crate & Barrel.

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Stainless steel French press

Frieling’s press works just like the typical glass presses but won’t shatter, and it has insulated walls to keep coffee hot longer. Four-serving size, $79.95; eight-serving size, $119.98. Kitchen Barn.

 Wood is both attractive and useful for the kitchen. These gifts are fun and eco-friendly.

 Gift Guide, Holiday Gift guide, Distinction Magazine Gift guide, distinction Magazine, Gift Guide 2013, Gifts for the baker, Gifts for the home cook, Home Chef Gifts

Glendon Boyd wooden bowls

Hand-carved in western Virginia by Glen Boyd, each bowl has a unique wood pattern and is signed and dated. They come in several sizes. $39.99 to $89.99. Kitchen Barn.

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Tree of Life bamboo cutting and serving board

This board is made of Moso bamboo, with more than 800 etched images of exotic and endangered animals in its design.  A percentage of proceeds is donated to the National Forest Foundation. $69.98. Kitchen Barn.

Madeira teak cutting board (above, background)

We’re fond of this cutting board not only for its beauty and durability but also for its sustainable raw material: Plantation teak is farmed using responsible forestry practices. It also resists moisture, warping and microbes. 11½ by 13½ inches, $19.95. Sur La Table.

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Antonini olive wood cheese knives

These handsome little Italian-made knives are great for firm or soft cheeses for your holiday wine and cheese gatherings. Or split the set and give one or two along with some pretty napkins as a gift. $59.95. Williams-Sonoma.

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Chalkboard canning jar caddy

Handcrafted in the U.S. of sustainable materials such as reclaimed redwood. We think this would be a lovely way to present jars of homemade preserved fruits and veggies to friends and family. Chalk stores in the handle. $49.95. Williams-Sonoma, online only.


 Other gift ideas for foodies.

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Gourmet sauces

We found all these great Virginia-made sauces at the Sauce Shoppe in Virginia Beach. Owner Sam Esleeck will help you choose from the hundreds of sauces he stocks, including his own Blackstrap BBQ Sauce. Other notables: the locally made Speedy’s 44, from Virginia Beach bartender Jimmy Miller; the Crabby Mary Bloody Mary Mix, by Willard Ashburn of Virginia Beach; and the Gunther salsas by Richmond chef Mike Lamprose.

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DIY goat cheese kit

All you supply is the fresh goat’s milk! This easy-to-use kit contains everything else you need to make 10 batches, each 4 to 6 ounces, of fresh, tangy chèvre in less than an hour. Make it your own by adding some fresh herbs and a custom-molded shape, or use the molds included. $29.95. Williams-Sonoma.

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Whether you’re hosting a large dinner party or looking for a special gift, the women at The Royal Chocolate in Virginia Beach have created a chocolate nirvana in which to shop. Confections include hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries and apples – and the shop’s special collection of handmade Royal Chocolates. Prices vary.



Where we found it

Crate & Barrel, Short Pump Town Center, 11800 West Broad Street, Richmond. 804.364.0820.

Kitchen Barn, Hilltop North, 1628 Laskin Road, Virginia Beach. 757.422.0888.

Kitchen Koop, 638 High Street, Olde Towne Portsmouth. 757.399.4475.

The Royal Chocolate, 164 Central Park Avenue, Virginia Beach. 757.557.6925.

The Sauce Shoppe, Landstown Commons, 3388 Princess Anne Road, Virginia Beach. 757.468.0913.

Sur La Table, Stony Point Fashion Park, 9200 Stony Point Parkway, Richmond. 804.272.7094.

Williams-Sonoma, La Promenade, 1860 Laskin Road, Virginia Beach. Also Norfolk, Williamsburg, Richmond.

Yves Delorme Fine Linens, La Promenade, 1860 Laskin Road, Virginia Beach. 757.425.6963.




Bill Deal

Bill Deal, Architect, Distinction Magazine, Virginia, Distinctionhr, Hampton Roads Architect

Bill Deal, Architect, Distinction Magazine, Virginia, Distinctionhr, Hampton Roads Architect

For hundreds of people, wealthy and poor, an architect’s ears and eyes and pen have made real the merely imagined.

by Janine Latus
photography by Eric Lusher

Architect Bill Deal jots a note on an already-crowded piece of paper and sticks it back in his shirt pocket. He does this constantly, writing down ideas, penciling possibilities. Sometimes when he and a client are talking he’ll sketch out a series of thumbnails that he’ll later send to the client with a note saying, “Am I close?”

Thus begins the collaboration. First the listening, then the sketching, then the ideas sent to the client and the client responding, then more ideas and more conversation, the possibilities expanding and then falling away, until what’s left is what suits this particular family and this particular structure.

Those sketches, those back-and-forths, those moments of inspiration have changed the lives of families and congregations, the affluent and the lowly, the elderly and those barely above homelessness, the people who daily walk through doorways and into spaces designed by Deal.

Deal is owner of Pentecost, Deal and Associates, an architectural firm he bought from the well-established Ray Pentecost in 1987. It’s a business built on word of mouth, and Deal can drive through neighborhoods pointing out a kitchen addition he did here, a second floor there, a complete rehab around the corner – hundreds of houses, schools, churches and other buildings throughout the area, each designed to meld the existing building with the clients’ needs and dreams. “It takes a lot of focused listening, not just to what they say but what’s between the lines,” he says. “To me that’s the most interesting thing I do, trying to get inside the head of the client and interpret what they want in their house. It’s a very personal thing.”  [Read more...]

Attention to Details

Rob Nicholson started with the details.

When he first launched what has become a local sales empire, he was selling used appliances, and before he put them on the floor, he made sure the old screws on the appliances’ faces had been swapped out for shiny new ones.

Shoppers would prefer his appliances, even if they didn’t know why, he says. “It was because of the stuff you don’t see – you don’t really notice.”

Now, standing in the living room of his beachfront home, he’s as proud of the parts that stand out – a stunning wooden Christ figure, a wall of glass looking out on the surf – as the ones that hide in plain sight, like the trimless walls and vanishing doors.

The clean, cool lines and colors of the International style house in Virginia Beach surround a mix of midcentury Modern furniture and organic, surprising pieces of art, from an African snake sculpture the size of a man to a raw-edged, life-size model of a dog that was carved on the Eastern Shore. “I wanted something that’s startling,” Nicholson says, nodding at the light-flooded living room. “It’s spectacular. It’s grand in its way.”

Nicholson, who turns 50 this month, began building East Coast Appliances and Electronics a year after he left the Navy in 1988. His love of architecture, furniture and design grew in tandem with his business, which has expanded to include a trio of superstores and a boutique. “I started out building my stores,” he says, and then began renovating houses, too, to reflect the art and architecture he discovered during work and travel. “It kind of got out of control.”

It hasn’t been a solo journey, though. His latest endeavor – the Oceanfront condo where he lives in the bottom unit, with a friend in the top unit – was, like several other of his houses, shaped in partnership with Charles Powell and Brent Buehler of Details Interior Design, in Virginia Beach. There was – and still is – a lot of give-and-take. Powell and Nicholson, sitting together at a dining table made from luminous slabs of reclaimed chestnut and now topped with a sculpture of a cheerful pig, offer an overlapping series of taunts and compliments trying to describe how they began working together.

They met years ago for a business dinner – “at a restaurant I hated, by the way,” Powell interjects – to discuss working on Nicholson’s house.

“Much to my chagrin, I realized they were interviewing me,” Nicholson says.

“I got up to leave –” Powell says.

Nicholson gives him a look. Powell rolls his eyes and says this is why he needed to be here, to fill in the gaps of Nicholson’s story.

“Let me tell you how it really happened,” Powell says.

Nicholson capitulates with a sigh. “Well, I don’t remember the details …”

Whatever they dished out at that first discussion, something stuck. As often as he teases his client – Powell frequently howls “Nicholson!” in mock horror and refers, with raised eyebrows, to his “eccentricities” – Powell also describes him as generous, gracious and an eager student. “He was a rare client that really wanted to learn about design.”

What they learned together, through two previous homes at the Beach and one in Florida, was that Nicholson wanted to start over with a home that reflected his interest in modern and industrial spaces. His first plan was to build something resembling a factory loft, but he ended up with a concrete-and-glass house, designed by Beach architect Wayne Anderson, perched on a rare empty beachside lot Nicholson had found. And he wanted to fill it with the treasures he found as a self-taught design student – Modern furniture, pleasantly battered antiques, and oddments from his travels – and that Powell and Buehler found for him. Construction of the house was finished a little over two years ago, but decorating it began earlier and never truly ended.

One by one, as he saw designs he liked, Nicholson would email photos of his furniture discoveries to Powell and Buehler (who themselves are now planning a boutique).

“Some people watch the news,” Nicholson says. “I’m on eBay. I shop constantly. I don’t buy – I shop.”

“He drove us crazy,” Powell says.

“I still do that,” Nicholson says.

“He’s a man with a passion, my dear,” Powell says. “And Brent and I are designers of passion.”

Nicholson’s passion for furniture and art has led to some challenges, he admits.

“I love midcentury Modern,” he says. “My problem is, I love it all.” And even in a big house, there’s only so much room to work with.

Consider his collection of chairs and stools, which fill the house, not just as furniture, but as display objects, including a 2-foot-tall sale sample of a stool that he bought without realizing how shrimpy it was. At one point, his fiancee, Meredith Balak, counted his chairs; there were 35. “I could not believe it,” she says, groaning.

Finding things he likes isn’t hard, he says. “The trick that I can’t master is what they do,” he says, gesturing at Powell.

“To put it all together,” Powell says.

One of the spots where it all comes together is the living room. It feels relaxed, but it’s a carefully curated collection of pieces – a pair of white Barcelona chairs at one side, a couch at the other. The sleek Modern coffee table crouches between them, and one corner is filled by a handsome Papa Bear chair, still clothed in its original lavender fabric. On the wall is a shiny chrome skull and antlers, a bit of sculpture that Nicholson plucked out of a jewelry display.

Nearly hidden in a cubby is the one part of the house that gets messy, a desk where Nicholson piles his work. The desk was Powell’s find, a piece with great lines but missing its original top, reworked with a new (but not quite authentic) slab of wood that Nicholson found. It’s not the only thing he’s tinkered with.

Just as he is a hands-on businessman who’s done his own TV ads and weighed in on store design, he’s a hands-on designer willing to take apart a handsome couch he’s just bought, then reglue it and clamp it together in the middle of the room. “He’ll try to fix anything,” Balak says.

Of course, putting things together tends to be more fun than keeping them going, he admits. He likes new projects, but “I’m not good with maintaining.” (To that end, this house is for sale, although he says he isn’t pushing hard to sell it.)

The kitchen, which flows into the living and dining space, is unobtrusively handsome, low-maintenance, unfussy. Wooden cabinetry with a cerused finish – white highlighting the grain of the wood – lines the walls, and the upper cabinets have fold-up doors of stainless steel and ribbed glass that lend an industrial touch. Down the hall, a powder room mixes subtly elegant touches with an attention-getting floor covered in pennies – a look Nicholson says he saw on his travels and decided was worth stealing.

Next to an upstairs sitting area, an open-tread staircase Nicholson insisted on – “Charles and Brent hate my staircase” – leads down to a suite he calls “the cave.” Here, in a guest bedroom, he points out subtleties – exposed beams, glass doors to maximize the light, a shower with an unusual backward arrangement of faucet and showerhead that began as a mistake and became a point of pride. At the downstairs entry, visitors are greeted by a round table topped with a 19th-century Brazilian water jar – like the Christ figure, a bit of contrast to the house’s sharp edges.

Powell pauses to admire pieces here and there with marks of age, a bit of tarnish, worn paint. It prompts a discussion of the right way to pronounce “patina” and then a detour into Nicholson and Powell’s favorite horror story about, as Powell puts it, “that damn lamp.”

It was Nicholson’s find to begin with – a metal lamp shaped like a ram’s horn, nothing particularly distinguished, except that it was so beautifully weathered. As he puts it: “I had a lamp that looked like it was on Ernest Hemingway’s desk.”

It was in poor shape, though, and needed a new shade and a bit of repair. Powell handed it off to a repair shop. They repaired it a bit too much. “I go to pick it up – they’d polished and lacquered it,” Powell says.

“The damn thing looks like I bought it at Kmart,” Nicholson sighs. But he couldn’t get rid of it, because now it had a different sort of patina. “Now it’s a story.”

Powell describes the whole episode as an example of who Nicholson is. “If he was an asshole, if he cared more about things than relationships –.” He shrugs.

Nicholson brushes off the compliment.

“Now I like it better because it was a screw-up,” he says.

As Nicholson walks through the house, he catalogs what he likes, what went wrong, what he might do differently. In the backyard, he loves the hand-shaped towel knobs, but wonders if he should have made the pool smaller. The shape of the pillars on the deck was his idea; the yard’s design came from Norfolk landscape architect Doug Aurand.

Although the yard isn’t large, the ocean beyond gives it a vast feel. A series of concrete tiers step down to the beach, so close that the East Coast storm Sandy covered the lower tier with a bank of sand. Stripes of tile and unobtrusive ground cover plantings fill the gaps. Nicholson pauses to admire the view, then slides open the door for Traveller, a muscular blue heeler-Australian shepherd mix who leaps from level to level, toy in mouth, hopping over a trio of concrete garden spheres that are already collecting a beachside patina.

This windswept beach is a far piece from where he grew up. Nicholson likes to joke that he’s “from L.A. – Lower Alabama,” and Powell likes to tease him about it, too: “You can take the boy out of the country,” he says more than once.

Nicholson is unbothered by the country-boy jokes. In plenty of ways, he’s the same person he’s always been, he says. “The things you like – they don’t change, but you appreciate them more.”

In the master suite at the back of the house, as everywhere else, “the envelope is clean, clean, clean,” as Powell says, but what fills it shows an endearing mix of influences.

There’s a black bearskin on the floor from a bear Nicholson shot himself. In the bedroom, a tall cactus sculpture rises along one wall. One of his treasures crouches against another wall – a Nakashima chest with its undulating top and precise, asymmetrical dovetailing. And, of course, the infamous horn lamp sits on a dresser.

The master bath includes a massive freestanding tub where Nicholson likes to soak and read, and walls that curve out to hide a shower and toilet. “The undulating walls and how they fold in – it’s very sensuous,” Powell says. A tall sculpture – a Rhodesian rainbird – stands sentry. “It also makes a good towel-holder,” he jokes.

The room is another example of the group’s careful attention to vanishing detail: Towels hang on discreet knobs, not bars, and the medicine cabinet is painted to blend almost seamlessly into the wall.

But the spot where Nicholson’s laid-back charisma and Powell’s high-drama exuberance come together best is in a corner of the living room where the 16th-century wooden Christ figure hangs on the wall. It’s a striking piece, chosen for its individual beauty and for its burnished wood, curving lines and emotional jolt. Though it was originally polychromed, most of the color is worn off, except for a spot on the forehead where a crown of thorns would have rested. At the shoulders and knees – one of Nicholson’s favorite details – the wood is sliced to show the agony of bone protruding from flesh.

The piece was Powell’s find at an estate sale, and Powell’s partner, Buehler, hated it on sight.

“He said, ‘You’re not buying that. It’s gruesome.’ I said, ‘Oh my God. I like drama.’ All night, my heart burned.”

Powell returned the next day and bought it.

“I bought that for me,” Powell says.

“And I bugged the shit out of him,” Nicholson says.

This time, Powell surrendered, and the piece found its niche in Nicholson’s living room – for now, at least. After all, it’s a continuing partnership, and the house, like everything else, is changing, and changing the people who’ve worked on it.

Powell looks lovingly at the sculpture one more time, then moves on to the next piece he wants to discuss. “Whatever commission you’re working on,” he says, “it never leaves you where you started.”

Room To Grow

illustrations by WALT TAYLOR

A lawn. A couple of shrubs. Maybe a clump or two of gerbera daisies and a spring-flowering tree. That’s a garden, right?

Perhaps, but the best ones are so much more. They’re rooms where you want to sit and read a book or gather family and friends for a glass of wine or a long, slow meal. They’re places of mystery, with something new to see around each bend in the trail. They’re an extension of a home, a gift to the neighborhood, a space designed like the interior of the house, with busy areas for entertaining and zenlike spaces for quiet contemplation.

They have doorways and windows, and soft floors of turf or ground cover, or hard ones of brick or wood or paving stones. They have walls and actual furniture but also furnishings that meld and complement like the wall coloring and upholstery and objets d’art inside a well-decorated home, and just as you thought through the floor plan of your home and where you’d put the couch and the bed and the prized vase, so you can’t create your private Eden by simply impulse-shopping at a big-box store on the weekend.

You need a plan.


Start by spending time in the space and writing down what you see, says landscape architect Jane Cantin, of Cantin Stubbs Landscape, in Norfolk and London. Look for the view you want to frame and the one you want to hide. List the plants you love and the ones you no longer notice. Consider the view from inside looking out but also from the outside looking back. Look at archways and window shapes and blank expanses of wall that could serve as backdrops. Look at the existing palette of colors, whether beachfront browns and grays or bright expanses of golf-course green.

Then think about your dreams. Do you want a space to entertain, or a secret refuge where you can nestle away from the world – or both? Even small spaces can have multiple rooms.

“I’ve always designed outdoor spaces similar to designing a building, with a sequence of articulated rooms and hallways,” says Doug Aurand of Norfolk’s Siska Aurand Landscape Architects. “That’s what makes a garden feel comfortable or exciting.”

So where will people enter your rooms, and where will they move from there? Consider their feet and their eyes – where they will go physically but also how their eye will be drawn along a path to the view, whether of something in the distance or of your chosen centerpiece. Stand at the driveway and the sidewalk and the door. Imagine stepping from the kitchen to your outdoor eating area, from the back deck to your quiet reading chair.

Do you want a shazam centerpiece? If so, will that be a pool, or a fountain, or a pit for fire? Will it be a patio with a pizza oven, a prized plant or a great piece of sculpture?

Now think about shape. Great gardens, like great music, have repetition and rhythm, and you can get that by choosing a shape that complements the surroundings and then repeating it over and over, in the architecture of the rooms, the borders of the beds, the accents of furniture and plants. If there’s a curve to the top of your doorway, consider making your shape a circle as an echo to that arch. If your house is a box, then anchor it and mirror it by making your spaces square.

Amorphous beds might look good initially, says Brian O’Neil, director of horticulture at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, but they don’t stand the test of time; someone sprinkles a little extra grass seed here or there and what was a kidney bean becomes a blob. Instead, pick your shape and then border your beds with something solid, like brick, to create a stable structure as the plants themselves grow and change.

Says Cantin, “I’m looking for some sort of harmony between the house, the garden, the owners and the surrounding landscape. I have to have all of that before I can even think of pretty stuff like specific plants.”


What is a wall but an encloser of space, whether real or illusory? Inside a home walls are usually solid, although furniture can be arranged to imply separation, one segment of a room from another. Likewise, walls in gardens can be as real as the back of a house or as insubstantial as a pair of banana trees.

If you’re lucky enough to have a real wall, consider embellishing it with espaliered shrubs or flat-backed baskets dripping flowers, or a trellis spilling over with roses or vines.

Anything vertical can serve as a wall, and with the introduction of hybrid Asian boxwoods, the old-fashioned hedge may be making a comeback, whether tall around the periphery of a property or knee-height as a room divider.

“People stopped using them because they have to be trimmed,” O’Neil says, “but if you think of what you’re creating as a living space rather than just a garden or a yard, you’d be more inclined to do the maintenance.”

Stand-alone trellises can be walls, as can large pots full of striking plants.

“When in doubt, go big,” Cantin says. “Try not to clutter the space with lots of small pots. Big pots create boundaries, they make a statement, they bring in color, height, texture and variety – the passementerie of the garden.”

Your walls will be backdrops to repeating layers of height and color and texture, but they’ll need doorways. If your chosen shape is a circle, then echo the archway with an arbor over the entry. If it’s square, consider hanging a gate and flanking it with spiky plants standing sentry. It’s important to make an entrance.


Just as you have a blend of carpet and hardwood and tile inside your home, so should your floors outside be soft and hard. No wall-to-wall green carpet inside; no endless grass out. Instead, pick floorings that vary and repeat, balancing one another both practically and visually, and leading both eye and body where you want them to go.

 At last fall’s East Beach Homearama, Cantin used blue-gray paving stones to tie in to the gray of the dunes and the blue of the nearby water. She started with 3-foot squares right off the deck to give people a place to pause to decide where to go, instead of “just being tossed into the space,” then used matching medium-sized pavers in the entertaining area to create a floor where chairs can slide in and out from the family table, and a smaller version to create a walkway from one room to the next. Tight lines of dwarf mondo grass create the mortar, both for visual softness and to let water percolate into the soil rather than run off into the Chesapeake Bay.

In one area of the Norfolk Botanical Garden, designers used herringbone patterns of brick outlined with old cobblestones to draw the eye to a central fountain. The cobblestones add color contrast to the brick but also give the garden a sense of place, since they came here as ballast on Colonial-era ships and for decades lined the city’s streets.

Houses and gardens need hard and soft, yin and yang. Both.


Your plants are the draperies, upholstery and furnishings in your garden home. They echo off one another, layering and repeating to create a mood, a sense of place.

You want a layer at ground level, one a little higher, one a little higher still – tall, vertical plants to draw the eye upward, low ground covers to form a carpet, feathery ferns in front of broad-leaved cast iron plants, trees with their lower branches pruned away to show off their lovely legs, shades of light green against dark. Layer upon layer upon layer, repeating and repeating, the silvery-white variegated Japanese iris stalks reflected in their counterparts down the path, then repeated in the whiteness of the flowers along the way.

“Everything ties together,” Cantin says. “The same paving material but in different patterns, the same species of plants but in different varieties. Otherwise it looks like you couldn’t decide, so you just got one of everything.”

Read the labels so you know eventual heights and growth patterns, and look for year-round beauty.

“It’s easy to fall into the rut of making a spring garden,” O’Neil says. “Azaleas, camellias and dogwoods are all well and good, but what happens the rest of the year?”

Go for long-bloomers and fall color, and plants that are interesting if they never bloom at all. Think, too, of the wildlife that plants attract – darting hummingbirds and butterflies like flittering blossoms, and – if you create a water garden – mosquito-eating toads.

Here are a few easily grown perennials (and one funky annual) for your consideration, provided by Brian O’Neil, the horticulture director at Norfolk Botanical Garden.

You can see samples of all of them and hundreds of other easily grown, striking plants there.  No heavy chemicals needed, no intensive watering, no weekends spent on your knees weeding – not once a ground cover is established. Promise.


~ Purple heart Wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida): A bright purple color that thrives in harsh, bright, well-drained conditions.

~ White velvet (Tradescantia sillamontana): A cousin to the Wandering Jew and just as sturdy in bright heat. Looks silvery because of white, fuzzy hairs on the leaves.

~ Asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus “springeri”): A feathery, frondy light green that dies down in the winter and comes back in the spring.

~ Japanese iris (Iris japonica): A great spreading and flowering ground cover that does well in the shade.

~ Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonica): Small, fine leaves that make a carpetlike ground cover in shady spaces. Its relative, dwarf mondo grass, is great between stepping stones in the shade. Both tolerate root-filled, dry soil.

~ Persian chocolate moneywort (Lysimachia congestiflora): Creates a carpet of dark foliage that’s topped in the spring with star-shaped yellow flowers.

~ Asian star jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum): A rapid grower with foliage that looks like periwinkle. Does well in hot shade.


~ Banana plant (Musa basjoo): Gives a dramatic, tropical feel to a space.

~ Witch hazel (Hamamelis): Spidery, spicy-smelling fall-to-winter blooms in reds, yellows and oranges.

~ Candlestick (Cassia alata): The only annual on this list, it starts as a seed and sends up golden candlesticks of flowers in late summer and into the fall.

~ Hardy citrus (Citrus reticulata “Changsha”): A cold-hardy evergreen that produces bounteous mandarins.

~ Silver dollar eucalyptus (Eucalyptus cinerea): Great gray-green leaves that look like coins; bark that peels away in patterns; and that Vicks VapoRub smell.

~ Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum): Scentless in the daytime and then generous with its perfume during the night, from late summer into the fall.


~ Passion flower vine (Passiflora x “incense”): Intricate purple-blue flowers that some people say tell the story of the Crucifixion.

~ Brazilian firecracker vine (Manettia cordifolia): Wiry, thin stems covered with small orange-red flowers that look like mini-firecrackers; hummingbirds love it.


~ Japanese ardisia (Ardisia japonica “Chirimen”): A low, spreading evergreen with corrugated-looking leaves and little red berries in the winter. It makes a great ground carpet.

~ Silver lance dwarf ginger (Alpinia pumila): A silver-striped leaf that does well in the shade, stays green even when temperatures fall into the upper teens, and produces a small, red-and-white-striped bloom in the spring.

~ Ferns: These offer a broad selection of textures and heights, grow well in shade and can provide a gorgeous textural contrast to broad-leafed plants.



~ Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior): An evergreen here, with broad, shiny leaves, and so named because it’s so sturdy, even in poor conditions.

~ Crinum lily (Crinum): Long-blooming, fragrant and sturdy.

~ Japanese iris (Iris ensata): Has dinner-plate-size blooms late in the spring.

~ Anemone (Ranunculaceae): Great fall blooms of pink or white or red that bob on top of long stems; does well in partial shade.

~ Lenten rose hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus): Blooms in the winter and comes in a lot of varieties – near-black, yellow, singles, doubles, spotted flowers – and so hardy it’ll thrive in dry, rooty, shady soil.

~ Cigar flower (Cuphea ignea): Has small, tubular orange flowers with black tips that look like the ash on a cigar; blooms all summer and into fall; does well in hot full sun.

~ Uruguayan firecracker (Dicliptera suberecta): Has silvery-white fuzzy hairs on the leaf and an orange tubular flower that hummingbirds love.

~ Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana): Creates pink-and-white curved flower spikes that look like shrimp.

~ Bear’s breech, or Grecian pattern plant (Acanthus mollis): Has glossy leaves and sends up a spiky spring flower.

~ Mardi Gras abelia (Abelia x grandiflora “mardi gras”): Has variegated foliage and white, tubular flowers from May until November.


~ Elephant ears (Colocasia species): Elephant-ear-shaped leaves range from 7 inches across to 5 feet, so this accent can be used in any layer.

~ Ginger lilies (Hedychium): Fragrant and flashy, and tall!

~ Encore azalea (Rhododendron hybrids): As the name implies, it blooms again and again.

~ Mexican bush sage (Salvia): A late-summer bloomer that butterflies love – including migrating monarchs.

~ Fatsia (Fatsia japonica): Tall and dramatic, with leaves that look like giant, eight-fingered hands.

~ Anise shrub (Illicium floridanum): Tall, broad-leafed evergreen.

~ McDonald hybrid azaleas: Special because they were developed and bred locally.

~ Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus): A relative of the artichoke, it has big, bold, blue-green leaves and in the late spring sends up a spire of thistle-like flowers that are blue at the top. Has a very dramatic texture for a sunny area.

~ Fire spike (Odontonema cuspidatum): Fiery-red flowers that bloom in the late summer and fall; attracts hummingbirds.

Close To Home

The exterior of the brick building probably looks like it did when it had another life more than 100 years ago. Then it was part of a pickle factory complex here on the Elizabeth River, one of several hard-churning cogs in the up-and-coming town of Berkley.

Its current interior, however, is definitely 21st century.

The building now houses the corporate office of Norfolk Tug Company and U.S. Waterway Transportation, and it is industrial minimalism at its beautiful best. It is open and breezy, like the deck of a boat, but chic, like a restored New York loft. Pine planks from the old factory were reclaimed for the flooring, and touches of rusted steel throughout blend the feel of marine work with history.

The owner, Edward Whitmore, asked his wife, interior designer Allison Whitmore, to revamp the space; he needed something more suitable for business meetings than his old trailer.

It took about six months, and not only is Allison Whitmore proud of how her vision came together, but she also likes that almost everything in the office, from the seating, to the tables, to the kitchen cabinetry, was made in the area, particularly in Norfolk.

Using local businesses and artisans to build and breathe life into the ideas of Space Design Group’s partners – Whitmore, Leslie Drinkwalter and Valentina Passerini – is becoming the hallmark of the firm.

Space Design Group partners Allison Whitmore, left; Valentina Passerini and Leslie Drinkwalter in their studio, with their custom conference table.

“Our use of custom pieces sometimes comes out of necessity because we can’t find exactly the right piece to fit a space,” Whitmore says.

“Mainly, though, we feel that an old or artisan-made piece of furniture adds substance and soul to a room like nothing else can.  I cannot think of any room that we’ve done that does not include something that was made by a local artisan. We have amazing talent in this area and it is so fulfilling to hand-select a piece of wood or metal and see it being made into something that we’ve designed.”

Keeping the business at home has other benefits, she and Drinkwalter say: The designers help feed the local economy. Clients save money on shipping costs, which can be hefty. The designers and their customers can see their pieces being born – the metal and fabric before they are cut, the pieces forming wholes, testing the firmness of a padded chair, for example – before the process is completed. Handmade furniture is an art that takes time, Whitmore says. And she says her sources, for the most part, prefer to deal with designers for this type of commissioned work.

She and her partners joined forces about a year and a half ago, though the three had met through working with a popular local interior designer and antiques dealer, Anne Spencer.

The three women are transplants to the area; Whitmore began her designing career about 13 years ago in New York. Drinkwalter, who grew up in Georgia and watched her mom work as a designer, started her own path about 11 years ago. Passerini, who was born and raised in Italy, received her master’s from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009, driving to Richmond from Virginia Beach almost every day to do so.

“We all share a passion for design and for beautiful things,” Whitmore says, “and we all bring something different to the table. The interiors that we do are unique and as much a reflection of our clients’ taste as of ours.”

“We hope that no one ever walks into a room that we’ve done and knows
that we were the designers – then we’ve done our job well. It is never about filling a room with furniture. It’s a collecting process that involves using existing family furniture and finding exactly the right mix of new, old and custom pieces to complete the room. It does not happen quickly and it involves a lot of collaboration to get it right.”

The partners do their fair share of ordering ready-made pieces like other interior designers, Whitmore says, but they are relying more and more on the work of local businesses. A tour of some Norfolk homes and offices – including their own – shows how much they use home-grown work.

Lynn Neumann has worked with Drinkwalter since 2003 and has had her design a couple of pieces, such as a sofa, to fit into the oblong and tight spaces of her West Ghent home. Recently, she needed a desk that would work into a narrow sunroom. She had photos of desks that she liked but were too big, and a local artisan crafted a desk of wood and metal to fit the space perfectly, she says.

For Leslie Drinkwalter, local custom work includes a table of concrete and teak. (That’s Chester watching.)

“He did it in his own little way and I love it.”

In the firm’s office on Botetourt Street in Norfolk’s Freemason area, Whitmore and Drinkwalter point out the artwork on the walls. Every piece was created by a Virginia artist. They then touch two sleek tables, one a square box of punctured metal, the other a wide, elegant conference table – both were made in Norfolk.

The idea of the smaller piece popped into Whitmore’s mind as she was walking through the shop of her metal fabricator and saw a sheet of round, punctured metal. She’d seen it many times before and wanted to use it to create something. The table is it. The funky design can blend well with a variety of décor and can be painted or left natural. The beauty of its being made in town is that it can be ordered in any size. Because it is metal, it can withstand the elements of the outdoors or the wreckage of the indoor activity of a bustling family.

The conference-table top is glass, which contrasts with a metal base that was treated with a dark, natural finish. Welded studs hold the pieces together and offer yet another detail, another texture. For one client, Whitmore had local artisans reproduce vintage dining room chairs with frames of walnut and buttery soft leather seating. Its nail-head trim offers a catchy contrast.

Metal is a favorite in the arsenal of the Space Design Group. It can be finished in a variety of ways to make it sparkle like something fresh off an assembly line or manipulated to look a hundred years old. Factors including the humidity in the air when a finish is applied will also alter its final look.

“You can do so many things with it,” Drinkwalter says. “It’s so versatile.”

Whitmore says it is one more tool for the interior designers. “We like to layer a room with various elements and textures. Metal is another element, like glass or wood or a beautiful textile. It helps ground a room and gives it character. ”

A perfect example of the melding of elements, she says, is the recently completed office of the Norfolk Tug Company. When her husband and his partners found the abandoned complex of three buildings a few years ago, the structure that would become the main office looked stuck in the 1970s.

A dropped ceiling masked beautiful wooden beams; rotting linoleum covered a wooden floor begging to be restored. Wood paneling hid an arched entrance and some of the original wood double-hung windows – windows that now allow in streams of sunlight and views of the water.

Whitmore recycled as much material as she could from one of the outlying buildings on the property. The old-growth heart pine, which was commonly used around the turn of the 20th century, is rare now, usually found only in old buildings, she says. The pickle factory yielded tons of hearty flooring and beams, some up to 20 inches thick; bricks were used to repair any gaps in the masonry and to create a stoop at the back, which faces the water.

The metal and glass doors and partitions were made locally and given an aged finish reminiscent of the rust patina that is formed when steel and saltwater come together – a reflection of the companies’ work in the tug and barge business. The desks and conference table have metal bases with oak-veneer plywood tops, the wood darkened with an ebonized finish.

Whitmore also had to design the sectional in her husband’s office, an example of how the firm resorts to custom-made pieces out of necessity. One end of the sofa has no arm – she wanted people to be able to walk into the space without bumping into it.

“I did not want anything hugging the door frame and impeding the sense of openness you have when you walk in the room.”

She carried the same attention to detail, even more so, into her home near downtown. She prefers to think of her family as the current keepers of the home, rather than its owners, since previous occupants lived there for decades. It’s more than 100 years old.

Whitmore was drawn to the house’s classical, old-world architecture that includes strong influences from Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean Revival styles. She’s included more contemporary touches in her interior design.

A client’s master suite features custom upholstery

She prefers clean-lined, simple furnishings grounded with select antiques and artisan-made pieces, and this aesthetic is distributed throughout. Her coffee table, for example, is a former gas-station window of leaded glass; its web of small, intricate frames contains what look like frozen teardrops, some in splashes of lavender. The base is a darkened, natural metal, similar to the table bottoms in her office studio.

A lamp on her writing desk is made from a heavy iron ship chain, an idea she came up with and asked Anne and Tom Spencer to execute, she says. The alternating circular and rectangular loops form a sturdy yet elegant base. Her powder room features a sleek cantilevered, silver travertine slab in a metal frame, with a polished nickel sink. The mirror stretches from the back of the sink, with the faucet and handles projecting from the middle of the glass; this not only saves space but also gives the room a modern feel.

A client’s bathroom features custom cabinetry

As a designer, Whitmore said she often belabors the details almost to a fault, and her own dwelling is no exception.

“Any time I renovate a space in my house, I try to be very sensitive to what this house is and to not corrupt that,” she says.

When she renovated the kitchen, she added floor-to-ceiling subway tile, painted cabinets, rustic wood floors, open shelving and vintage-inspired pendant lights.

“That is what you might’ve seen in a kitchen at the turn of the century. I love to cook and it absolutely needed to be modern and function, but it had to fit the spirit of the house and I think it does that.”

In Allison Whitmore’s home, the kitchen features subway tile and custom local cabinetry.

Whitmore and Drinkwalter say they have similar tastes when it comes to preferring simple lines, and it shows in Drinkwalter’s home, in Norfolk’s Larchmont.

With an architect, she and her husband designed and had the house built about six years ago. The inspiration came in large part from her travels. She has always loved European architecture and how it is interpreted in the United States, such as in New Orleans, Charleston and California.

Even though the home is modern, she wanted it to fit into an established neighborhood so she added wood-molded brick and thick mortar.

Local work also includes, top left, a table with a reclaimed gas station window and, left, a lamp whose base is made from a ship chain. (Flowers: Studio Posy.)

As with her work creations, her indoor and outdoor spaces include locally crafted pieces. For one of her designs, a drink table, she happened to have a small slab of creamy Carerra marble from a local stone yard. She envisioned its use as a table and had a local artisan add the iron base, with a rusty finish.

Another of her ideas is an outdoor patio table with a concrete top and a teak base. The wood will gray over time and add to the Virginia coastal feel she wanted for the house.

Drinkwalter, like Whitmore, loves a neutral base, which gives them the flexibility to add pops of color through art and accessories. Grays and browns are interwoven in a corner-hugging banquette of her kitchen, another example of how an oddly shaped space required the designers to tap a local business for the job.

For Leslie Drinkwalter, local custom work includes a banquette.

“It takes a lot of time and effort to come up with just the right pieces for the space,” Drinkwalter says, “but seeing the end product is so exciting and gratifying.”

Digging In

Donna Eure’s labor of determination, healing, and love.

by Janine Latus
photography by Keith Lanpher 

Donna Eure’s family and friends gather often around the long, candlelit table on the deck out back. Tiny lights sparkle from trees, flowers spill out of pots, the perfume of jasmine and ginger lilies blends with the smell of pine. Crickets and cicadas serenade, drowned out by animated conversation and laughter. The evening light shows day lilies and gerbera daisies and impatiens, but also torenia and pink indigo and rice paper plants, all surrounded by a zoysia lawn so old and thick it’s like walking on a sponge. Hummingbirds come for the flowers, herons take off from the water’s edge, raccoons shimmy down the bird feeder cable like firefighters down a pole.

“It’s like living at camp out here,” she says.

When Donna and her husband, Raeford, bought their home on one of the fingers of the Lynnhaven 14 years ago the 1½-acre yard was half lawn, half brambles and weeds. Oil and gas from Pinewood Road washed down a gully to the river. Camellia branches drooped to the ground, heavy with blossoms, and spindly daffodils struggled up through the leaves and needles and spiny gumballs that showered down from the trees. The deck was there, but just past it were rocks and fallen oak branches.

“It looked like a blank palette to me,” she says. “I just couldn’t wait to get in it and clean it up.”
For weeks she planned. The camellias needed to be limbed up, the poison ivy pulled, the rocks and debris hauled from around the deck, the yard relentlessly raked.

So she put on her gloves and got to work. Through the deaths of her parents and Rae’s she pulled and thinned and planted, the sounds of the birds and the water and the wind through the pines a form of therapy. It was therapy again as she recovered from throat cancer surgery that left her unable to speak for months, her frustration expressed in notebooks all over the house in ALL CAPS and exclamation!!! points!!!!, but also in the growing beauty of her yard.
Hers is a woodland garden; there are no right angles or sharp edges, only sinuous paths, curved like nature. On her hands and knees she laid turtle-sized stones, thousands of them, to form a dry creek bed that would slow the flow of road wash to the river. Her husband wanted to cut down the gumball trees but Donna insisted they stay – even though their spiny balls must be picked up and bagged by hand, a dozen yard-waste bags at a time – because she’d read that the trees were among the most efficient at filtering toxins from the runoff. She planted papyrus and Japanese iris where the slowed water sometimes made the ground soggy. On the other side of the house, where it’s hot and dry and sunny, she built a rock garden, with giant succulents and cacti, and birds of paradise in pots. Each area is a balance of colors and textures, feathery greens and fuzzy blues, blossoms drifting in the breeze and thick, succulent leaves standing firm.

In the spring there are blossoms, in the summer flowers, in the fall color and in the winter contorted tree bones and glossy evergreens. Donna’s garden is beautiful regardless of season.

She uses no sprays or chemical fertilizers; they would kill her bees and pollute the water. She composts her yard waste in a tumbler the size of a Prius and grinds bags and bags of oak leaves into a fine mulch that she blends with a little bit of ground granite – Gran-I-Grit – and a scoop or two of Rare Earth and organic fertilizer, shoveling it into a wheelbarrow and raking it in around her plants. She lugs 25-pound buckets of water out to the new plants she’s constantly digging up to give to family and friends or to donate to charity plant sales.

There is no grand plan. She rearranges plants the way some people do furniture.
“My husband says, ‘Why did you plant it there if you’re just going to move it?’ ” she says, “and the answer is, ‘I didn’t know how it was going to look over here, I didn’t know it would get this large.’ Generally I’ll try anything anywhere and kind of see what happens with it.”

Apple trees are espaliered up the side of the garage, each of them grafted to produce three kinds of apples. Blue clematis droops from a burgundy Japanese maple. A yellow Lady Banks climbing rose entwines with purple wisteria as both crawl up a black pine tree. Evergreen clematis, white chocolate vine and smilax – that North Carolina wedding staple – tangle up the stairs to the back balcony. Even in the depths of winter there are things in bloom.

“Donna’s is the total package of a garden,” says Master Gardener Demaris Yearick. “It’s pretty, it’s friendly to the environment, it has unique flowers and a fun homeowner. Her touch is on everything. How could you do better than that?”

Donna’s love of gardening came from her grandmother, who raised chrysanthemums and African violets on a farm in Dinwiddie County, where Donna spent weekends and long summer days, and every Sunday dinner. When her grandmother died Donna dug up her rose bush and sweet peas, her irises and daffodils and Lily of the Valley, and planted them at her home, on 84th Street in Virginia Beach. When she moved here to Linkhorn Park, she dug them up and brought them along. Her knowledge has come not from college but from seminars and workshops and books, but most of all from kneeling and digging and raking and taking care.

She has native plants but also things exotic and rare, like wild orchids and the Christ’s Cradle Flower, which blooms only at night.

She creates bog gardens – swampy blends of peat moss and sand that are watered only from her rain barrel – full of carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps and sarracenias, with their deep-throated pitchers and feathery flowers, both because they’re beautiful and because they amuse her grandchildren.

“They like to take a pine needle and put it in there to watch the flytrap close up,” she says, “but each little pocket only does that five times, so I have to stop them or they’ll kill the plant.”

She grows Tradescantia – what her grandmother called “kiss me by the garden gate” because of the purple smudge it leaves on your clothes if you get too close. There is a butterfly vine, gorgeous with its pod that looks like two wings with the seed as the body in the middle. It’s “out of zone,” which means it shouldn’t live in this region, but in Donna’s garden it does.

Her collection of native and rare plants – plus her warmth and generosity – brought busloads of fans during the 2006 Virginia Historic Garden Tour. As she prepared last fall for her daughter’s backyard wedding a group from England called, asking to see the garden.

“Come join the bedlam!” she told them.

This time her guests were friends of friends, but sometimes unconnected strangers hear rumors and must come see for themselves.

In 2010 she was given the Horticulture Award of Merit by the Garden Club of Virginia, and the Club Horticulture Achievement Certificate by the Garden Club of America. She’ll take over the presidency of the Virginia Beach Garden Club in June. She also is a horticulture judge for the Garden Club of America, an honor that comes after a process that took about six years of travel and workshops and study, yet she says she isn’t good at memorizing names. “I just go, ‘Wow, isn’t that a beautiful plant! Where can I put it?’ Boom! It’s in the ground and then I’m like, ‘What is that?’ ”
At 65 she is endlessly busy, but the place you’ll find her nearly every day is in her garden, planting and pulling, raking and pruning, pair after pair of pruning shears broken and tossed into a box, dozens of pairs of gloves worn to threads.
She’s also a buyer for Galilee Gifts and Books at Galilee Episcopal Church, and she volunteers throughout the community.
“Open your front door and there she is,” says Susan Gentry, a fellow Garden Club of America judge and member of the Virginia Beach Garden Club. “She’s thought of something you might need or enjoy and she’s right there with it.”
Especially if it’s a plant.

The Kenmure House

by Janine Latus
photography by Rich-Joseph Facun

     As the men on the great clipper ships sailed past Lamberts Point and up the Elizabeth they saw it, elegant and grand, the Greek Revival home of William Lamb, his home a declaration to the world that both the Lamb family and the fine city of Norfolk prospered. He named it Kenmure. Today, time, the elements, and shifting social and political currents have taken their toll on the fine house in historic Freemason, to the point that it has taken enormous effort and investment by two sets of historically minded owners to bring it close to its original grandeur.

     The house had been built in 1845, when James Polk was president and Florida and Texas were in the process of becoming states. Owner William Lamb was a banker, shipper and merchant, then mayor of Norfolk from 1858 until 1862. That was when Confederate soldiers abandoned the city, torching the Gosport Navy Yard and leaving Lamb to surrender the city to Union soldiers. Sometime during the chaos, Lamb ran upstairs to his children’s nursery, dug up the hearth and buried the city’s historic silver mace – the symbol of power handed from mayor to mayor since 1754, when it had been given to Norfolk by Royal Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie. The Lambs were imprisoned at Fort Monroe; and Union troops occupied the house and dug up the basement floor, hunting for the silver.

     They failed.

     Kenmure had begun as a 40-foot square that rose two stories above an English basement. The walls, made of brick and timbers floated over from the shipyard, were 2 feet thick at the base and 18 inches at the top. The kitchen was an outbuilding, so the house remained cool, even in the hottest of Virginia summers. The massive front door was 3 inches thick, the lion-head knocker the size of a basketball. There were 15 fireplaces, two front parlors and a ballroom, 20 feet wide by 40 feet long.

     A decade later, Lamb built a wood addition onto the back and a third floor onto the main house, topped with a cupola, its mortise and tenon construction much older than the house and thus likely floated down from New England on a barge. The cupola’s windows were high and small, so Lamb climbed a ladder to watch for his ships to return to harbor.

     “The Kenmure grounds occupied half a block bounded by the Elizabeth River, Bute and Botetourt Streets,” wrote the Lambs’ son, William Wilson Lamb, in 1909. “It was a typical southern home of these antebellum days, where besides the ‘white folks’ there was a colony of family servants from the pickaninnys just able to crawl to the old gray-headed mammy who nursed ‘old massa.’ It was an ideal home for a boy: sail and row boats on the shore for sailing and fishing, horses in the stable for riding and driving, peaches, pears, cherries, figs, pomegranates, raspberries, currants in the garden, and roses, pink lilacs, snow balls, hollyhock and all the dear old-time flowers with which to treat his girl and boy friends – with a lovely lawn, bordered with crepe myrtles, bayberry and calycanthus between the mansion house and the river, upon which to romp and wrestle and to enjoy those outdoor games which the children of the founders of Norfolk town in 1682 brought from the motherland.”

     William Wilson Lamb was himself a Civil War hero and onetime mayor of the city who spent so much time building Norfolk’s cotton and rail industries that his own fortune faded. He sold off pieces of the family’s land to people who built fine Georgian and Italianate architecture more ornate than Kenmure’s. The nearest neighbor was within arm’s reach of the side porch; the water view was blocked on both east and north. In 1894 he sold the house itself for $6,300, about $157,000 today. Three years later it was sold again, this time for $14,000, then again in 1906 for $2,500. The harbor became less busy and the neighborhood less fashionable, until it became a hangout for “bums and drunks,” wrote architect Frederick Herman, who owned the house much later. By 1918 Kenmure was a boarding house. During most of the ’20s it stood vacant. In the ’30s it was cut into five apartments, the grand doorway of the ballroom bricked in, the servants’ stairs in the back hidden. In the ’50s police raided the house and found crap tables and a roulette wheel. In the ’70s police again battered in a door to bust up what the newspaper called a “Las Vegas-style crap game.”

     As tenants left, original pieces of the house – light fixtures, mantels, balusters – left with them.

On April Fools’ Day 1976, Fred Herman and his wife, Lucy, a retired teacher, bought Kenmure sight unseen. According to a history left by Fred, the walls were stuffed with lines for gas lighting, bell wires and ordinary lamp cord for electricity, some of it running through water, some of it still live. There were copper pennies in lieu of fuses in breaker boxes.

     “We had lead, copper, galvanized iron, wrought iron, cast iron pipes, and
fittings all intermingled in a great and glorious confusion,” he wrote, “all either leaking or on the verge of leaking, or constricted by deposits so as to be almost closed shut.”
On the up side, the 10-inch doorknocker was still there, the original pillars and glass still flanked the original door, and the gorgeous staircases and dramatic, almost Egyptian-looking molding downstairs were mostly intact.

     The Hermans reopened the parlors, lowered the floor of the English basement 18 inches, rerouted the front porch stairs to gain access to a basement door, and pulled out a bookcase to discover the original pocket doors that had divided the ballroom.

     The Hermans had new mantels built from an architectural pattern book from the 1850s, spindles for the stairway turned by hand, and doors custom-made. They added a raised floor in the cupola so they could see out without using a ladder, and they rerouted the main staircase so it no longer swooped down to the front hall but rather ended at a side porch door so they could run Fred’s architectural firm on the bottom floor and keep the second floor as their home.
It wasn’t easy.

     “In the course of events you will more than once find your wife in tears and hysterics, yourself on the verge of apoplexy, and with thoughts of bankruptcy running through your mind.” Fred wrote. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, the best advice is don’t tackle things of this sort.”
Indeed, while the concrete was still wet in the basement one of them wrote, “Lucy and Fred Herman restored Kenmure 1975-1980. Why?”

     The Hermans turned the upstairs into a showpiece, each wall covered in art. Lucy used the Lambs’ nursery as a studio for private music lessons. According to a newspaper article, after one student finished playing a piece on the flute, Lucy, the student and the student’s mother heard that same song being played upstairs. But the rest of the house was empty. Lucy felt the presence of a ghost several times. One time, the house filled suddenly with the unexplained scent of lavender talcum powder.

     Others felt something, too. Once during the most recent rehabilitation a stranger stopped by and told of living in the third floor apartment in the ’50s, his bed tucked up in the cupola, and how one of the downstairs tenants held a séance at which the medium sensed seven spirits in the house.

      Fred Herman died in 2002. A few years later Lucy put Kenmure on the market, sitting on the stairs to say goodbye to her ghost before she left. For more than a year the house stood vacant and deteriorating once again.

Meanwhile, just up the street, Stephen and Vanessa Sigmon lived in a tiny apartment. They both love history and thought rehabilitating the place would be fun. They bought it in 2006, then spent the next year figuring out how to navigate the historic registry rules while making it livable. Paige Pollard, principal of the Commonwealth Preservation Group, and Clay Dills, of Dills Architects, helped them figure out what could and couldn’t be done under the house’s historic easement.

     “The coolest part for me was to open the wall up and look inside,” says Dills. “Most of it was just brick, but they would lay wood into the walls long ways to give them tensile strength. The copper roofs were welded, one giant, smooth continuous thing. There’s a huge underground cistern in the garden in back, and if you go into the attic space in the roof there are timbers and beams as big as small trees. You have to wonder how it got up there, because it’s four stories in the air.”

     Lamb was a shipper, and it was common at the time for the people who built ships to also build houses, sometimes from new wood, sometimes from wood salvaged from ships.

     Over the next three years the Sigmons opened more bricked-in windows, tore out the apartment-era kitchen-bathroom combinations, redid every bathroom, replaced every bit of plumbing – “I was afraid of what I’d be drinking,” Stephen says – had floors leveled and refinished, and scraped 30 layers of paint off every surface.

     “That thing Fred wrote about how your wife’s going to cry and you’re going to want to scream? That happened to us!” he says. “There was nothing easy in this house. Nothing where you wanted to do X and someone came in and it just got done. There was always some other issue and it led to a bigger problem.”

     The work cost about 75 percent more than Stephen thought it would, offset somewhat by Virginia’s historic building rehabilitation tax credits, which over time will cut about a quarter off their expenses.

     “That program is great,” he says. “Without it a lot of historic houses in Virginia would go by the wayside.”

     Because of the historic easement, which barred removal of items placed before about 1930, the Sigmons couldn’t get rid of incongruent things like the former apartments’ peep holes and exterior-quality locks on interior doors. But Dills found a way to install central air, tucking it under a stairway and running the traces in the second floor ceiling where none of the original trim remains. He also designed a way to build a Brazilian hardwood deck over the copper roof on the river side so the Sigmons could step out from their bedroom and have a view of the water. There are no closets, so they’ve turned one bedroom into an enormous walk-in. They turned one of the apartment kitchen-baths downstairs into an expansive bathroom, and refurbished what their insurer has told them is an Italian floating staircase in what used to be the servants’ area.

     They got guys on scaffolding 40 feet off the ground to Bondo, sand and paint the windows, and hired a masonry company to repair cracks in the brick and replace much of the mortar. Then they replaced all 40 storm windows, each of which had to be custom-fitted into irregular holes. Likewise, it took true craftsmen to recreate missing pieces of the ground floor’s distinctive trim.

     “Nothing’s plumb, nothing square,” Stephen says. “They kind of eyeballed stuff back then.”

    Among the challenges was returning the stairway to its original curving descent into the marble-floored foyer, a project that involved rebuilding the bottom six or eight stairs and the railing and balusters ripped out during the Hermans’ tenure, each piece of wood hand-matched to the original. The Hermans used the newel post when they rerouted the stairs, so now it has been returned to its rightful place.

     “Before we could tear out anything we had to prove it wasn’t original,” Vanessa says.

     Luckily, the Hermans had saved a stack of photos and newspaper articles, many of which the Sigmons plan to display in one of the front parlors. The rest of the downstairs will be an office for Stephen.

     The ghost – or ghosts – are gone now, exorcised by a spiritual sweeping of the house by Stephen’s brother or, as Vanessa says, by the bright paint job, in light blues and grays and whites.

     What remains is a tremendous love for the house.

     “It takes a very particular kind of person to buy and renovate and do a house like that,” Dills says, “and Steve and that house were a match made in heaven.”

     As Stephen says, “I feel like it’s a little bit of a person, like it has a personality. Would I do it again? No. But am I happy now? Yeah.”

Home Tour

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.”