Back in 1998, Camden Whitehead and Mimi Sadler decided to leave their Cape Cod-style house in Richmond’s Forest Hill neighborhood and buy a house on the other side of Forest Hill Park in Woodland Heights. Their primary reason for moving would probably resonate with a lot of homeowners who feel as if their house is shrinking as their kids grow.
“Having just one bathroom wasn’t working out” with two kids and two adults, Sadler said.
Besides, they liked the wraparound porch on the Woodland Heights house, and they were intrigued by the way the property presented a dual character. While the front of the 2,500-square-foot house faced the densely populated, decidedly urban terminus of 33rd Street, the park enveloped the backyard and made it feel rural.
The original part of the house – a 28-foot-wide living room and two side-bay rooms – had been built circa 1895, before construction in the streetcar suburb of Woodland Heights had reached that far north or west. (Back then, 33rd Street ended one block from the house.)
Most of the neighboring houses weren’t built until the 1920s, when Forest Hill Park was in its heyday, and even when Sadler and Whitehead saw it in the 1990s, the house at 800 West 33rd Street, with the park’s trees rising behind it, retained some of its original, remote character.
So Sadler and Whitehead bought the property and moved in with their kids.
The couple addressed some practical issues – replacing a leaking roof, for example, and installing a geothermal system for heating and cooling the house – before turning their attention to a more ambitious renovation.
This is where the story diverges from the one many of us would tell about our own experiences renovating a home. We might vacillate over which manufacturer’s drawer pulls would look best in a kitchen remodel, for example. By contrast, Sadler and Whitehead, who are architects and principals of Sadler & Whitehead Architects PLC, ended up fabricating their own cabinet pulls – and from an unlikely source material.
Their renovation yielded large changes that improved how the home works as a living space. But they also did things you’d have to examine closely to appreciate fully.
“What I love about going into an architect’s house is knowing everything will have been considered – the closer you look, the more you’ll see,” Sadler said. “They consider every detail and material, and that’s a big difference.” It can be especially interesting when architects bring their ideas to an existing building, Whitehead said.
“The result is an evolved space that invites, surprises and engages on a long-term basis,” he said. “Architects want to create space that serves and enriches beyond its immediate function.”
Sadler and Whitehead, who like to mix historic and contemporary elements in their architectural projects, left the front portion of the house untouched, and even today it retains the character of a vernacular cottage. The back of the house had been altered over the years, though, and it was overdue for an update.
“It was a rabbit warren of rooms and hallways, and we wanted to clarify it,” Whitehead said.
Sadler and Whitehead sketched dozens of floor plans before settling on an ambitious plan that would make the back of the house easier to navigate and feel larger. It called for moving the basement stairs out of the kitchen as well as moving walls and doorways to enhance sight lines – a visual phenomenon that can make a relatively small house feel larger, Whitehead said.
By the time the couple finalized their plans, their children had finished college, and they decided to convert the house’s four bedrooms into two with a dressing room and an enlarged master bath.
To evoke the screen porch that once faced the park on the second floor, Sadler and Whitehead designed a continuous series of single-light casement windows that rise from the floor to the ceiling.
“Camden hates curtains, so we had to devise different treatments for the back windows,” Sadler said.
For the lower windows in the master bedroom, Whitehead wove thin strips of wood into screens, and Sadler had linen screens made for the master bath.
“This house is a place of experiments and mediations, which is common to all marriages, especially if you care about what a house is,” Sadler said.
Which brings us back to those cabinet pulls in the kitchen.
“Our carpenter, Chris Chase, had shown us several potential drawer cabinet pulls,” Sadler said. “Camden wasn’t satisfied. So one day, we were at Wright’s Dairy-Rite in Staunton, and I said, ‘We are not leaving until we decide on those pulls.’ Over several sketches, we both realized simultaneously that the pulls we were drawing looked like door hinges. Camden had a bucket of salvaged door hinges.”
Whitehead cut the door hinges into sections that were a single barrel wide and voila: cabinet pulls.
The door hinges weren’t the only salvaged materials Sadler and Whitehead utilized. They clad the kitchen walls and ceiling in yellow poplar that Whitehead had bought at an auction of a casket maker’s estate decades earlier. And for the kitchen’s backsplashes, they used chalkboards that Whitehead salvaged from the Highland Park School when it was converted to senior-living apartments in the early 1990s.
“Mimi calls my salvaging habit a neurosis, but I call it optimism,” Whitehead said, with a laugh.
In all, the renovation took a year.
“We got a lot of pleasure out of the design as well as the construction,” Sadler said. “And we get a lot of pleasure out of it now that the house is renovated.”
But it’s an ongoing experiment, both inside and out. And it’s not an airless, curated interior. Instead, Sadler and Whitehead have furnished the house with a mix of traditional furniture, Midcentury chairs and pieces Whitehead has made.
“The traditional furniture came from family on both sides, so it means a lot to us,” Sadler said. “Blending them with the newer pieces is a real pleasure. Life isn’t predictable, and our house isn’t either.”
Want to visit the house? Modern Richmond, a nonprofit group that organizes tours of the city’s Modern-style residential and commercial buildings, will host a tour of the Sadler and Whitehead residence on November 13. For more information, visit ModernRichmond.org.
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