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Gwenedd and Ben Murray in the kitchen of their Church Hill home.
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A chaise and rocker found and reupholstered on the cheap and two mod wire chairs inherited from Gwenedd’s grand- father helped to create a contemporary aesthetic in the living room without compromising the budget.
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West Elm’s Kaleidoscope rug punctuates the minimalism of the home’s spare room.
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A sleek, monochromatic kitchen gets a dash of color with a Richmond Type Map print by Carrie Fleck, as well as Osage oranges.
To get the gist of Ben and Gwenedd Murray's design direction for their 1896 Italianate town house in Church Hill, you need look no further than the baseboards.At the corner of the dining room and kitchen, the baseboard sheds its shoe and pushes flush against the wall, seamlessly transforming from traditional to modern. Blink or no blink, chances are you'll miss it. And that's the point.
The Murrays designed their home to subtly transition as visitors move through it. The front of the house maintains many of its historic details, from the staircase in the hallway with its traditional handrail and balusters, to the pocket doors, stained glass windows and fireplace with original faux-marble surrounds in the living room. From there, the dining room bridges old and new. A sleek steel box mimicking a fireplace was built to replace the room's massive wood-burning oven. Then, to infuse a little age back into the space, old photographs of Ben's ancestors were hung above it. "It's our homage to [Grant Wood's] American Gothic," he jokes.
By the time you arrive at the ultra modern galley kitchen in the back of the house — a clean, white space with IKEA cabinetry, charcoal tile floors and razor-edged metal shelves — the metamorphosis is complete.
Ben, a contractor, and Gwenedd, an architect, did virtually all the work themselves. Together, the two own a design/build company, re:4m. They were able to purchase the house after it went into foreclosure in 2010 — an upside to the down economy — and immediately began the long process of gutting, repurposing and rebuilding.
Their goal was to create a space that celebrated traditional craftsmanship and modern minimalism in equal measure. "We like modern, very clean lines but we also like the quality of construction and materials in older construction," Ben explains. "We think one highlights the other."
"It's why we picked Church Hill," Gwenedd adds. "We've always enjoyed the character and the beauty of the craft and detail."
Getting where they wanted to go took a year. The first order of business was to create more storage. The couple swapped the entrance to the kitchen with a half-bath, moving the latter to the end of the front hallway. This allowed for a small storage area for the refrigerator, washer and dryer while opening up a view from the kitchen to the living room. "We wanted to connect to the front of the house," Gwenedd says, "So that even from the kitchen you can see the stained glass."
Another area short on space was the upstairs bathroom. Working with Robin Davis of Robin's Custom Woodworks, the Murrays designed a floor-to-ceiling custom unit to replace one wall of the bathroom, which provided all the storage they needed for their toiletries — and then some.
With a limited budget and a strong vision, making every dollar count was imperative. Throughout the house you'll find instances of ingenuity and craft, from a clever grandfather clock decal with a real clock face in the upstairs hallway, to a metal desk in the office welded by Gwenedd and topped with slate from her grandmother's barn. Nothing was off limits when it came to repurposing materials. Studs from the renovation became a sleek dining table, and laminated plywood with recessed strips of lath provided a unique backsplash in the kitchen.
For furnishings, the Murrays simply kept their eyes open. All of the large-scale pieces of art that adorn the walls were found by Ben after being tossed by their owners. A trip to Gordonsville yielded a tufted chaise made from a mahogany door. After stripping the old straw, removing a surprise stowaway (a dead mouse) and adding some new fabric, the couple ended up with a chic statement piece for the living room. Likewise, a $20 rocker from Class and Trash on U.S. 1 got an easy makeover with some updated upholstery.
Often, the most expensive part of an interior design project is lighting. By building their own chandelier in the dining room (based on plans from Brooklyn designer Lindsey Adelman) and slightly tweaking an IKEA fixture in the upstairs hallway, they were able to keep costs to a minimum.
An old house typically gives up its secrets during construction, and this one was no exception. While cleaning out the crawlspace, the Murrays found their home had good bones in more ways than one. But a couple tenacious enough to singlehandedly undertake a historic renovation isn't likely to be daunted by the discovery of large animal bones. Who knows? Maybe they can be repurposed.