High on a hill overlooking the James River is a rustic architectural anomaly that fuses country with contemporary décor. The Cherokee Road structure was made with two circa 1916 log cabins. A central lodge was constructed in the 1920s to connect the cabins, resulting in a 5,000-square-foot home.
The house had been on the market for 11 months when Sarah Paxton and her husband, Andy Thornton, first saw it. They were able to look beyond the dark rooms and low ceilings. "We fell in love with the property and the view," Thornton says of the couple's November 2001 purchase. "When we first started looking for a place, we wanted low and cottage-like. Yet, we also wanted a home that opened up to a great view, and was very contemporary once you got into it."
Scouting Out Help
Paxton and Thornton made their purchase after consulting a few experts. Tom DeLong, owner of DeLong Custom Homes in Powhatan, lent an ear and offered his advice. When he first spied the property, he knew the project would be immense, but worth it.
"What stood out was the diversity of what was existing in the house, every room was a different species of wood," DeLong says. "They wanted to bring it up to current code, so we pretty much gutted the house, took all the paneling down, the Sheetrock, but left the exterior. It took two years to get everything to modern standards, to a habitable state." Paxton and Thornton continued to live at their residence in Church Hill while the project forged ahead.
DeLong and his crew replaced the unstable roof system and repaired the framing. Everything was updated including wiring and lighting. "It was like building a new house inside a shell," DeLong says.
Burt Pinnock, co-founder of BAM Architects, was also called in. "After listening to them, we understood their needs. You could increase the volume of the house, so it wasn't so low, by raising the ceilings. They wanted to create open space by removing walls," Pinnock says.
Paxton worked closely with DeLong and Pinnock, contributing many ideas that eventually became the blueprints for the renovation.
The collaboration resulted in a massive overhaul that modernized the rustic retreat. The log cabin on the east end serves as a family room with two magnificent stone fireplaces. On the west side, the other log cabin has been transformed into a library. The two-story central space includes bedrooms. Ceiling fans of brushed aluminum spin overhead, and window treatments are absent from most of the rooms in an effort to maximize vistas of the James River. Reusing the home's original butternut and wormy chestnut paneling enhanced the look of the former cabin-and-lodge structure. Thornton spent hundreds of hours refinishing the panels by sanding them. He then applied a Deft clear-coat finish.
A dark, outdated screened-in porch was transformed into a spacious, bright kitchen. Sunlight streams in from the skylights, reflecting off the stainless steel appliances. Sitting at the hand-milled kitchen table affords views of the river. After Hurricane Isabel downed 12 trees on the property in 2003, a large white oak was creatively recycled. "Hunter Webb [a local furniture maker] came out and milled it on site. He air dried the wood and built a dining table from it," Thornton says. The remainder of the white oak will be used by Webb, owner of Clearfield Company, to create paneling in the library.
Richard Hendrick, designer with Custom Kitchens, Inc., worked closely with Paxton on the design and layout of maple cabinetry. The light wood is accentuated by countertops of black granite and concrete counters. A custom-fabricated stainless steel support was created to hold the weight of the concrete counter.
Pantry cabinets run from the kitchen to the front hall of the home. All kitchen accessories are carefully hidden away, out of sight in the cabinets. A tall corner of cabinetry is a coffee-and-tea serving space. Paxton even designed a lower cabinet that rolls forward, which houses a storage container for dog food. Also, a wall was removed from the entry foyer to enhance the view from the front door back to the kitchen.
In the hall between the kitchen and the entranceway is a nook bathroom with a maple pocket door. A curvilinear vanity is a bold accent against the shadowy purple walls. In the changing light of day, the paint appears gray. The light fixtures that bedeck the room are made of frosted-glass cylinders and satin nickel.
In order to support the weight of a new cast-iron whirlpool bath found in the second-floor master bathroom, columns needed to be set under the cantilever on the south side of the home. "We had to come up with the means to support that because basically it's over the front door," says DeLong. "Between the existing structure and the kitchen is a wall. To support the second floor, we cut that wall out and used four heart-pine columns from the Watkins Cottrell building." Additional support was given by the two outdoor columns of Southern yellow pine.
In the large open area used as both a living and dining room, antiques blend with modern German and Italian furnishings. A backlit Italian cabinet highlights blue glass objets d'art.
An Italian dining table is gracefully lit by overhead pendant lamps. Original acrylic paintings by artist Richard Perrault add sophistication to the space.
Thornton's father, Marcus, purchased the 1880 Rosewood china cabinet in Brazil when the family was residing in Rio de Janeiro. A 1920 piano, passed down from Paxton's grandparents, stands under the bay window with a northern exposure.
Centered in the living room is an arched Baltic blue sofa. Underfoot are colorful rugs from Thailand. A drum table from Haiti is a part of Thornton's tribal collection.
Charles Yeager, a local craftsman, designed a stairway railing of interlocking stainless steel joinery that encloses tempered glass panels. He worked with metal and concrete fabricator Christopher McBrayer to create this designer railing.
"Andy wanted to do something that juxtaposed rustic. He wanted to create something sleek and contemporary," Yeager says. "That's quite a transformation to go from a hunting camp to the sophistication of La Différence," says Bill Church, another BAM architect who worked on the project.
Aside from ongoing renovation of the library, Thornton is working on converting an old stable on the property into a workshop. He plans to use wood that was removed from the home, storing pieces in the old stable. Dual barn doors swing open to reveal the stacks of wood that Thornton hopes to one day use in other projects as the property continues to take on more of the family's personality.
"Every now and then, we feel like we bit off more than we can chew. It's a continual project," says Paxton. "But we came home the other night and saw three deer. We always see deer in the yard and Canadian geese. What's worth it to us is to be smack dab in the middle of this great urban city, but to be living among all this wildlife and having peace and tranquility every night."