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Architect Josh McCullar of SMBW distilled the features of surrounding houses in the Jackson Ward Historic District to their most basic expression to design a modern house that fits in, yet stands apart. (Photo by Adam Ewing)
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The all-white minimalist kitchen features sleek cabinets from Ikea paired with beach foam quartz countertops and Porcelanosa tile. The large island offers seating for six on Gus Modern leather stools. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor )
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A pair of reproduction red womb chairs and vibrant art add warmth and character to the sleek living room. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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A painting by Craig Hill is the focal point of a guest bedroom on the second floor. Red accent pillows continue the vibrant color theme of the adjoining bathroom. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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A bright guest bathroom. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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The front guest bedroom features a built-in window seat overlooking Leigh Street. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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The sleek master bathroom features floating mirrors over a frosted glass window that lets light in from the stairwell. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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The dining room sits at the front of the house and is a showcase for the couple’s eclectic collection of paintings, original fine-art ceramics and modern furniture. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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The home’s signature feature is the center skylight which illuminates the entire house thanks to glass floor segments and an open stairwell that offers dozens of interesting architectural vistas. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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Another view of the stunning skylight. (Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
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(Photo by Adam Ewing, styling by Melissa Molitor)
The modern house at 20 W. Leigh St. is like an optical illusion: It simultaneously blends in and stands out.
The three-story, tan-brick structure has been attracting curious stares since construction began in November 2013. Yet, a few visitors have completely missed it as they drove past.
That was the intention of owners John Ryan and Wesley Chenault: to build a thoroughly modern house that blends into the historic fabric of Jackson Ward. They aren’t alone in this endeavor; Richmond’s in the middle of a mini-modern boom. 2015 has seen the construction of Citizen 6, a row of six geometric row houses by Baskervill at Floyd Avenue and Robinson Street, as well as a contemporary single-family house on the edge of Byrd Park.
When architect Josh McCullar of SMBW arrived in Richmond 13 years ago, he says, the city “was still in the end of its very long, sleepy, conservative phase, architecturally.” He credits the 2010 addition of a modern wing to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (also designed by SMBW) with opening Richmond’s mind to modernism.
In his design for 20 W. Leigh St., McCullar referenced the patterns in surrounding houses, such as porches and bay windows. “We interpreted those elements and sort of distilled them down into a modern interpretation of the clients’ wishes,” he explains.
The interior of the house is airy, glossy and sparsely furnished. Throughout the house, the walls are painted a uniform gray: Sherwin Williams’ “Big Chill.” But the house doesn’t feel chilly; the couple’s playful modern art collection and exuberant light fixtures brighten things up.
Two nearly symmetrical guest suites occupy the second floor. The third floor is home to Ryan’s hi-tech office (he’s a senior sales consulting manager for Oracle Corporation) and the master bedroom with a large walk-through closet. The couple’s two 14-year-old cats, Bunny and Clyde, snooze on the bed. A deck in the rear adjoins a small lawn and “what I like to call the Taj Magarage,” Ryan says.
The home’s most striking features are segments of glass floor on the second and third levels that allow the central skylight to illuminate the entire house. The cats stroll over the glass without batting a whisker. It took longer for Chenault to adjust.
The couple decided to adhere strictly to modern and Midcentury aesthetics, which meant discarding almost all the furniture they’d had in their previous homes. When they unearthed century-old medicine bottles during construction, they tossed them in the recycling bin.
It wasn’t hard to start afresh, they say. Ryan attributes the couple’s longevity — they’ve been together for 21 years — to the fact that “we literally have almost the exact same taste in design and music.” They each retained just one treasured possession. For Ryan, it was a carved wooden director’s chair given to him by a childhood friend. For Chenault, it was his grandmothers’ dinnerware: one Russel Wright set in pale blue, and one in the Bob White pattern by Red Wing Potteries.
The couple had lived in Atlanta for about 17 years. In October 2011, Chenault, an archivist, moved to Richmond for his dream job as head of Special Collections and Archives at the James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I was charmed, almost right away” by Richmond, Chenault says, but it would take the couple a few years to find a home here.
They initially bought an 850-square-foot loft at Emrick Flats at Adams Street and Brook Road, which they knew would be a temporary residence. Ryan remained in Atlanta, preparing to sell their home. One night he came home from dinner to discover a third-floor toilet had broken and overflowed, flooding the house. “I open the door and it sounds like a rainforest,” he says. They had to replace all the floors and ceilings.
About nine months later, while Chenault and Ryan were both traveling, a fire broke out in the Emrick Flats building, burning the roof. Their loft was undamaged, but the building was condemned, forcing them to rent an apartment at Miller & Rhoads on Broad Street for about six months.
Ryan finally moved to Richmond in 2013 and the couple began their house hunt. They wanted to live in central Richmond, but they were unwilling to get into a bidding war for something that needed major renovations. They wanted a modern house, which was hard to find. Also, they drive an all-electric Tesla Model S, so they needed a secure garage where they could charge it.
The one thing they knew was they liked living in Jackson Ward. So when they found the lot at 20 W. Leigh St., which had been vacant since the 1970s, they began to think about building a modern house there.
McCullar worked with the couple to design a modern house that blended into the neighborhood. Despite some concerns from people living nearby (one of whom commented that the house looked as if it had been designed by “Frank Lloyd Wrong”), the city’s Commission of Architectural Review swiftly approved the plans.
Construction commenced in November 2013. Slowed by winter weather and some construction challenges, the process took 18 months. Finally, in the first week of August, Ryan and Chenault moved in.
They hope their endeavor inspires others to do what they have done: to live and invest in Jackson Ward. And they recognize that their house isn’t to everyone’s tastes. “At the end of the day, we did this for us,” Ryan says.