It pays to be a good neighbor. Just ask Bill McKenney and Dana Bensinger, whose kindness, good deeds and concern for an elderly neighbor ultimately led to the creation of their dream home.
For nearly 12 years, the couple lived in the 2100 block of Hanover Avenue, across the street from Marjorie “Marnie” Seltzer, a modest, unassuming woman who kept to herself and was rarely seen — except when she poked her head outside her front door to smoke a cigarette.
Seltzer’s brother lived down the block, but when he died in 2010, McKenney and Bensinger decided it was time to get to know Marnie better. They began helping her with errands and medical appointments and keeping her company. She died in May 2013, and today, they live in the house she left to them as part of her estate, which included a gift of nearly $1.3 million to three charities.
“We weren’t sure if she was doing us a favor or not,” McKenney admits of the unexpected gift. “This place was really a disaster.” The upstairs had been subdivided into two apartments, but hadn’t been occupied in a decade. The downstairs was in disrepair.
It was a total gut job. But, that opened up a world of unlimited design possibilities.
The couple, who had been thinking about downsizing, soon realized that Seltzer’s unexpected gift could serve as a blank slate for the house of their dreams.
Today, visitors to the home are greeted both by the couple’s three friendly basset hounds, Mabel, Blanche and Joan, and by the elegant script of the words “Marjorie Lucille” etched into the transom above the front door. “The transom is our nod to Marnie,” Bensinger says.
Bill McKenney and Dana Bensinger
Bill McKenney (left) and Dana Bensinger hired Jason Lefton of Big Secret to etch “Marjorie Lucille” into the transom in memory of the home’s previous owner. (Kip Dawkins photo)
The home’s old-fashioned name and traditional exterior is starkly contrasted by its unexpected interior, a wide-open modern space filled with thoughtful, personal and eclectic design details. As a way to generate income — and to make the house smaller — they also converted the back portion into a rental apartment.
“The house is literally designed just for them to live in,” says architect John White of 510 Architects, who worked on the project along with his wife, Heather Grutzius. “It was a pure design project — they were not thinking about resale. They don’t plan to ever move.”
McKenney and Bensinger had seen 510 Architects’ work a few years earlier during a Modern Richmond Tour of White’s and Grutzius’ own home. “We really liked their aesthetic,” McKenney says. “When this house became available, we realized we could do what they had done to their house in the Fan: take out walls to create a modern house.”
At the same time, adds Bensinger, “We wanted the façade to look like it did when it was built.” Originally designed by architect Albert Huntt in 1909, the home is part of a block of connected row houses that share the same classic architecture.
Bill Kastleberg of Mako Builders served as general contractor for the yearlong renovation project. The entire home was broken down to the studs and reimagined, with nearly all of the home’s original pieces reused in some way. “The house is literally like a brand-new house now, but it still has the old character and feel,” White says. “They were committed to saving every single piece of trim and reusing it.”
A canvas backdrop from a 1960s Richmond Ballet production was used to wallpaper the exterior of the powder room. Architect John White of 510 Architects cites the remodeled staircase as his favorite feature of the house. (Kip Dawkins photo)
The home’s center staircase was reconfigured to create a landing area that now serves as a dramatic design element. The state-of-the-art kitchen opens to the main living space. Bensinger, the designated cook, says, “In our old house, I felt like the help in the kitchen, cut off from the party.” Now, he is at its center of the action. “This house creates an instant party vibe.”
On the first floor, original pocket doors were preserved so that the den, complete with a new full bath, could be converted to a bedroom if necessary. The house was designed so that the couple could age in place. After watching Seltzer endure declining health in the home, they knew they needed to plan for the future. “We’ve seen a lot of people get stuck in their homes,” says Bensinger, a registered nurse who works as a health care consultant. “We have learned a lot of lessons from the older folks in our lives.”
McKenney, an inveterate collector, oversaw all aspects of the home’s interior design. “There was a lot of stuff I had collected and had been keeping in boxes for 20 years,” he says. “When we moved to this house, I purged, and found ways to use all the things I couldn’t let go of.”
The result showcases McKenney’s creative talent and eye for the unexpected: A large collection of hose nozzles lines the top window frames in the living room. Vintage curtains and remnants of their deceased parents’ clothing were fashioned into pillows in the living and guest rooms. Painted backdrops from Richmond Ballet productions in the 1960s were used as wallpaper in the powder room and master bedroom. And, for the home’s biggest conversation piece, strips of salvaged wood from the renovation were collaged with strips of wood from family furniture to create a one-of-a-kind fireplace mantel and oven hood.
Bensinger House-Custom Range Hood
Bensinger loves cooking in the new kitchen, which features tile from floor to ceiling and white custom cabinets by Robin’s Custom Woodworks. A Portrait Ledge fireplace from Valor Fireplaces provides ambiance and warmth during cooler months. (Kip Dawkins photo)
“Bill’s mother and my mother passed away within six months of each other three years ago, and we inherited a lot of stuff,” Bensinger says. “The whole idea coming into this house was cleaning out and not storing things. We wanted all of our possessions out, and livable and part of our lives.”
Since finishing the project and moving in December 2014, the couple has had ample time to entertain and simply enjoy living in their new home.
“In our other house, we were always thinking about the next project and were always working on something,” Bensinger says. “There is an end to the projects now. We can now plan a vacation, instead of our next project.”