ABOVE: The kitchen is full of custom details designed by the owners, like the half-circle cutouts in lieu of doorknobs. RIGHT: Sarah Rowland, left, with stepdaughters Shannon, 22, and Riley, 16, in the main living space. A series of floor-to-ceiling glass panes run across the front of the house with a deck granting views of the James River and Nickel Bridge.
ABOVE: The opening under the raised counter keeps it from feeling heavy. "I wanted it to look like it was floating up there," says architect Taranto.
ABOVE: Rowland runs her graphic design business from this open office area. The Osborne & Little wallpaper on one accent wall gives it the feeling of a distinct room. She traded design work for the burled-maple desk from an office furniture company, and the chair is vintage Eames.
ABOVE: The cantilevered cement hearth was a trademark of the home's original architect, Alan McCullough. Two similar ones exist at the Collegiate School, where McCullough designed the campus' original 1960s buildings.
ABOVE: Joe Alexander with daughter Mackenzie, 19, in the downstairs office area shared by all three daughters. They also have bedrooms, a three-sink bathroom and a living area on this level.
ABOVE: Sarah Rowland stands with her collection of art and design books displayed in the living room's original built-in shelves. She painted the backs of several compartments different colors for an unexpected pop — a theme throughout the house. RIGHT: The front of the home offers river views from the main (upper) level. The two-story addition, at left, was in keeping with the home's low-slung profile. It was clad in appropriately humble cement blocks from North Carolina. The design of the iron railing was based off a graphic element from Rowland's design work. FRONT PAGE BEDROOM: In the master bedroom addition, architect Lisa Taranto designed the built-in bed with storage and a ledge for sitting and putting on shoes in the morning. The Bertoia Bird chair and Arco lamp are designs from the '50s and '60s.
If we all felt as passionately about our homes as Sarah Rowland and Joe Alexander do, we might be a nation of homebodies. And if we all had their bright perch among the trees, within gaze of the James River, we'd certainly have a reason.
"This house was right for us," says Rowland. "It's not something you can communicate, it's something you feel — it's primal."
One step into their Westover Hills mid-century home and it's obvious you've entered the world of a couple not afraid to break the rules. Color pops in unexpected places — a pink closet ceiling, canary-yellow bedroom doors, one red bookcase shelf. Art is grouped instinctively, everywhere, even in closets, with rocks and twigs given equal weight. Wallpaper on accent walls lends a witty nod to tradition.
This home is fresh, with a fearlessness that's bred from travel and thinking outside that proverbial box. It should be no surprise, then, that Rowland and Alexander work in advertising. She's a freelance graphic designer who grew up moving around the world with her large family, perennially the new kid, never with the right shoes. He grew up in St. Paul, Minn., came to Richmond to be a creative director at The Martin Agency, and travels frequently to New York and L.A. to produce commercials for UPS, Ping golf, Walmart and others.
"We're both in the business of looking at something and seeing what it can be," says Alexander. "Collaboration is huge in advertising."
A Statement-making Home
Seven years ago, Rowland and Alexander began a collaboration of their own. Alexander and his three daughters were living in a cul-de-sac in the West End, and Rowland was in a Woodland Heights cottage. They began looking for a home to share. Rowland remembers the day she walked down the steps and fell in love with the "dirty, Barbie-doll-pink" wood-plank home. It was sweet and humble and had everything she wanted — a big, open floor plan and lots of natural light — it just needed a freshening-up. Alexander was in L.A. on business, and they agreed she would make an offer. One year later, they were married on a rock in front of their new home's cascading front garden.
Rowland and Alexander bought the home from Hazel Little, who, along with husband Tom, had hired Virginia architect Alan McCullough to build it in 1957. The Littles came to Richmond when Tom accepted the job of assistant superintendent of Richmond Public Schools. He eventually became superintendent during the difficult desegregation years. And interestingly, the Littles chose an architect who didn't always fall in line with the Beaux-Arts and Jeffersonian schools of architecture favored by traditional Richmond. "I think the Littles were remarkable people," says Alexander, "they probably thought they were making a cool statement with this house."
It's a statement not lost on Rowland and Alexander. When they added 500 square feet to the 1,500-square-foot home, they consciously decided not to "hog the view," as Rowland says. Although it would have been tempting to build up and take advantage of the setting and gain better views of the
river, they decided to keep with McCullough's original plan for the house, which was to hug the terrain and blend with the landscape.
"All of his houses have very beautifully detailed spaces — built-in cabinets, the orientation of the rooms are set up for the views — I think that's a constant in his work," says Northern Neck architect Steven Reiss, who lives in a McCullough house and is writing a book about the architect. Reiss says McCullough spent a great deal of time positioning his homes. The location of the house was as important to McCullough as what the house looked like — a predilection the architect shared with Frank Lloyd Wright. "A lot of McCullough houses have this sort of mystery — you go down a drive, take a turn, then the house sort of hits you — Wright called it a ‘procession of discovery,' " adds Reiss.
In addition, McCullough, like Wright, strived to bring the outside in, designing expansive windows and keeping the home on the same elevation as the ground.
That's something that struck a chord with architect Lisa Taranto of architecto, a friend of Rowland's who was brought in to design the addition, which is full of windows, transoms to allow for natural light and outdoor living spaces to increase circulation around the home.
Taranto says her goal was to design a cohesive addition that was appropriately "humble," both inside and out. "My hope was you don't walk into the addition and say, ‘Wow, what a great big room,' " she says.
To do this, Taranto essentially added to one end of the house. A new kitchen, master suite and half-bath are on the main floor, and downstairs is more room for the girls with another bedroom, a three-sink bathroom, an office for their computers and a laundry room. The long, "dungeon-y" hall downstairs is half underground and was given a slight rippling curve to infuse it with some personality. While most modernist design tends to be square, Taranto took her cue here from mid-century architect Le Corbusier, who experimented with curves later in his career.
An Outside Hallway
The exterior got a facelift, too. A new copper roof replaced a dull gray asphalt one. The original vertical wood siding was painted a greenish taupe to blend with the landscape, and the addition was clad with narrow cement blocks, a more affordable and humble solution than stone. The original deck that juts off the front of the house was expanded to run along all the rooms that face the river. Rowland says Taranto convinced them to keep the new part of the deck narrow, which they're glad they did. This way it serves as a sort of outside hallway offering connections between rooms rather than pulling the house off balance. Taranto had local metalworker Charles Yeager fabricate the railing based on scrolling patterns she'd seen in Rowland's graphic-design work. Behind the house, they excavated an area for a patio to give them additional outdoor living space.
At first Alexander's daughters weren't happy about their move to this strange house on the South Side. But before long they enjoyed having their own downstairs living space, and as Alexander and Rowland put it, "privacy with access to adults," when they needed them. As a result, "this house was a big part of making this family," says Rowland. And Alexander appreciates the neighborhood: "The West End is very cloistered. Here there's a very blurred line between poor and rich, black and white. I like that energy — it feels very modern."
Original 1954 architect: Alan McCullough
Renovation architect: Lisa Taranto of architecto
General contractor: Larry Walters Construction
Metalworker: Charles Yeager