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Margaret Freund was fated to find her home in the 1916 Robert S. Fulton School building. The local real-estate developer first encountered the property as a musician in the early '90s when her band, Theories of the Old School, leased a music studio in the basement. Having hosted its last academic class in 1979, the old schoolhouse, which sits high upon a hill in the East End, had been converted into an artist's haven, housing a creative mix of sculptors, painters, actors, singers and dancers.
In between jam sessions at the studio and stints playing music on the road, Freund and her fellow bandmates made a living by painting houses in nearby Church Hill, an occupation that instilled in her a long-lasting appreciation for older structures.
"I love the elegance of historic buildings," says Freund, whose company, Fulton Hill Properties, owns a number of them, including downtown's Haxall View and Shockoe's Lady Bird Hat building. "I love taking old structures and stripping them all the way back to the bone," she says.
Freund did just that after buying the 45,000-square-foot school building and its surrounding five acres in 1997. The renovation, which took two years, transformed 32 original classrooms into an artful mix of more than 50 artist's studios and office spaces, now called Fulton Hill Studios. Freund saved "the worst two rooms in the whole building" for herself.
Her space, slightly more than 2,000 square feet, composed of three former classrooms with soaring 13-foot ceilings, boasts a living area, an open studio, a guest room and an office, all featuring the classic schoolhouse accents that enhance every one of the building's studios. Slate chalkboards that once adorned the plaster walls have been re-cut and repurposed as kitchen countertops and closet-door panels, and gleaming poplar cabinetry from the principal's office now serves as the basis for functional kitchen cabinets. Even the red "exit" light from the auditorium has been repurposed to add character to the passageway between Freund's open studio and guest room.
Freund collaborated with different subcontractors over the years on the project. "We got really good at recycling parts and pieces," she says. "We thought those things were cool and beautiful and had a lot of history. And also we had them. It was a very cost-effective way to get things to look really good."
Original features remain intact as well, including restored heart-pine floors, long banks of 8-foot-tall mullioned windows and traditional schoolhouse light fixtures. Freund designed her living space in one 740-square-foot classroom, carving out a small bedroom nook on one wall ("like Thomas Jefferson," she points out), creating a tiny angular kitchen on the other and incorporating additional space from the outside hallway to create an elevated bath/dressing area.
"I really love small spaces," says Freund. "I really wanted all the functionality to go into one studio, and then I have my playroom."
That space next door takes up almost as much room as the living area. It features a corner devoted to yoga, which Freund began practicing during stints living in Nepal and Boulder, Colo., as well as a music area with a piano, a bass guitar and other instruments.
"There's always something within eyesight in my home that invites me to do something that will make me feel better, whether it's listening to music or yoga or playing music or practicing calligraphy on the chalkboard," she says. "I think it's important for my living space to invite play. If you can't be playful, your flames go out."
Sunlight streams through a bank of windows overlooking the front schoolyard (now home to a small community garden), and a long row of slate-paneled closets hides any belongings that would otherwise spill into the room, leaving the studio clean, uncluttered and serene. Serenity is a theme that echoes throughout all the rooms, whether in the Buddhist prayer flags that hang above Freund's living-room doorway or the soothing sea and earth tones that make up the overall color palette, or the meditation corner that abuts her bed nook. Her home and office are decorated with furnishings and accessories gathered from trips to Nepal, Tibet, Thailand and Indonesia, as well as art from many of Fulton Hill Studio's tenants.
Plus, there's the view. "From my window, you can see the entire city in the winter, and in the summer, you feel like you're in the country," says Freund, as she gazes out the studio's window bank at the cityscape in the distance. "It's completely secluded. It's a spectacular little secret."
See Resource Guide, Page 64.
Written by Katherine Houstoun, Jay Paul photos