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Graham and Jennifer Gardner had trouble deciding where they wanted their family to land in Richmond. With three kids in tow, the couple had already made up their minds to relocate from New York City, but when it came to choosing a house, a historic Fan brownstone and multiple acres of rustic county land were equally exciting prospects.
The perfect solution to the Gardners' search, however, would not be a stately mansion on Monument Avenue nor a charming farmhouse in Powhatan. Their dream house, they'd discover, would be an igloo.
That's no misprint, as Richmonders who cross the Willey Bridge on a regular basis can attest to the curiosity invited by the white dome on the south bank of the James for decades. However, "curious" wouldn't be the word to describe the Gardners' reaction when their Realtor pulled up in front of the house of sculptor Demetrios Mavroudis and his wife, Connie. The two were stunned.
The igloo itself, a dome structure with massive studded wooden doors, was chock full of Mavroudis' art, as were two storehouses on the property. A modest ranch house in the middle was sorely in need of a major restoration and wasn't set up to house a family of five. But the location was perfect — right on the river with a bucolic view of the changing seasons that New York could never provide. And Graham and Jennifer both knew they could expand and remodel the existing space to make it an exciting yet comfortable place in which their kids could grow up.
It's just that going from sinking foundations to the house of their imagination would be a bit of an adventure. But in that respect as well, the igloo had found the right family.
Graham is an orthodontist and wife Jennifer is a Seal Team instructor. They combine their mutual love of action with an addiction to the outdoors. Their enthusiasm for outdoor sports is shared by the whole family. Ava, 10, climbs rocks; Finn, 9, plays baseball and rides mountain bikes. Jennifer runs, and Graham's list of hobbies includes kite-surfing, white-water kayaking and even unicycling.
"We wanted to feel like we were outside most of the time," Jennifer says. So after they had reconfigured the existing floor plan into enough bedrooms, bathrooms and playrooms to accommodate everyone, they hired architect Michael Shearman to help them expand the house to become a contemporary, family-friendly space that would fit seamlessly and harmoniously into its lush natural surroundings.
Shearman wasted no time getting to work on what is one of the region's most unusual residential projects. "He wasn't even fazed by the word igloo," Jennifer says. "He totally understood what we wanted, and hiring him allowed us to do what we moved here to do in the first place: spend time with our children." Learning to hand over the process would be liberating for the two parents, who could now spend their downtime building puppet theaters and teaching their kids how to kayak.
Slowly, the house began to resemble what the Gardners had originally envisioned, complete with special touches. "We had to have a Brady Bunch staircase," Jennifer says of the floating, butcher-block steps that lead to her loft office, which she calls command central. Here, she can keep an eye on the sloping backyard as her kids play, making sure no one ventures too near the river. And a swivel in the other direction affords a view of the front yard, where Finn and his younger brother, Oliver, 8, can kick the soccer ball around without getting too close to the street.
The foyer, living room, and kitchen make up the airy main part of the house, with a glass wall separating the interior from the patio, backyard and river beyond. Graham and Jennifer prepare meals in an open kitchen before they all sit down to eat in the igloo, which now functions as a dining room, lounge and soon-to-be entertainment venue. "We're building a stage," Graham says as he gestures to a raised platform that had once been a bathroom. The Gardners' list of musical instruments that they play — from Ava's saxophone to Oliver's harmonica to Jennifer's mandolin — is as long as their catalogue of outdoor sports, so it's only natural that the house encourages artistic achievements as well as athletic ones.
Graham's proudest moment on the house tour (except for, perhaps, the stop in Finn's room where he reveals the ladder he built himself leading from the window to the treehouse) is when he ushers you into the garage, which is actually more of a fantasyland for children. A rock-climbing wall extends to the ceiling, a springy floor allows for plenty of tumbles, and the castle-shaped puppet theater stands at the ready. "I'm the only mother I know who has to look in every direction, including up above me, to find my kids," Jennifer jokes.
Beyond beauty, function and the adventure of its renovation, the Gardners' igloo house has become a living scrapbook of childhood. And that's the ultimate finish line for Jennifer and Graham, who can think of no greater goal. "This is it for us. We don't plan on moving," Graham says. "This is our forever home."