A Twist on Tradition

A new Shingle Style home in Virginia Beach isn’t quite what it seems. The exterior, with its rustic, unpainted shingles, is a touch of waterfront classic—but the interior is open and bright and surprisingly contemporary.

The site was so beautiful that the young couple overlooked the shortcomings of the nondescript ranch house that occupied it. Their purchase marked a homecoming for the wife, who’d grown up in Virginia Beach and wanted to be close to family after several years of living in South Africa and Europe. The large lot was a prize—a point bounded by the Lynnhaven River, a broad tidal creek near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

The couple and their three children made do in the little house until they could find an architect and build the home they wanted. They talked to local architects and even paid for a set of plans that ultimately didn’t match what they had in mind. Then, in 2006, they hired Thomas Hickey, founding partner of Grade Architecture + Design in New York City, to create their dream house. It took almost two years to build and was completed in 2009.

The couple had decided a traditional-style home would fit best in their neighborhood, but they wanted a sleek, contemporary interior and an open floor plan. “I knew the spaces we needed and how I wanted them to work,” the wife explains. “In addition to pictures from magazines—mostly of things I wanted to avoid—I prepared a six-page document listing what we envisioned. We wanted a five-bedroom home to raise a young, active family and a place to entertain family and friends. When we entertain, it’s usually small dinner parties for two to four couples with their children. A house that was formal or pretentious just wouldn’t work for us.”

Reversing the normal sequence, the couple hired a landscape architect before they had an architect for the house. A friend introduced them to Ann Stokes, who heads her own landscape architecture firm in Norfolk. Stokes, in turn, suggested they talk to Hickey. Stokes was involved in the design process from the beginning and played a key role because the outdoor spaces were so important to the clients.

Stokes and Hickey have a lot of shared history, even though they only began working together about 10 years ago. Both are Virginians: Hickey grew up near Richmond, Stokes in Norfolk. Both worked for Robert A.M. Stern’s prestigious New York firm, although not at the same time. While in Stern’s office, Hickey advanced to project manager and Stokes headed the landscape architecture division. They met when Stokes brought in a new house project in Suffolk for Stern’s office to design. Subsequently, she and Hickey have collaborated on a number of projects in the Hampton Roads region.

Stokes left Stern’s office in 1998 to return to her hometown of Norfolk and found Ann P. Stokes Landscape Architects. Stokes has designed landscapes at a number of college campuses, including Miller Hall at William & Mary’s School of Business, the UNC Student and Academic Services Building and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. The firm recently completed a project at the Curry School of Education at UVA.

Hickey went on his own in 2004 when he started Grade Architecture + Interior Design. While overseeing a busy practice, he still makes time to teach at Columbia University and at Parsons School of Design. Grade’s projects include luxury retail such as Tiffany & Co. stores in Asia along with restaurant design, but their main focus is creating custom residences. Grade has 10 employees, equally divided between architecture and interior design. While many of their projects are in and around New York City, the firm also has work across the United States and a growing number of international jobs including condo projects in Brazil and India.

Both Stokes and Hickey say that they absorbed much of Robert A.M. Stern’s design philosophy while working for him. Stern, a practicing architect who also heads Yale University’s Architecture School, emphasizes that a designer should be sensitive to the client’s needs and desires rather than being intent on making his or her own architectural statement. Buildings should be “well mannered,” says Hickey— meaning they should fit with their location and within the overall context of an area instead of trying too hard to be exceptional. Stern teaches that designs referencing traditional styles can still be thoroughly contemporary in the way they function, a concept that resonated with the Virginia Beach clients.

According to Hickey, the Virginia Beach couple was drawn to the Shingle Style, a 19th-century coastal style that Stern helped bring back into vogue: “Bob’s houses reinvigorated the Shingle Style,” says Hickey. “He made it attractive for those who appreciate traditional architecture but not the formality of classical design. Many of his designs championed the relaxed organization that the Shingle Style allowed, and he created playful compositions that were perfect for our client and their lifestyle.”

Stern’s reinterpretations of Shingle Style have been widely featured in high-end shelter magazines. Shingled houses are also part of the Tidewater Virginia architectural vernacular—the rustic look of unpainted shingles fits comfortably into the landscape. Shingle Style houses often have a rambling informality, the result of adding wings as the family grew. The style is reminiscent of traditional beach cottages, but it can also be very contemporary. Hickey adds: “This design reflects the way classical and vernacular elements can be combined to create a home that fits into the context but with a touch of sophistication.”

Both the architecture and the landscape plan show an appealing deference to the natural environment. Stokes sited the house even farther back from the riverbank than the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act requires in order to create the large lawn the owners wanted. French drains and raised planting beds along the waterfront capture and filter runoff before it reaches the river. Masses of grasses, daylilies, Knock Out roses, Indian hawthorn, plus native trees and shrubs add interest and color to the beds.

“The curving driveway leading to the house keeps it from revealing itself all at once. I like the way it doesn’t read like a big house,” Stokes explains. Hickey adds, “The house hugs the ground. It’s wide rather than deep to take full advantage of the water views.” The width of the house also serves to define the broad backyard lawn area.

A broad shallow arch supported by two pairs of columns marks the front entrance. The basket-weave pattern on the large walnut door establishes a design motif that, like the arch, is repeated throughout the house and landscape. The leading edge of the parking pad and the waterfront terrace echo the curve of the entry arch. The basket-weave pattern recurs in the dark brown bands of colored concrete that set off lighter-colored rectangular sections of scored concrete on both the parking pad and the full length of the driveway. The repetition, though subtle, establishes a pleasing rhythm and ties the varied elements into a coherent whole.

The staircase in the front hall leads up to a graceful wrap-around gallery and the four bedrooms on the second floor. The plan of the first floor is “cross axial,” says Hickey, with the hall forming one axis that terminates in the walnut-paneled study. The study is the bottom level of an octagonal tower that contains the master bedroom on the second floor. Walking into the study is like entering a superbly crafted piece of furniture. The cove ceiling is done in the shiplap siding of a Hinckley sailboat, a decorative tour de force that builder Joe Covington of Covington Contracting in Virginia Beach describes as a construction challenge that called for several conversations with Hickey and his team. “Having the architect in New York wasn’t a problem. Tom and his staff are so responsive and the plans so detailed, it’s almost like having a navigation system,” Covington says with a chuckle.

Hickey is a master at hiding things that don’t need to be in view, according to Covington. “There are two hidden closets in the dining room and hidden wine storage in the vestibule. Even the air conditioning grills are disguised. This house has a full basement—a rarity in Tidewater—that houses a workout room and playroom for the kids.”

The living area is perpendicular to the main hall and the open passageway through it forms the second axis. The detailing is strong but understated and painted in a soft gray palette, highlighting a clean contemporary look that doesn’t distract from the overall aesthetic. The custom furnishings have a bold, strong presence that is soothing to the owner, who laughingly admits, “Gingham-y, ruffle-y drives me crazy.”

The floor plan helps control clutter. The family entry is through a back hallway adjacent to the garage. Each member has a locker in the mudroom to stash the stuff they carry home. Another door from the garage leads to a butler’s pantry and offers a more direct way to bring groceries into the house. The pantry opens to the kitchen that serves as command central for the home with a 180-degree view of the back yard and the pool and plenty of space for the children to spread out their homework. A large screened porch off the kitchen is the outdoor dining room in spring and fall. Says Hickey: “Both the architecture and interior design support our goal of creating a well organized design where rich materials and textures replace unnecessary ornament.”

Indoor and outdoor living areas are integrated both visually and physically. The first floor is almost at grade level for an easy physical transition between indoors and out. The bluestone terraces repeat the flooring of the vestibule, mudroom and screened porch. The 25-yard-long pool is the warm-weather gathering place for a family that swims for exercise. The outdoor kitchen makes summer entertaining easy. The expansive lawn can accommodate pitching practice or soccer. “I love the way Ann tied all the design elements from the house into the landscape,” says Covington.

The owners are happy with their new home, and still make that point to the team who designed and built the place. During a recent winter storm, Hickey received a text message from the husband telling him that the family was gathered around the fireplace, reveling in the intimacy and warmth of his design. “Hearing that we had nailed it,” says Hickey, “that’s the nicest compliment you can get.”

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