Grand, with Sand

The Cooke-Royster “cottage,” on the North End of Virginia Beach, has been a landmark for strollers and sailors for almost 100 years. A meticulous renovation has readied this expansive Arts and Crafts-style house for another century.

The little resort town of Virginia Beach was just 10 years old in 1916 when fertilizer magnate F.S. Royster hired a Norfolk architect to design a summer home roomy enough for his whole family to vacation together. The architect, Finley Ferguson, would later tackle more prominent commissions—the Virginia Museum in Richmond, Phi Beta Kappa Hall in Williamsburg and a number of memorable churches, among them—but his monumental shingled home on the North End, known locally as the Cooke-Royster cottage, has been a landmark to strollers and sailors for 93 years. Now, thanks to a meticulous renovation by owners Macon and Joan Brock, this grande dame has a fresh sparkle and she’s ready for another century.

The “cottage,” as the Royster family called its capacious summer home, was completed in 1917 at a cost of $14,000. Its location was on empty beachfront, a mile south of Cape Henry and a couple of miles north of the resort. For the first few years, the Royster family traveled to their beach house by train because there were no paved roads from Norfolk.

The three-story, shingled house was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which emphasized natural beauty and simplicity of form. Deep double porches wrapped around three sides. The overhanging roof provided shelter from the sun and kept the first- and second-floor rooms cool on the hottest days.

The house was constructed on concrete pilings so storm tides could wash underneath. The beach level had separate showers for men and women and a room housing the Delco battery system that powered the electric lights. The lobby-sized living room and the spacious dining room were on the first floor, along with a bedroom for a bachelor son, a children’s dining room, the kitchen and butler’s pantry.

The second floor had six bedrooms with washbasins and two full baths. Above the kitchen wing were bedrooms for the cook and maid. The attic had two large dormitory rooms and plenty of open space, which the family used for impromptu plays and gymnastics exhibitions.

The whole family—the Roysters’ two sons and two daughters, spouses and children—moved to the cottage every summer. While life at the beach was more casual than in town, the meal schedule remained firm. Breakfast was at 8, lunch at 1 and dinner at 7. Everyone showered and changed from beach wear for lunch, and the men donned ties for dinner. Children ate in their own dining room off the kitchen until age and deportment earned them a seat with the adults.

“My parents spent every summer at the cottage,” says Mimi Cooke Stein, a member of the fourth generation to enjoy the cottage. “My cousins and I played in the dunes while the adults had cocktails on the porch, which they always referred to as their ‘committee meeting.’ They had lots of parties, and we children always enjoyed spying on the adults.” She remembers getting invited into the grown-ups’ dining room at age 14.

While the Roysters’ Norfolk home was formal and elegant, the furnishings at the cottage were serviceable and simple. Redecorating was as easy as putting a fresh coat of white paint on the bureaus and bedsteads. Long after F. S. and Mary Royster’s time, the family saw no need to change the décor or alter the house in any substantive way.

Over the decades, the beach house withstood countless storms and the depredations of many grandchildren, but perhaps its biggest threat was the fall run-up in real estate values a few years ago. Logic dictated that it was time to sell. Stein feared a buyer would tear down the house in order to build mega-duplexes on the three oceanfront lots it occupies.

To Stein’s great relief, her friends Macon and Joan Brock expressed an interest in buying and refurbishing the cottage. Macon Brock is a co-founder of Dollar Tree, a discount retail chain, and currently serves as chairman of its board. The Brocks wanted the house for the same reason Stein’s great-grandparents had—as a place to be together with their children and grandchildren—and they bought it in 2003. “Macon and I were really excited when we learned the Cooke-Royster cottage was for sale,” says Joan Brock. “The opportunity to restore and preserve a Beach landmark really appealed to us.”

Scott Folck, a principal with Folck West architects in Virginia Beach, planned the renovation, his third residential project with the Brocks. While the house was basically sound, Folck says it needed considerable work. For example, fireplaces were the home’s only heat source, and the wiring and plumbing systems were original.

Builder Daniel Bowdoin started the painstaking deconstruction. After removing the heart pine floors and other salvageable components, his construction crew took the house back to its studs and beefed up the structural components. The Brocks photographed every architectural detail and saved pieces of molding so that Folck and Bowdoin could reconstruct the house as it was originally designed.

Despite the scope of the three-year renovation, which was centered on modernizing the insulation, heating and air-conditioning, the plan was always to stick as close as possible to Finley Ferguson’s original design. Folck and Bowdoin found companies to replicate the windows, shingles and trim work. The ultimate goal: a low-maintenance house that would last another century.

The emphasis on preseravation even extended to a 60-year-old fig tree planted by Stein’s father, Richard Cooke. A fence was built to protect the tree during construction—and then, later, Suffolk landscape architect Bill Pinkham incorporated the fence into a lovely garden that now flows around the house and creates a handsome, yet low-maintenance, transition from lawn to dunes.

F. S. and Mary Royster would have no trouble recognizing their cottage. The exterior is largely unchanged. The first floor looks as it always has with the exception of the kitchen. Walls separating the butler’s pantry, children’s dining room and old kitchen were removed and the wing was expanded, the only alteration of the house’s footprint. The expansive new kitchen has so many period references it could be original. Glass-fronted white cabinets with early-20th-century-style hardware maintain the straight-lined simplicity of the Royster kitchen but are adapted for modern owners who cook their own meals. The second floor was reconfigured for larger bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. The attic where Stein and her cousins roller-skated on rainy days is still a play area but now includes a yoga studio as well. Wine storage and an entertainment center have replaced the basement showers and changing rooms.

An important member of the Brocks’ team was interior designer Georgette Sturam, who worked for architect Robert A.M. Stern before setting up her own design studio in Princeton, New Jersey. She applauded the Brocks’ desire to remain true to the spirit and period of the Arts and Crafts/Craftsman-style cottage. Arts and Crafts aesthetics are simple, yet refined, with a color palette reflecting the natural environment. Sturam says, “We went with neutrals—pale celadon and a whole spectrum of whites and creams—that play up the strength of the architecture and keep the interior light and bright.”

Apropos of the cottage’s simple style, both the Brocks and Sturam lean toward looks that are classic and timeless. All are averse to clutter. “I really don’t do stuff,” Sturam says. “I like interiors pared down and clean.” Such restraint makes the ideal backdrop for Joan’s extensive collection of antique textiles, which Sturam describes as an especially “fun part of the project.” Fragments of antique bed hangings and other textiles are incorporated into window treatments and appliquéd on upholstered furniture and decorative pillows. They give the home a subtle visual richness.

Joan Brock says that her mother and grandmother were both accomplished seamstresses and stimulated her lifelong attraction to textiles. That interest was sharpened fifteen years ago at a Virginia Beach antiques show. There, she met Pandora de Balthazar, a Pensacola, Florida, dealer who specializes in European textiles. Said to be a master at finding sophisticated new uses to extend the decorative life of fine old fabrics, de Balthazar collaborated with Brock and Sturam on details of the interior.

“Pandora’s textiles are just incredible,” says Sturam. “They are so appropriate to the period and to the house. We really had to edit ourselves because it would have been easy to go too far.” De Balthazar found antique damask curtains to make into a tablecloth for the 14-foot long dining room table designed by Sturam. And her workroom fabricated all the draperies on the main floor.

Perhaps the biggest design challenge was the sheer volume of the living room and dining room. To address that, team Brock selected furniture that was large in scale but simple in style. One piece, original to the house, is an enormous library table that holds the same position it always has, as visual divider between the living and dining rooms. Sturam found a large chandelier to hang above it, further emphasizing the table as a strong axis.

Like everyone else involved in the rejuvenation of the Cooke-Royster cottage, Pandora de Balthazar takes outsized pride in the results. “It’s a sophisticated Craftsman-style house built to appreciate its surroundings and be lived in,” she says. “It embraces you with its grace and beauty and charm. It’s a cottage, but a grand one.”

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