Modern Sanctuary

A Richmond home nestled in a secluded wood designed by architect duo Danny and Katie MacNelly is dramatic and sculptural, yet timeless in its embrace of the surrounding landscape.

It’s a bit of a haul from ArchitectureFirm’s headquarters in Richmond’s historic Jackson Ward to one of its latest creations, a modern triumph of glass, steel, parged brick and thermally modified poplar, which it has dubbed West End House.

The drive follows the city’s westward expansion along the James River, past the University of Richmond area, developed in the early 1900s, to Mooreland Farms, a tony neighborhood in Henrico County, which sprouted spacious neo-colonials after WWII.

Tucked in behind Mooreland Farms is one of those quirky patches of land that sometimes get left behind by the surveyors. It abuts freight train tracks, lies partly in the river’s 20-year flood plain, and even contains a section of an old grass airstrip. However, when Gordon and Jami Lewis, who were raising a family of three nearby, discovered the heavily wooded 4.6-acre lot in 2015, they found just what they were looking for.

“One of my lifelong dreams was to build a modern house with big open spaces, high ceilings, horizontal lines and good views,” says Gordon, a 47-year-old plastic surgeon and native Richmonder. “A modern take on Frank Lloyd Wright.”

“I love that we are in a neighborhood with easy access to schools,” says Jami, a nurse anesthetist, “and still have our own little sanctuary in the woods.”

Enter architect Danny MacNelly, 43, who at the time was transitioning from Richmond’s progressive 3North firm—where he worked on such high-profile projects as Quirk Hotel, the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center and a rehab of The Omni Homestead—to ArchitectureFirm, with offices in Brooklyn and Richmond founded by his wife, Katie, in 2009. Their style—timeless design that blends new technology with elemental form and incorporates the nature of its place—was a perfect fit for the Lewises.

“We didn’t want to build a massive estate that overwhelmed the site,” MacNelly says of the 5,000-square-foot house. “So we spread the footprint to break the scale down. It felt like a bit of sculpture, we were playing with different volumes. Four cubes in the landscape.”

The result is a spacious and spare asymmetrical gem that nestles and orients to the wilds around it. That’s not to say it melds with the landscape. It has a sharp-edged profile and “appears as a spaceship,” MacNelly jokes. “But the materials ground it.”

Approaching the house, you drive down a long driveway of minimal natural landscaping (beneath which lie the wells for the house’s geothermal heating and cooling). The site of the house falls five feet from front to back, but MacNelly wanted it to feel rooted, meaning no decks. He terraced the front side so you step down before entering the house. The best view, on the south side of the house, is at ground level.

“I was trying to create privacy for them and to open it up to look out on the landscape,” says MacNelly. “Most of the house is solid on the north side and open on the south.” It looks across meadows and the old runway toward the train tracks, where the passing freight trains can be glimpsed through the trees.

Though anchored in the landscape, the house is also light and airy. Two shotgun entry halls provide a glimpse of the private wilds to the south while inviting guests into the interior through custom-made doors of poplar planks, matching the houses’s siding. During the day, natural light spills through molded round skylights onto the hallway floors of mixed reclaimed hardwood.

Structurally, the front hallway separates a wing with the master bedroom suite and an office from the central living space while the service hallway cleaves the kitchen from the garage and mudroom.

The south wall of the master suite is all sliding glass with screens so that the space can be thrown open to the meadow and woods. A tiled bathroom with a free-standing bathtub centered on the opening beckons from the bedroom and has a view of nature in that direction. Another round skylight fills the bathroom with soft light and the occasional view of stars from the tub. In between the two, is a large his-and-hers walk-through closet with laundry machines tucked into a niche.

“I was surprised to like the master closet so much,” says Gordon, laughing. “It keeps us organized. I love it, particularly the way it keeps my wife’s shoes put away.”

On the other side of the hallway, beyond a large fireplace, lie the open living room and the dining and kitchen area. The living room, everyone’s favorite space in the house, has a 15-foot ceiling. Exposed steel columns and beams add structure, and a chandelier resembling a molecule model floats overhead. It would steal the show if it weren’t for the fireplace hearth—a massive foot-and-a-half-tall slab of soapstone, 10-feet long and 4 feet wide, from Schuyler, in Nelson County. It is not just the centerpiece of the room but of the house.

“The hearth is a cool thing,” says MacNelly. “It had to be placed before we built the building. We literally built the house around the hearthstone.”

Three steps up from the living room you’re in the dining and kitchen area, which has 10-foot ceilings and looks out onto a screened porch, with exposed beams and ceiling-mounted heaters, on the south side. The porch serves as a transitional space to the outside and can be incorporated with the interior by opening sliding glass walls.

“I really love being able to slide those two window walls and make the porch part of the living area,” says Jami. “We had a party last summer that was indoor-outdoor. The moveable walls bring the outside in.”

The main staircase, made of three-inch-thick reclaimed white oak steps supported by a floating structure of black steel, rises in this area. An island with a white quartz countertop separates the sleek kitchen with white-stained oak cabinets from the dining area. The sink and stovetop are incorporated into the north wall counter with no upper cabinets, allowing for a counter-to-ceiling view of the hillside behind the house. “We see wildlife while we’re cooking breakfast,” says Gordon. “Three out of four days you’ll see deer in the morning. I have seen a fox and lots of red-tail hawks.”

The side-by-side refrigerator-freezer hide behind panels. Keeping with the minimal look, the coffeemaker and other small appliances are stashed in a convenient pantry.

Upstairs are three bedrooms and two bathrooms for the children—twin girls and a younger brother—as well as a playroom set up for movie watching. When the Showtime series Homeland was in town filming its seventh season, this was the room location scouts picked to shoot in (though the Lewises ultimately declined the opportunity). The scouts liked the vivid connection with the woods through a west-facing window.

That’s just the way West End House rolls, offering eye-catching living spaces while framing nature spectacularly in every direction from the inside out.

This article originally appeared in our House + Garden 2018 issue.

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