Safe Harbor

A lighthouse home in Urbanna is both fun and beautiful, with 360-degree views, an impressive collection of furniture and art—and a working 650-pound light once stationed at the entrance to Perth Harbor in Australia.

Photography by Gwenaël Berthy 

On a grass-carpeted bluff just across the water from Urbanna, a Middle Peninsula town famous for its oysters and maritime traditions, David and Christy Cottrell have created the one nautical structure that had been missing from the cozy harbor scene: a lighthouse home. There aren’t many lighthouse homes around, to be sure, and in this case the motivation to build it came from an unlikely source—a jewelry store.

Over the years, the Cottrells had spent many weekends in their waterfront condominium in Urbanna, but what the Richmond couple really wanted was a lighthouse vacation home. Finding the right design was the problem— until nearly nine years ago, when they wandered into the Rappahannock Jewelry Company on Virginia Street, Urbanna’s main thoroughfare, and got an unusual jolt of inspiration. “They had a big collection of lighthouse miniatures,” recalls Christy Cottrell, “and we saw one that was of an actual lighthouse on Sister Island, in the St. Lawrence Seaway. When we saw it, we knew instantly that this was the one.”

And they knew just where to put it. The Cottrells had one year earlier bought three adjoining waterfront lots in a newly carved subdivision named Urbanna Harbour. “It is an amazing spot with great views of Urbanna and the harbor, and in the winter we’ve got wonderful [Rappahannock] river views,” says David Cottrell. So the couple had a spectacular setting, and they had a model of the house they wanted to build. Next they needed an architect—and found one with help from their daughter, Leah.

Skip Wallace, president of Chester-based Island Architects, has designed hundreds of homes on Kiawah Island in Georgia, Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and North Carolina’s exclusive Figure Eight Island, but the Cottrells were unaware of him until he gave a career-day presentation to Leah Cottrell’s class at St. Bridget’s School in Richmond. As part of his presentation that day, Wallace handed out pictures of a house he had created on Kiawah Island for Olympic gold medalist and ice skating star Tara Lipinski. Leah brought the picture home, and the Cottrells liked it. “When we decided to build the lighthouse, we thought he would be the perfect architect, because almost everything he does is on the water,” says Christy.

The Cottrells gave Wallace the lighthouse from the jewelry store—it would be a template for the exterior design. A bigger challenge for the architect was the interior. “Proportion is everything,” Wallace says. “The exterior façade and the interior spaces and floor plan have to work together. Usually it becomes a balancing act, with a lot of going back and forth, in and out, to make sure everything is balanced and works. In this case, because it is a lighthouse, it was important to just start at the top and work down, to make sure the proportions stayed true.”

Both Wallace and the Cottrells agreed that the lighthouse should not look new. The Cottrells also wanted to use as many local materials as possible. Urbanna-based Arthur Wilton, of Northwind Builders, was selected to build the 5,200-square-foot lighthouse, and he used bricks salvaged from an old Richmond warehouse for the exterior. For the interior, the Cottrells wanted a relaxed blend of nautical features appropriate for a lighthouse, along with some furniture and art that would reflect their taste. They called two trusted partners who had helped them in the past—interior designer Todd Yoggy and sculptor and woodworking artist Philippe Faraut. Yoggy made suggestions about art pieces and furnishings, while Faraut contributed custom-made cabinets, bars and mantels. “The lighthouse was the most fun and one of the most beautiful homes I have worked on,” says Yoggy. “David and Christy are great caretakers of their homes and spare no expense to do things the right way.”

As one might expect, the house has an open floor plan and impressive views. On the main level, limestone floors serve as a natural complement for the Cottrells’ collection of art and furniture. An antique Dutch bowfront cabinet on chest from a Hanover County plantation dominates the foyer. The entrance spills into a great room that melds the kitchen, dining room and living room into one inviting space. A stone fireplace and mantel created by Faraut grabs the eye. Inspired by bories, ancient conical dry-stone dwellings for shepherds in his native France, Faraut built a travertine mantel surrounded by fieldstone. “Because the wall is so big, the design had to be really strong and is a surprise,” says Faraut, referring to the visual impact the fireplace gives the room.

Faraut’s work in the kitchen is equally arresting. There, he was given complete license to design and install … with one exception. “My only request was that he include an old farmhouse sink,” says Christy Cottrell. “I did not ask for any special materials. I did not have any idea what it would look like. I just let him work.” The result is a warm cherry kitchen with handmade cabinetry and, at its center, an island topped by a unique blue-green granite.

The house has three floors, with bedrooms on the second floor and an office suite on the third. Anchoring the second floor is a room with rough-hewn oak paneling reclaimed from an old Virginia barn, glass bookcases and a 19th-century Wooton desk. The substantial desk is tucked under a Victorian-detailed white staircase, which hugs the wall up to the office.

A heart pine spiral staircase leads from the third floor up to the 10-foot-diameter light room, which has a working 650-pound light with Fresnel lens, the former port light at the entrance to Australia’s Perth Harbor. (David Cottrell called the Coast Guard to see about making the lighthouse an official aid to navigation, but decided not to pursue the idea when told that doing so would mean granting the Coast Guard access to their light house at any time, 365 days a year.) The room has an exterior balcony offering 360-degree views of Urbanna, the harbor and surrounding farms and neighborhoods.

Also visible from the top of the Cottrells’ lighthouse is an octagonal pool on the property, flanked by a guesthouse with a fieldstone façade. There is also a stone sculpture of a fisherman’s daughter that was commissioned by the Cottrells. Overlooking the pool and the bluff, the eight-foot-tall limestone piece depicts a girl with a haunting gaze. “Friends say that [she] looks a lot like our daughter,” says Christy.

The family enjoys entertaining on a screened-in porch, which wraps the western corner of the house. A massive walnut bar with an inlaid family crest at the center, made by Faraut, dominates one end of the slate-floored porch. The room’s teak and wicker seating sports blue and white Ralph Lauren cushions. “We love to come here and sit where there is always a breeze, and we can watch the boating action below,” says Christy. The family occasionally takes part on board their restored Chesapeake deadrise workboat, Jeanne S, built by local boat builder Alvin Sibley. The Cottrells bought the boat from a working waterman in 2002 and have decorated it in sea blues and whites to serve as a comfortable family cruiser for on-the-water picnics with friends.

And one of the best parts of living in a lighthouse: There’s little chance they won’t be able to navigate their way home in a storm.

Pair of celadon lamps in living room from Summer Classics, Richmond. Chocolate applique Ankasa pillows courtesy of Williams & Sherrill, Richmond. Blenko glass vase on end table courtesy of Goodstuff, Bon Air. Antique French water jug on dining table courtesy of Summer Classics, Richmond. Antique cutlery tray courtesy of Goodstuff, Bon Air. Blue glass vase courtesy of West Elm, Short Pump. Vintage dough bowl on kitchen counter courtesy of Goodstuff, Bon Air. Sweetgrass miniature basket collection on bathroom window ledge courtesy of Goodstuff, Bon Air. Blue and cream aesthetic transferware jug courtesy of Robin’s Nest Antiques, Richmond.

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