Trading Spaces

After renovating five different homes, restaurateur Julius C. Pierce has found his angle of repose.

Julius C. Pierce Jr. is a man on a journey. It’s a somewhat unusual journey that has taken him through more than a few leaking, flooded, ripped-up and crumbling houses in Richmond’s historic Fan District, but it’s a journey he says he has loved every minute of .… no, really.

“With ownership comes the responsibility to leave a house better than I found it,” says Pierce, 61. “Every house I have bought has needed renovations badly, and I owe it to the house to do more than cosmetic changes. It’s the structural changes that really matter, and I have always enjoyed the process.”

His home at 1917 Stuart Ave. is his fifth renovation project. “Every house I have owned has been a true representation of where I was in my life when I lived there,” he says. “This is me now.”  

“Now” is an exquisite ode to mid-century design, filling rooms bathed in earthy tones punctuated by the same bright yellow, red and orange accents that together serve as happy reminders of his youth in Central California.

Not coincidentally, those same colors also connect him to the family business, Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que, built by his father and mother in Lightfoot 45 years ago and famously painted those same hues. Now a barbecue icon, in 2013, National Geographic ranked Pierce’s eighth in its list of the 10 best barbecue joints in America. “My parents were 55 when they started the business,” says Pierce. “My mother even mixed cement when they were building it. The day it opened they started with $40 in the cash box and ended the day with $80. My dad said we had made 100 percent on our first day!”

Born in Alabama, Pierce moved with his parents to Chowchilla, California, when he was about7 years old. His mother had family living there, and Pierce loved his aunts and uncles and the Mediterranean climate of the California flatlands. But when he was about 12, his father decided it was time to move again. Pierce’s paternal grandmother, who lived in Newport News, was aging and his father wanted the family to spend time with her. “We packed up a trailer and headed east,” says Pierce, who remembers his mother crying when they had to dump furniture in the desert because of an overheating car. “It was back before there were interstates, andcrossing the desert, you had to carry water bags for your radiators to keep them from overheating. We were running out of water, and we had to lighten the load.” 

Julius C. Pierce in front of his home’s patio and salt water pool.

photo by Tony Giammarino, styling by Mona Dworkin

The family was headed for Toano, where they would live with Pierce’s aunt and uncle. “We stopped somewhere not far out and asked someone how far it was,” recalls Pierce. “I remember that they laughed at our accent and told us, ‘You ain’t gonna be nowhere when you get there.’” It was a tough transition from California to Toano. “I hated it. We definitely struggled the first few years,” says Pierce. The family’s hard work paid off, however, and Pierce now serves as president of one of the Commonwealth’s most beloved and successful barbecue restaurants. 

His first venture into home ownership was a house he built in Williamsburg’s Windsor Forest, not far from his family’s restaurant. It was, however, not quite far enough away. “Whenever I had a day off, I would inevitably drive by the restaurant and if they were busy, I would stop in and there went my day off,” he says. To protect the sanctity of his downtime, in 1985 Pierce moved to a triplex at 2300 Park Ave. in Richmond, which was the beginning of an odyssey of house renovation projects. He has also transformed homes at 1534 Park Ave. and 314 North Granby before finally settling into his current Stuart Avenue home. 

Appropriately painted “Smokehouse” brown (“pure coincidence,” says Pierce with a laugh), the front exterior does little to suggest what lies behind the custom-built mahogany door. Although updated with a new brick sidewalk and retaining wall, the home’s exterior remains true to its early 20th-century townhouse design. Pierce “is passionate about maintaining the integrity of the structure itself,” says Adam Elliott, Pierce’s friend and designer who worked with him on the renovation project, which began in 2009. “It’s such a delightful surprise. You don’t know what you’re in for until you open that front door.” 

One of famed designer Jonathan Adler’s signature “Sputnik” chandeliers suspended in the home’s foyer immediately announces the interior treats in store for visitors to Pierce’s home. To the right of the foyer, light from two large, traditional double-hung windows floods the living room space that flows uninterrupted into the home’s formal dining room. Creamy neutrals on the walls and in simple floor-length drapes serve as the perfect canvas for Pierce’s homage to mid-20th century design. Surrounded by a luscious brown velvet sofa and bright counterpoint armchairs is the room’s centerpiece, a Noguchi coffee table. The classic modernist piece that dates to 1948 joins a curved, wood base with a freeform glass top. 

A sunburst metal sculpture found at Richmond’s Metro Modern gallery presides over the darkly painted mantel. Original to the house, the mantel frames the fireplace surround tiles, a signature of homes in the Fan. “We had to remove at least 20 layers of paint to get to those tiles,” says Randy Petres, a Richmond-based general contractor who has worked with Pierce on three of his home renovation projects. 

Dominating the adjoining dining area is a second Jonathan Adler chandelier—a series of connected brass cylindrical tubes capped at both ends by bubble-shaped lights. The chandelier floats over a dark, glossy dining room table created by noted mid-century luxury furniture designer, Karl Springer. Eight chairs, the work of another well-known American furniture designer, Dakota Jackson, surround the table and are a favorite of Pierce, who has upholstered them with a textured fabric that incorporates the colors of the room in a gentle wave pattern.

A larger-than-life portrait of the late Chris Calloway is a commanding presence in the dining room. Pierce commissioned his friend California artist Clinton Gaughran to paint the portrait. Calloway was the daughter of musician Cab Calloway and a woman Pierce describes as a dear friend. “Art is very important to me,” says Pierce. “I hear people say, ‘I bought this painting because I needed to fill this space or that,’ but I believe it has to mean something. It’s only worth what it’s worth to you.”

Art was Pierce’s first connection to his current home. In the early 1990s, friends arranged for noted portraitist Toby Sheorn (then living in the Stuart Avenue house where Pierce lives today) to paint his portrait as a 40th birthday gift. That portrait now hangs on an exposed brick wall just outside of the first floor powder room. The powder room reveals its own surprise, a uniquely lit dropped ceiling. The creation of Elliott, the small space takes on an ethereal glow with soft recessed light coming from behind a ceiling that seems to have just lost its connection to the walls. 

Elliott’s handiwork with lighting is found throughout the house. Upstairs, in the master bathroom, he employed natural and recessed lighting to soften the gray tile that covers the floor and walls. A glass enclosed shower with a dark gray pebble floor offers what Pierce describes as “all the bells and whistles—steam shower, rain shower, heated floors, you name it.” Hanging appropriately over the bathtub are two paintings of vibrantly colored fish. “I found those at Brazier Gallery. They were the first pieces of art I bought, and I didn’t have the money to be buying them. But I did,” Pierce says with a grin. 

More personal art and family photographs cover the walls of the second floor. A series of portraits of his beloved late mother Verdie, painted in the style of Andy Warhol, occupy the long hallway leading from the front master suite to guest suites and a laundry room upstairs. “She was loud and fun,” Pierce says of his mother, “a true glamour-puss.”

The commingling of his treasured works of art and style informed every aspect of the design process. “Pierce has a really good sense of art. We wanted to find an even tone for his house, because you can easily overdo mid-century design,” says Elliott. “We selected definite anchor pieces like the chandeliers that together with his art complement each other.” 

More anchor pieces are found in the informal living area and kitchen at the back of the first floor, where a mid-century dinette set keeps company with a white leather Eames chair. Bathed in white, gray and steel, the kitchen required substantial attention during the renovation. Petres had to reinforce the underpinnings of the entire back section of the house to support the new kitchen and its large tiles of white travertine stone. “That floor was the greatest challenge of the project,” he says. “When you are laying very large tiles there is very little tolerance for uneven sub-flooring.”  

Elliott placed recessed lighting in every place imaginable, from floor to ceiling, to create a white glowing kitchen with a quartz-topped island and cabinetry that appears to magically hover over the floor. Pierce, who loves to experiment with cooking, equipped the kitchen with a gas stove and oven, steam oven, state-of-the-art Miele refrigerator and a microwave that appears from beneath the island with the push of a button. A seven-foot window equipped with a power shade is installed over the white farmhouse sink. 

Sliding glass panels are the only separation between the informal living area and the patio and salt water heated pool outside. Herman Miller chairs provide seating on the covered patio just outside the house. Pierce has found places for his art, including a Buddha statue and metal wind sculpture in the plant beds that line the pool deck. Just beyond the pool is a carriage house with climate-controlled garage on the first floor and 550-square-foot guest quarters on the second floor. Garden walls are camouflaged with hollies, Fatsia evergreens and an enormous banana tree. 

The salt water pool and patio area.

photo by Tony Giammarino, styling by Mona Dworkin

“This is the first place I come when I come home every night,” says Pierce. And while he’s happy traveling between home and his restaurant, he says his journey through home renovations has come to an end. “I love it here.”

This article originally appeared in our Oct. 16 issue.

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