Worth the Wait

An oceanfront home designed for year-round living.  

(Photo by Eric Piasecki)

Renee and John Strelitz’s oceanfront home in Virginia Beach was well over three years in the making—longer if you count an earlier false start. But some things are worth the wait. To get it just right, the couple took their time collaborating with an all-star team, long before current supply chain issues made “taking your time” a fact of life for home renovators. 

The Strelitzes, who lived a few miles away in Birdneck Point at the time, wanted to make their permanent home on the beach. This was no second-string vacation home, so every detail mattered. They bought a double beachfront lot in 2014 and began working with a local architect, but their visions just didn’t align.

Finding the Right Architect

Strelitz says he and Renee wanted to build a shingle style home that reflected the architectural style favored in the late 19th-century oceanfront homes of New England enclaves like Cape Cod and Nantucket. Robert A.M. Stern Architects in New York is known for its elegant iterations of this style and, as it happens, Renee’s father is acquainted with Stern himself. When he learned John and Renee were wrestling with house plans, he introduced the couple to Stern to see if the great architect might help.  

Impressed with the work of Stern and his firm, the couple quickly let go of their hesitation to engage in a long-distance architectural relationship. “They were totally dialed in,” says Strelitz. “They had actually done a couple of homes in Virginia Beach. They had a lot of familiarity here.” 

Gary Brewer, the partner who took on the Strelitz home, visited the site, and, “from that point on, we collaborated to design a house fit for their lifestyle,” Brewer says. “They wanted a thoughtfully designed, architecturally impressive house that is welcoming and comfortable, whether they are entertaining family and friends, or it’s just the two of them.”

The resulting Shingle Style home looks as if it has always been a part of the Virginia Beach scene—with its exterior wood cladding and sweeping rooflines. Attention to detail sets it apart. “We worked to enliven all sides of the house with special porches, doors with colored glass, unique windows, shingle details, columns, and window shutters,” says Brewer. Even paint colors were carefully wrought; for the shutters alone, for example, the blues on their shortlist were considered at different times of day, in different lights, to pinpoint just the right one.

(Photo by Eric Piasecki)

Outfitting the Interior

It’s one thing to design an impressive, 9,000-square-foot home on paper; it’s quite another to implement and outfit it. Strelitz also credits builder John Sykes and his team at Sykes Construction for their expertise, marveling at their ability to execute the vision.

“To be able to take [the architect’s] drawings and actually do it? That’s a first-class operation,” he says.

Building a home from the ground up requires a dizzying number of important decisions, but Strelitz says that this dream team—including Boston-based interior designer Manuel de Santaren, who had also worked with Strelitz’s in-laws—took the worry out of everything. “They said, ‘We’re going to design everything in the home. If you turn it upside down and it doesn’t fall out, we’ll have designed it,’” Strelitz explains.

De Santaren credits “a fully intact vision from the beginning” for the ultimate success of the project. “It was such a joy that we had that luxury of time to be really thoughtful,” he says. With careful ordering and planning, 90 percent of the home was ready when the Strelitz family moved in in February 2020.

(Photo by Eric Piasecki)

The Colors of Ocean, Sand, and Driftwood

The interiors are casual but sophisticated, comfortable yet elegant. De Santaren drew on his experiences growing up in Massachusetts for inspiration. “I spent many a summer visiting the beautiful homes in Cape Cod and the Vineyard, so there were wonderful memories of summer visits to friends’ homes that brought my design process together on this project,” he says. “I took my cues from what I knew would be the views out the window. I didn’t want a jarring contrast between inside and outside.” 

He accomplished this with a soft palette of neutrals accented with colors borrowed from the ocean, sand, and driftwood. “It was important that when you enter the foyer and look to the living room and beyond to the ocean, that there is a progression of the tone upon tone upon tone to the outside,” De Santaren says.

Though the decor has a classic, traditional style, de Santaren introduced elements to keep it “young, and not mumsy.” He says, “The house doesn’t have a heaviness that one would assume from a classic house at the turn of the century.”

(Photo by Eric Piasecki)

Every Inch of Space, Livable 

In the entry, custom-colored skylights and a curved staircase set the tone. Floors are reclaimed wide-plank white oak. Furnishings throughout are soft and comfortable yet tailored, some finished with indestructible performance fabrics whose good looks belie their ability to withstand the rigors of sun and sand. Light fixtures with gold finishes, dynamic artwork, an occasional dash of crystal, luxurious notes of silk, and porcelain accessories remind us that this is a place of casual elegance where you can just as easily put up your feet with a book or host a formal dinner party. 

“The interior planning of the house allows nearly every room to have large windows taking advantage of the ocean views Virginia Beach is famous for,” says Brewer. “All the interior rooms are carefully planned to conveniently open to each other for casual life at the beach.” French doors open to generous porches, a backyard with a pool, and of course, spectacular ocean views and access, providing the great flow and remarkable vistas that make entertaining a pleasure as well.

Strelitz appreciates and admires the symmetry and balance that pervade the floor plan, with generous sight lines throughout the home and to the outside. “When you walk around the house, to see the views, every day it is uplifting,” says Strelitz.

No matter what the day brings, Strelitz says that the family uses every inch of the house, satisfying one of their main design goals. In addition to the oft-used kitchen and family room, a white oak-paneled home office makes working from home even more pleasurable, and a cleverly situated butler’s pantry opens into the living room through glass-paned French pocket doors. 

Even the living room—rarely used in some homes—is a gathering place, thanks in part to that crowd-pleasing bit of equipment that no designer loves for its aesthetics: a TV. Here, the 85-inch screen is concealed in the ceiling with a drop-down mechanism. 

Where some families consider downsizing once the kids are grown, the Strelitzes intentionally went the opposite direction. “I want people to stay with us, we want everyone with us,” he says. “That’s kind of why we built it. We’ve had a lot of visitors for a long period of time.” 

Though the couple’s three children—Julia, 28; Jacqueline, 25; and Joseph, 21—are mostly out of the house, they wanted to create a home base where everyone had their own bedrooms and private spaces. This forethought came in handy when the kids returned to work from home at various times. Not only does everyone have a bedroom, but the finished third floor also provides an additional work-from-home office, lounging space for the children and guests, and a place for at-home workouts. 

Brewer pushed to include a full bath here, which Strelitz initially thought was overkill—“there are so many bathrooms already!” But with the third floor’s many functions, “Of course, he was right again,” says Strelitz. 

A Brand New “Historic” House

If there was any pushback in the design process—and pushback is a strong word—it was in the kitchen design. “All we do is cook!” Strelitz says, so the couple lobbied for a larger pantry and a bigger island until the kitchen felt just right. With creamy cabinets, a custom range hood, marble countertops, and honed granite on the island, the space is both beautiful and functional.

The primary suite was another area where Strelitz and the design team took extra time to consider how the couple would live in the space, how that would impact the overall layout, and most importantly, the views. It features his and her closets, an adjacent home gym, and a sitting room—an area Strelitz says offers a private retreat when the house is full of family and guests.

The neighborhood has been abuzz about this architectural eye candy.

“As the house was nearing completion, a neighbor commented that she walks her dog by the house daily, and every time she passes the house, it makes her smile,” says Brewer. “Another remarked how wonderful it was that the owners had so lovingly restored one of the neighborhood’s cherished historic houses—unaware that the house was actually brand new! We took that as the ultimate architectural compliment and perfectly fitting for the historic Tidewater region.” 

(Photo by Eric Piasecki)

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

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