People like Jennifer Elsner and David Shields are trained to look at the world differently (she’s an artist and a graphic designer, he’s an associate professor and chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Graphic Design).
So, even though their tastes skew modern, they could see how an 1895 brick home within a stone’s throw of Richmond, Virginia’s historic St. John’s Church (the site where Patrick Henry intoned “Give me liberty, or give me death”) could have a classic shell and a modern heart.
“I don’t find those two things contradictory at all,” says Elsner, describing their love of the historic neighborhood and modernism. “In fact, the old exterior and new interior elements just adds to our aesthetic.”
To be clear, 20th-century style had found the house long before the couple did. “The house had been remodeled in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and it was full of the elements that people used to hold up as examples of good contemporary design, including an avocado-colored kitchen,” says Shields.
Although they don’t know for sure, the couple believes the home has gone through many phases. Neighborhood lore has it that it went from a single family home, to apartments, back to a solitary residence—and those kinds of moves tend to erase a lot of original moldings and features. For the traditionalist, it might be a dismaying situation. For this family, it was an opportunity.
“We were looking for something where we could renovate,” says Shields. “We wanted to avoid buying an upgraded home and then taking out someone else’s recently installed decisions. Finding a house that gave us the flexibility to do what we wanted was a bonus.”
They selected Danny MacNelly, Katie MacNelly, and Adam Ruffin of ARCHITECTUREFIRM to help them transform the house to their home. Together, they made something with one foot in the past and the other in the present. Or, Elsner told Ruffin, “The outside fits the neighborhood, the inside fits us.”
Reconfiguring the rooms was the first step. “The home was classic in that it had a lot of small rooms,” says Elsner. “Back in the day, when they were individually warmed by coal fireplaces, that was necessary. But we wanted open spaces and a connection with the outdoors.”
Downstairs, the architects created two rooms: A large living area and a kitchen and dining room. Upstairs, one of the four bedrooms was sacrificed to make way for two rooms: a laundry and a master bathroom.
“These people had just moved from Austin, Texas, and they brought a strong desire for indoor-outdoor living with them,” says Ruffin. “That idea became a centerpiece for the house, and we installed a row of French doors across the back of the kitchen and added a deck on the rear of the house.”
For Elsner, opening the house up was like a breath of fresh air. “Once the walls came down, there was much more light in the house, and without the dividing walls, it came in from the old and new windows and the skylight at the top of the stairs,” she says. “I felt like I could breath.”
In fact, the home’s new, light-filled nature revealed itself before the project was even finished. “We were living in the area while construction was going on, and we would often walk by the house,” says Shields. “There were a few times when, from the outside, we thought the crew had left the lights on, but it was just that the light could now travel around the space and illuminate the rooms.”
Knitting the old and the new features together was a team effort. “We wanted to keep the old elements intact,” says MacNelly. “When we put in new elements of a different style, we did it in a way that would highlight them both.”
In the living area, an old (but not original) mantel is painted black. Half of the wall behind it is also painted the same noir hue, in a move that’s a mod play on traditional wainscoting. In the adjacent hallway, the entire staircase (steps, risers, rails, and balusters) is also painted black. “By painting these elements black, they seem to recede and become more sculptural,” says Elsner.
The architects installed sleek cabinets with a dark, off-black color to help them live comfortably with the original elements. Above the cabinets, they painted the red brick white and installed a metal art display shelf and range hood powder coated with the same color.
“Allowing the textures of the original wood elements and the brick to remain adds a sense of materiality and allows rich detail to live in the space,” says Ruffin.
As for the making the backsplash double as an art display space, it’s a no-brainer for these clients. “They have a lot of art, and we took away a lot of walls, so it makes sense,” says Ruffin. “Plus, when you go from four rooms to two, as we did on the first floor, spaces take on many roles. In the kitchen, we could have ended the cabinet run with a low bench, but we chose to install a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, something you don’t find in every kitchen. But when you make a space two large rooms, the rooms become all things.”
Upstairs, the bedrooms remain largely intact, but connecting a bathroom to a bedroom allows for a master suite. The new bath is announced by a bright pink pocket door. “During demolition, we removed a pair of pocket doors downstairs,” says MacNelly. “We repurposed them upstairs, using one as the door for the master suite and the other as the door for the bathroom.”
During the interview for this story, the couple answered a number of questions (Why choose a pink door for the bathroom? Why hang a hammock in the living room? Why paint the fireplace black?) using the word “intuition.” Elsner says it’s a word she values and doesn’t use lightly.
“As a designer I’m inclined to obsessively observe—delightfully, strategically. Not only looking at the environment and details, but also seeing patterns and archiving moments,” Elsner says. “It’s because of this natural practice I believe gut decisions on materials and space can be made confidently.”
Call them gut instincts or design hunches, but the creative client choices made the project fun for the architects. “We strive to make every job as simple as possible—and that’s perhaps the most difficult thing to do,” says Ruffin. “They live a colorful life, and that combined with the quiet backdrop to make something wonderful.”
Justis Miller of Shelter Construction was the contractor for this project.