Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Chadsworth Cottage, Wilmington, NC

Designer: Christine G. H. Franck Inc., New York, NY

Contractor: Murray Construction Co., Wilmington, NC

 

 

Awards
New Construction - less than 5,000 sq.ft.

Winner: Christine G. H. Franck Inc.

Classical Aspirations

By Eve M. Kahn

At the sandy tip of a barrier island near Wilmington, NC, a column-manufacturing executive has built a porticoed house that stops traffic. "A dozen people a day park nearby and get out to look and sometimes take pictures," reports the homeowner, Jeffrey L. Davis, the founder and chief designer for Chadsworth Columns. "And we can hear their conversations; they don't realize that the sound of their voices carries in here off the water. They usually say something like, 'This is my favorite old house on the island.'"

The landmark, designed by New York City-based Christine G. H. Franck Inc., is a rare combination of pragmatism, comfort and the highest Classical aspirations. "It's meant to be elegant and refined, but not overly precious or intimidating," says Franck. "It seems grand – it looks larger than the mere 3,500 sq.ft. on the two main floors – but it's approachable and hospitable." The building, assembled from custom and stock components, cost a few hundred dollars per square foot, while honoring such lofty ancestors as Roman temples, Palladian villas and American Federal farmsteads.

When Davis acquired the lot a decade ago, he recalls, "I thought I'd build something contemporary and modern there. I thought that a house made of poured-in-place concrete would be less expensive and withstand hurricanes better than traditional construction." But estimates soon veered into the $3 million range, and besides, Davis adds, "I realized that something very simple and Classical would better suit me, the site and the traditions of my 20-year-old column company. And once I decided to build a Classical house, everything seemed to fall into place."

He knew Franck through The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America – they have both long served as ICA&CA board members – and Franck has been the institute's executive director and volunteer director of its academic programs. In the early 2000s, when not persuasively and eruditely teaching Classicism's virtues to architects and builders or writing for trade and consumer design publications, Franck devoted much of her one-person Manhattan practice to realizing Chadsworth Cottage.

Davis showed her images of many favorite old buildings, especially North Carolina houses with two-story porticoes. Franck resolved the precedents into a single cohesive vision that accommodates Davis's rounds of house guests, fine collection of American Empire and Biedermeier furniture and free-ranging pets (a golden retriever, a terrier mix and a Himalayan cat are currently in residence).

The house, Davis told her, should serve as "a beacon for anyone coming down the Intracoastal [Waterway]" and look as though it had always been there. But in truth, Franck notes, "all that would have been on these islands a hundred years ago were Coast Guard stations or simple beach cottages – just vernacular buildings. So we imagined a narrative for Jeff's house, as if it was the first significant home built on the island, perhaps by someone active in the shipping trade at nearby New Bern, and the island was subsequently developed." The neighboring buildings, she adds, "are mostly in a nondescript beach-cottage style, with some McMansions recently springing up. Fortunately, right next door to Jeff's cottage is a very good Shingle Style house by Bobby McAlpine."

All architecture on the island is vulnerable to disastrous weather. "There are spectacular open views of the ocean, dunes and an inlet, but also direct exposure to nor'easters and hurricanes," Franck says. "Wind, water, sun, humidity, salt and proneness to floods and storm surges – everything conspires to shorten the lives of the buildings there. And FEMA and the Coastal Area Management Act impose additional constraints."

With structural engineering by Woods Engineering of Wilmington, Franck developed a high base for the house "in the traditions of Palladian villas and North Carolina houses raised on piers for protection from water or rot." The engineers devised a grid of concrete-grade beams (made by S & W Ready Mix Concrete of Castle Hayne, NC) between 34 10x10 pressure-treated-pine square pilings and 49 round pilings below grade. A garage and storage areas occupy the house's ground floor, enclosed in a 13½-ft. "wall" of skirting boards that would break away in an extreme flood. Yet the base looks reassuringly solid. Franck simulated rustication by alternating 2x10s and 2x12s; inch-wide gaps between boards add shadows and depth. Another shrewd sleight of hand greets visitors in the front yard, alongside an oyster-shell driveway; a pergola laced in wisteria and Carolina Jessamine, with wood latticework between Chadsworth's PolyStone Tuscan columns, conceals a Puraflo bio-peat-filter wastewater-treatment system.

Most of the exterior components, in fact, are not what they seem – that is, they only look like solid wood. The windows and doors, including sidelites and transoms, are aluminum-clad, 50-dpi stock units from Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork, Co. of Wausau, WI. Franck ordered a few custom sizes of Kolbe & Kolbe windows, and trimmed some doors on site with fluted mullions (actually routed 2x4s). The Tuscan porch columns are Chadsworth's Colossal fiberglass models. J&L Shutters of Memphis, TN, provided the PVC shutters (fully operational in case of storms). The clapboards – which, on the dormers, are raked to parallel the roof pitch – are HardiePlank fiber-cement lap siding. The only real wood parts in sight are the cedar roof shakes, marine-grade plywood sheets in the entablature, stock and custom trim from Stephenson Millwork of Wilson, NC, redwood corner pilasters from Chadsworth, mahogany porch flooring and a bundled-wheat-pattern balcony railing based on a 1779 house in New Bern.

Franck chose many of the exterior materials in consultation with Jim Murray of Wilmington-based Murray Construction. "Jim knows what weathers and survives in these islands' harsh environment," she says, and adds that the collaboration also helped boost the builders' Classical sensibilities. "We set the bar high and asked the crew to execute details they'd never done before, like a proper pediment with a split fillet flashed correctly, and they exceeded our every expectation."

Murray's team outfit the interior with Franck's mixture of reasonably priced stock products and wrought one-offs. Warp-resistant MDF doors came from TruStile Doors of Denver, CO. Chadsworth wood column screens – with fluted shafts and either Ionic or Tower of the Winds capitals – subtly divide the main floor's living and dining areas and the master suite. Franck based the staircase on an 1815 precedent in New Bern, melding stock parts from Wilmington-based Port City Staircase with custom newel posts, scrolled tread brackets and a hand-carved spiral start for the handrail. The flooring is either handmade brick from Old Carolina Brick Co. of Salisbury, NC, or wide-plank reclaimed pine from Antique Building Products of Amherst, VA. For the kitchen and butler pantry, Franck ordered cherry or maple butcher-block countertops, stock cabinetry and American Olean 3x6-in. white tile. On three working fireplaces in the house, Chadsworth wood columns and brackets support a mix of custom and stock moldings over fireboxes framed in authentic Delft tile. The tile, Franck says, "help link the house culturally with the maritime trading history of the region, as if the owner had brought them back from a trip to the Netherlands."

Davis has taken such pride in his artful, resourcefully built showplace that he has posted hundreds of construction shots – from the initial sketches to the pile driving and final paint touchups – on a website, www.chadsworthcottage.com. He brings clients to the house and often hosts sales meetings there. "Every visitor's dogs are welcome, too, even on rainy days," he says with a laugh. Franck remembers her first overnight stay two years ago. "I woke up, smelled coffee brewing, heard the other guests waking up and wandered downstairs to find a pair of sandy flip-flops at the porch door and the dogs loping in from the beach – all of a sudden, after the epic journey of building any house, Chadsworth Cottage had become a home."  

 

 

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