Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Vandalia, Shepherdstown, WV

Architect: Neumann Lewis Buchanan Architects, Middleburg, VA; Andrew Lewis, AIA, partner in charge

Contractor: Michael F. Taylor, Inc., Shepherdstown, WV

 

 

Awards
New Design & Construction – more than 5,000 sq.ft.

Winner: Neumann Lewis Buchanan Architects

Storybook Beginning

By Lynne Lavelle

In approximately 1760, a crude log structure with a masonry foundation was constructed on a large area of farmland near Shepherdstown, WV. The site was adjacent to the Potomac River, with expansive views to the east and north and also of what would become the Antietam battlefield. Twenty years later, a fine stone dwelling was added with a shingle roof, demoting the original log structure to a kitchen area. At some point during the next 40 years a fire destroyed the original log building and it was replaced with a large frame wing that included a two-story porch and dormers. Shortly after, the original shingle roof on the stone wing was replaced with a metal roof and dormers to match the new wing. No further alterations were made until 1875, when a simple frame kitchen addition with an open porch was added. Finally, in 1920, the house was completed on a shoestring budget with the addition of a new entry porch on the south side and the glazing in of the existing porch on the north side, taking its area to a total of 7,500 sq.ft.

While the above is a plausible, and common, architectural history in Jefferson County, it is the invention of Neumann Lewis Buchanan Architects of Middleburg, VA. In fact, the new house was completed in 2006. The firm was approached at the end of 2000 to design a house that would pay homage to the historical vernacular of Jefferson County and accommodate the client's growing family. In keeping with local precedent, whereby farmer-built, rudimentary structures expanded over the centuries, the architect conceived of a storyboard/timeline for the house. "The desire was to create a structure that would not look ostentatious or out of scale," says Andrew Lewis, partner in charge. "The story line was based on some of the typical tracks that you would find in the way that these farmhouses were settled – the stone front wing being the second phase. We decided that this was the most authentic scenario, and it worked with another desire we had, which was to shelter much of the building from view."

A modest three-story front elevation of dolomitic limestone conceals much of the house, which telescopes behind it to the east. This façade is, according to Lewis, the "first shot at credibility," so a 10-in. stone veneer conveys the needed depth and weight. Finding the right stone and achieving an authentic patina was critical. The native dolomitic limestone is a deep blue-gray color that develops a powder-gray patina over many decades. To achieve a traditional appearance, the stonework had to be completed with minimal damage to unworked stone faces and appropriate patina treatments needed to be developed.

The client, contractor and architect worked extensively to source the required stone from numerous old stone barns and walls (slated for demolition), which was then shipped to the site in hand-packed apple crates. Despite their efforts, there remained a deficit of stone of adequate size for the corners. Luckily, the Alverson Quarry in upstate New York proved a geologically similar source. Once the stone was onsite, Lewis researched various methods, including ammonia and oxalic acid washes, to rebuild the gray patina on critical faces and end cuts. "It was quite a process," says Lewis. "And once you work the face of that gray stone it is basically black on the inside. Once we found it, we had to get it there with as little damage to the faces as possible. We were also looking for flat faces, which was an added challenge. In the end, we probably used about a third of what we brought to the site. It was an expensive challenge."

While gathering the limestone for the façade required a trip to the Northeast, the firm was able to find the step blocks for the porches closer to home. By pure luck, Frazier Quarries in nearby Harrisburg, VA, began to quarry and cut dolomitic limestone blocks again after years of producing gravel. "As far as we know this is the only quarry in the United States currently doing so," Lewis says.

The firm was careful to avoid perfect finishes on the masonry, mortar and pointing – a dead giveaway on modern structures. However, convincing professional stonemasons that a certain level of sloppiness was not only acceptable, but desired, proved a challenge. The gable-end marker block was a case in point. "There is a history of farmers carving their initials and the date into the corner block, and we wanted the house to have that handmade appearance," says Lewis. "But when the stonemasons did it, it looked too perfect, too funereal." In the end, Lewis took matters into his own hands: "I just took a couple of blocks of stone home and went hacking away. I wanted it to be done with the wrong tools for the job, because the farmer wouldn't have had stone chisels, he would have had an old screwdriver or a leftover dinner knife."

Behind the façade, "subsequent" center and rear frame wings form a modern interpretation of the shotgun house. The two-story frame wing with a double-height porch culminates in a story-and-a-half frame kitchen wing with a glass-covered porch. Strong emphasis was placed on the connection between spaces and strong sight lines through rooms, capturing the views of the river and the nearby "Cliff House" property (which was restored by the architect in the course of the project). The adjacent garage and outbuildings provide space for visitors and help create the ensemble effect typical of farmhouses in the region.

Deliberate differentiations between the sections convey the timelines expressed in the storyboard. Both the middle and kitchen wings are finished with lap siding, but the "older" middle section's heavier butt, thicker end and wider exposure suggest that it was constructed in the mid-19th century.

Similarly, the interiors anchor each wing to its proposed timeframe. The stone entry area utilizes simple, three-part casing with ovolo-style backband, and interior details in the living room are modeled after local, late-18th-century precedents. The chimney mantel, breast and crown moldings feature hand tooling by Cochran's Lumber of Berryville, VA, and a period-appropriate Rumford-style firebox with a black-plastered surround. Custom windows by Sun Architectural Woodworks of Baldwin, ME, were glazed with a mix of light and heavy restoration glass and flanked by operable shutter panels.

The mix of glass helped strike a balance between historical character and visibility. "We had some that were all heavy restoration glass and they were so distorted that it was literally like trying to see through an ice cube," says Lewis. "So we swapped some of the panes for glass that had a softer wave, and it was very effective."

As the house progresses to the center wing, the interiors evolve into a later, Victorian style, with more elaborate casing and built-in bookshelves. Though the target date for this section is 1820, in its local context, it appears to have been spruced up slightly later. "Shepherdstown had a ‘lost horizon' effect, whereby trends hit 20 or 30 years later," says Lewis. "The idea was that this wing had been updated at some stage after its construction. It's a little more fussy and decorative than the farmhouse style of the stone and kitchen wings, which are simpler and more stripped back, as farmhouses were in this area." The interior main-stair railing and wainscoting were milled from local black walnut darkened with a walnut stain, which was brewed by Lewis from walnut hulls collected on site.

According to the storyboard, the access road and therefore the front elevation was once on the opposite side, so the kitchen porch is enclosed in glass to suggest that it was originally open. "This section is supposed to be the most modern, so it is ‘quirkier' and not as perfectly resolved," adds Lewis. Beamed ceilings and tobacco-wood flooring differentiate this wing from the middle, and the porch is used as an informal dining space.

Local metalworker Dan Tokar of The Willow Forge in Shepherdstown created a variety of lighting fixtures based on sketches by Lewis. Some of the larger fixtures accommodate supplemental, concealed standard lamping, and all draw on regional precedents and antique details. The preliminary designs were deliberately loose. "Dan is a very creative craftsman, so we wanted to leave some wiggle room for him to put his stamp on things," says Lewis. "Most of the time, our drawings are done on the computer and meticulously detailed and noted, but for this we hand drew them, and in such a way that Dan wasn't meticulously replicating them. He changed backplates and details like that, and I think it's all for the better."

In the proposed timeline, the roof evolved from rough wood shingle to a standing-seam metal roof in the mid-19th century. While the owner wished to have a maintenance-free, "100-year" roof, Lewis was wary of falling foul of regional precedent with materials that appeared too brash. Terne-coated stainless-steel (TCS) roofing supplied by the Follansbee Co. of Follansbee, WV, was selected for its durability and fast-forming soft-gray patina, and its similarity to lead-coated copper, which is common throughout the area. Cross seams were incorporated into the main roof to imitate sheet-stock roofing, rather than coil stock, which would not have been available at the supposed time of construction. The main roof is mechanically vented via a plenum beneath the ridge, which ducts down through the exterior walls and vents below the porch space.

The new structures maintain a respectful relationship with the Cliff House, situated approximately 275 ft. away. On the opposite side, the new icehouse creates an implied corner between the house and garage, thereby integrating the new buildings into the site. It is inspired by local Jefferson County precedents, with tapered slits and coved interior stone jambs. The attached wall and recessed well disguise mechanical and electrical equipment, including the back-up generator. Like the icehouse, the adjacent garage and guest house recall the main house with limestone blocks, board-and-batten siding and standing-seam roofing. It is banked into a hill at the rear of the site and houses a guest suite on the second floor, discretely accessed by way of a series of winding, cut-limestone blocks.

Over the course of the project, the owner became quite a scholar of local Jefferson County architecture and a valuable resource to the firm. "The design of most of the interior detailing was largely informed by his research," says Lewis. "As the project progressed he developed a passion for regional construction. By the time we were in construction, he had started working on a book, Uncommon Vernacular – The Early Domestic Architecture of Jefferson County, WV, 1750-1835, documenting 100 noteworthy structures within the county. He has become quite the expert."  

 

 

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