Traditional Building Portfolio



History Retold

A renovation project reveals the 18th-century façade of a Virginia residence.

Project: Residence, Fairfax County, VA

Architects: Barnes Vanze Architects, Washington, DC; Stephen J. Vanze, AIA, partner in charge; Stephen Schottler, AIA, project architect

Lead Carpenter: Paul Novak, Baltimore, MD

By Lynne Lavelle

In 1737, before the creation of Fairfax County, VA, frontier planter Thomas Simmons constructed a log house near the Great Falls of the Potomac River. The 300-sq.ft. gable-roofed, single-room, one-story dwelling was crafted with hand tools using trees felled on site, and chinked with a mix of clay, lime and horsehair, over a foundation of local stone. At some point in the mid-18th century, a 230-sq.ft. shed-roofed log pen and timber-framed kitchen were added, but it wasn’t until its acquisition by Captain John Jackson, Jr., in 1796 that the house was refined and significantly expanded. Jackson, a justice of the peace, raised the roofs on each element and constructed a two-story, 1,000-sq.ft. Greek Revival addition in the mid-19th century. "Four Stairs" remained in the Jackson family for five generations, and during this time, it came to demonstrate the evolution of regional vernacular architecture, from early settlement log construction through timber-framing and transitional frame construction. All could be clearly read side by side on the telescoping exterior.

After ownership passed from the Jackson family, ca. 1928, subsequent owners tried unsuccessfully to unify the various elments with renovations in the Colonial Revival style. By 2002, a new owner found the fabric of Four Stairs in disrepair and enlisted the Washington, DC-based firm Barnes Vanze Architects to revitalize it. Partner Stephen Vanze worked closely with the client to establish broader goals for the house, beyond improving its run-down exterior. "When we first came to the project, the owner was having the original log cabin re-chinked and the exterior walls rebuilt," says Vanze. "The house looked similar to the finished result, but it was in really terrible shape. The owner was trying to fix the deteriorating condition of the building, but didn’t yet know how he wanted to live in the house, or how to insert the modern elements he needed."

The client was planning the house for a family, and wanted to create livable family spaces and remove the jumble of earlier renovations. Twentieth-century renovations had not been detailed sympathetically, nor were they structurally sound. Of these, a kitchen addition on the north side was the most fragile, and was immediately removed. In its place, a glazed porch-like post-and-beam structure provided space for a new kitchen and a sitting room, divided by the original chimney. Removing the kitchen addition revealed the original exterior. "We conceived of this as a post-and-beam porch across the side of the house that was later enclosed," says Vanze. "It creates a natural transition from new to old and the nice thing is, it becomes a transparent grid when illuminated at night and exposes to the outside the original log cabin wall."

The diaphragm roof upon the post-and-beam structure encountered a lot of resistance in Fairfax County, a heavily regulated jurisdiction where strict energy codes prevent glass additions and standard stick framing is the norm. "They had never seen anything like this before," says Vanze. "It took months and months to convince them that this was an acceptable structural thing to do. We sent them catalogues of the entire manufacturer’s material and our structural engineer doggedly kept showing them calculations as to why this was an acceptable solution. It took a long time to prove that the whole envelope of the existing old house and the new addition met these standards." To preserve the appearance of the original exterior, the addition was tied into the original structure with pegged timber trusses and mortised beams, spaced 8 ft. apart. "We were trying to touch the original façade of the building as lightly as possible," says Vanze. "When you add on to an existing structure, you can take one of several approaches. One, you can try to integrate it completely, so it looks as if it’s part of the original structure. The second way is to do something completely different, so it is clearly an addition, and the third way is to do something sympathetic but light-handed. This is the approach we took here, where it was clearly an addition but one that was sympathetic, stylistically, while trying to affect the existing building as little as possible."

While the craftsmanship of the original structure inspired its use of wide-plank wood floors and natural stone, the addition remains deliberately distinct from the house. It is a transitional space between the garden and the indoors, and integrates them further with access to an outdoor covered kitchen and dining area – formerly the old covered porch. An original well was restored and covered with a glass lid, and a new brick patio was constructed for summer parties. "I think the outdoor kitchen area is the most interesting space," says Vanze. "The old well is not functioning any more and it was never a kitchen, but the owner realized that this could be a wonderful space. We just helped him make the most of it and now the family spends an enormous amount of time here."

The focal point of the enclosed addition is the original chimney. It separates the kitchen and raised sitting room, and visually anchors the new structure to the features of the old. In order to center the kitchen range, the freestanding fireplace was blocked up on the kitchen side, but it still functions on the sitting-room side. "When we came to the project, the fireplace was part of that existing addition," says Vanze. "We left the fireplace as it was, and built more or less on the same footprint. Originally, the fireplace was more integral to a wall, but we made it freestanding. It is now the memory of what was there, extended."

A small breezeway connects the kitchen to an existing building that the owner plans to develop into a complete second home. For now, the building serves as an office and a bedroom, as well as the true front entry to the house. "The evolution of this property is still continuing," says Vanze. "It is very much a work-in-progress, but there is great scope for further expansion." The extra bedroom was welcomed, as replacing the original addition reduced the number of second-level bedrooms from four to three (the second-floor sitting room is used as a bedroom.) "It wasn’t a difficult sacrifice as it wasn’t very nice and it didn’t have much headroom. It was clearly detracting from the original part of the house and was not a nice volumetric addition to the original style of the house. The client hated it and was happy to get rid of it."

The removal of the original addition left the second floor with just two bathrooms, located in the master suite and the hallway. The master bathroom was in poor condition, but to use the one in the hallway, one had to go to the first floor and take the stairs or walk through other rooms. To improve the circulation, the bathroom in the master bedroom was refurbished to create a livable master suite. And to better serve the other bedrooms, a bathroom was inserted next to the middle bedroom, and the existing bathroom was re-worked and opened to the bedroom to the right. It was a tight squeeze. "It is a very narrow little house," says Vanze. "Inser-ting new bathrooms was really the only thing we could do to make sense of the plan, so that now there isn’t a reason to cross from one side to other." The tight second-level floor plan is made more apparent by the maximum ceiling height of 7½ ft. "These are 19th-century rooms when everyone didn’t have a king-sized bed. Adapting them for modern use was a major challenge," says Vanze.

Downstairs on the main living level, the parlor, dining and sitting rooms were restored to their original condition. "There was nothing wrong with them except that the chinking was out and had to be redone," says Vanze. "Returning them to their original condition made them perfect." The Greek Revival staircase leading from the parlor was fully restored with authentic railings and structural braces, providing a dramatic upwards perspective. Each room was furnished with period pieces and, in the middle dining room, custom-made furniture using trees felled on site. "The own-er wanted the house to be authentic, and he really did things the right way," Vanze adds.

Besides re-chinking, the original center log section needed little structural revision, and had stood the test of time admirably. "I think that original log cabins are pretty sturdy structures," says Vanze. "It needed to be re-chinked but it was built well. Old weathered wood lasts a long time. It doesn’t rot as quickly as new wood." Following the cabin’s expansion from one to two stories in the 18th century, a portion of the logs had been covered up with some siding. This was removed to reveal the logs underneath and restore Four Stairs’ ap-pearance as three distinct elements. While the firm avoided a uniform appearance for these elements, restoration work on the windows, shutters and roofs brought a sense of cohesion. "We raised the roof of everything to the left of the original log cabin and reset the windows to unify the whole thing a little bit, and to get a little more head height on that second floor. Previously, everything was two feet lower than the log cabin roof and there was really very little room," says Vanze.

The end result was driven very much by the owner, who was so passionate about the rehabilitation of Four Stairs that he assumed the role of general contractor. "Situations like that can sometimes lead to problems, but in this case, putting the house back together was very much a labor of love and the owner had some wonderful ideas and a real commitment to the house," says Vanze. "For example, before we did anything, there were four stairs in the house, hence the name. In taking off the old addition, we took out a stair, but he made sure to count that there were still four stairs by the time we’d finished. His love for old houses drove us to make sure the house didn’t lose its charm, or its story." 

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