Thursday, August 5, 2010

Size Matters: Big is Too Big for Me

I am not a grand house person. If someone were to die and leave me their Windsor Farms house, I would sell it without ever living there. Oh, I'd walk through it and assuming it was pre-1940, probably find things I liked about it, but I'd never consider moving in. Large seems ostentatious to me and I've got better things to do than keep up with a big house. I do realize that I'm in the minority on this.

That said, I so enjoyed my evening spent at Rothesay on the James, the spectacular 1913 Tudor mansion that will be the Richmond Symphony's Designer House this year. A friend who is on the Richmond Symphony Orchestra League's board had suggested going to the Barebones party tonight, an opportunity to look at the house before the frou-frou obsessed designers get a hold of it. And it was truly something to behold.

Without a doubt, my favorite room was the brick-floored screened-in porch, which wrapped on two sides of the house and had a stellar view of a bend in the James River. I've always been partial to screened-in porches and this one was magnificent, surrounded by gardens (Charles Gillette-designed gardens at that) and still dripping after those epic thunderstorms that swept through. I went so far as to imagine how much I'd enjoy watching storms from that porch.

The library, small as it was, had a stunning tile floor, but I was dismayed when I heard that the room's redesigner will be covering all the books with color-coordinated paper for a better "look." Excuse me, but books are functional items, not decorative; that's the kind of thing that makes me use words like frou-frou. And also why I wanted to see the house for what it truly is and not how it can be tarted up.

The dressing rooms had built-in cedar drawers, cabinets and shelving, as did several of the bathrooms. There were closets everywhere (I peeked into one to find the mistress' eight fur coats) built into the hallways and many rooms. And the shower heads in the bathroom were the widest I'd ever seen, almost plate-size. I even made the trek up to the third floor to see the servants' quarters, evidence of a long-gone era. I loved the sense of history I got from the house.

Afterwards, the four of us went to Avalon for dinner. We hit it exactly right, after the happy hour regulars and before the late evening serious-drinking crowd. Abi was tending bar and I immediately guessed that it was her iPod when I heard Shout Out Louds followed by Yeasayer, so the music was definitely to my taste. Just as appealing to me was the volume.

I'm very fond of Avalon's small plate focus and after a lot of group discussion and starting two bottles of wine (Eola Hills Pinto Gris and Brandborg Pinot Noir), we finally got around to ordering. I was indecisive because of what they had already run out of : the octopus salami, the braised lamb canapes, the rabbit confit and the ham-wrapped figs, any one (or two) of which I would have ordered), It was just too bad for me.

Instead, I got the mussels with crispy fingerling potatoes (crispy thin potato sticks is what they were). cipollini onions and marjoram sherry butter sauce plus fava beans, fingerling potato and leek succotash with white corn butter. Fava beans with a nice Pinot Noir, yum.

My order soon prompted a discussion of everything being better with butter, which led to an inappropriate suggestion by my friend to his girlfriend. How quickly we went from high-end houses to low-brow banter. But it should be noted that once I finished my mussels, both of them were sopping my butter sauce and moaning. It was that good.

Other hits included the grilled beef teres major with fingerling potatoes, the seared scallops with Serrano ham and English pea salad and the Merguez sausage on Granny Smith slices with Manchego, ordered by my friend at my suggestion; he liked it as much as I had on my last visit.

By this time, the place had begun to fill up. I saw Prabir meeting a date ("I can't talk. I'm on the clock," he explained as he made his way to a dark corner) and owner Peter, also with a date, who sat down with us to chat. A guy leaned over me to order a "Daws Eek-wes" and it was everything Abi could do not to smile at his mispronunciation, instead politely saying, "We don't carry Dos Equis." It was clearly a teachable moment.

By the time the third bottle was emptied it was slammed at the bar, so we concluded our arguments about the Designer House's merits pre- and post-transformation. Personally, I'll probably enjoy what the array of landscape architects do to the eight acres more than what the over-zealous designers do to the interior. Aqua flocked wallpaper? Not my style.

When all is said and done, what will impress me is if there's a perfect storm-watching chair on that screened-in porch. It still wouldn't make me want to live there, but I'd feel like that magnificent space got the only possible thing that could make it better.

And you can be sure I'll sit in it when nobody's looking...but just for a momentary pleasure.


  1. You had me at the first screened-in porch and kept me through the last reference. A summer storm, protected by a screened-in porch with a bottle of pop and a good book is one of my favorite childhood memories. It was always to me a scent and scene only gods could bestow upon us. Hiding books is akin to hiding a joyous smile. I could never do it.

  2. A man after my own heart!

    I am no more capable of hiding my many books than I am my omnipresent smile.

    PS: I love being read in the wee hours. I didn't finish that post until after 1, so you were probably the first. I'm flattered it grabbed you.

  3. Loved this entry, by the way, I'm very jealous - I would of loved to see that house before the over the top decorating, especially that porch.

  4. It was all the better for being experienced just after the wrath of the storm gods. The surrounding plant life was so lush and green, further enclosing the porch and its occupants.

  5. Having recently visited with friends in North Carolina who live in a frou-frou community with grand custom designed homes I agree with you on not wanting to spend valuable time on the up keep of a big house. While in NC I met several of my friend's neighbors and to a one they complained about how much time they spend maintaining their house and yards rather than at the nearby beach. For me it's little house, big fun.


  6. And while I don't like big houses, I really like big fun, so it's a no-brainer for me.