Sunday, September 26, 2010

Eating Some of My Words

When I blogged about seeing the Richmond Symphony Designer House back in August, here, I was convinced that I would hate everything the designers were going to do to tart up the magnificent 1913 Rothesay house.

I'm here to say that that's not entirely true and I'm making that acknowledgement for my friend David who was convinced that upon seeing it after all the work, I would recant. And I am, but only partially.

First of all, I couldn't have chosen a more beautiful day to visit the house on the James. Unlike recent weeks, it was mid-70s and breezy when I arrived around noon. I was sorry to see that more windows weren't open, but with no screens, perhaps it's a dust or debris issue.

So what impressed me? I loved the foyer's nod to the house's history as a place where music was often performed, with instruments scattered about.

I was charmed by the morning hall where the current owners still have breakfast in the east-facing room with a beautiful river view (and a tiny zebra finch in a cage; I had a pair in college and they're personable little birds).

In the earlier post I had expressed my concern about the books being covered in the library (actually it's the study) and I was told today that the reason for that was to lighten up the room; I still didn't approve.

But I was most impressed to learn that the little room had originally been a garage and when larger touring cars came along, it was converted to the current use. The floor tile had been almost black with dirt, but upon cleaning they discovered intermittent square tiles depicting knights fighting mythical creatures. They were the highlight of the room for me.

Throughout the house, it was little details like that which grabbed my attention more so than the overall "done" look of the rooms.

The floor in the living room had been stenciled with stain and was now a work of art and the fact that they took an existing wooden floor and made it the featured focus wowed me.

In the butler's pantry, the shallow drawers were over a yard wide and held divided sections for all the varied silverware of the household. This would have been during the days of seafood forks and pickle forks and god knows what other obscure cutlery that no longer has a place in our casual lives.

In the garden room, a living wall of plants would be a delight in the dead of winter, lush and green. On the upper foyer, which amounted to the second landing on the stairs, a collection of French oil paintings were hung salon-style, my favorite way of hanging art.

Because I had been to the bare bones party, I was particularly struck by how the small, stark spaces that were the servants' quarters on the third floor had been transformed into three beautiful rooms. The designer dubbed them "David + Kelly Forever." One visitor asked, "Oh, is this where you put your boomerang kids?"

Remembering the ceiling-less shower room, the toilet stall and the tiny bedrooms with sinks, I was amazed at the transformation. Anyone who hadn't seen the original spaces couldn't possibly appreciate the change as profoundly.

And what of the enormous screened porch with the view of the river that had so completely captured my attention on the first visit?

To my taste, it is over-furnished, but in all fairness, half of it is being used as the Rothesay Cafe for now. I had intended to spend some time out there, much as I had done on that post-storm evening I'd last visited.

I was able to do so by enjoying lunch on the porch. I chose the table nearest the screen doors and facing the bend in the river and leisurely enjoyed a roast beef, cheddar, red onion and horseradish sandwich on ciabatta, followed by red velvet cake, tuning out the chattering women and couples nearby.

I learned that the way the Designer House works is that when the owners return, they get to live with the floors and the walls (best walls: the sunroom's stunning deep blue walls with cream-colored fretwork over top) and have the option of purchasing anything else they want from the designers.

That pleases me no end because it means that most likely the screened-in porch will return to a simple but superb space in which to read a book or ponder the bend in the James River. And, most importantly, from which to enjoy the power and beauty of a thunderstorm.

But if I were them, the one thing I would be inclined to purchase would be that beautiful painted steel pendulum by local metalworker Tom Chenoweth that sits just outside the screened porch.

It's the least frou-frou part of the entire makeover and the only possible thing that could further enhance the porch's view. I'm just happy I got to spend an evening and an afternoon there.

It may be the highlight of my long-time screened-in porch devotion. If only it had stormed...


  1. it sounds magnificent...i hadn't heard of the 'designer house' project. i decided last week or so that i miss having a sink in my bedroom, and i don't understand why more people don't have murals or tapestries or painted ceilings, the sorts of things you can look at tirelessly forever.

  2. The Symphony only does it every two years, so that may be why.

    Have you seen the tapestry in the Chuck Close show at VMFA? It'll take your breath away.

  3. mm! no! i haven't been to the vmfa since...the 90s.

  4. Inexcusable. The renovation, in addition to doubling the size, has allowed them to have 50,000 objects on display instead of the meager 20,000 they were showing before.

    It feels like you are in a big city museum now. Please say you'll visit soon.

  5. i'll visit soon! surely the faberge eggs miss me.