By Sandra Vitzthum | Photos by Tony Giammarino
Outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the farmland is lush but quiet, as it is often shrouded in mist. Its beauty is infused with a deep, almost romantic, sadness, even though a century and a half has passed since the tragedies of the Civil War.
When I first visited these rolling hills to see them, my clients, Judy and Larry, talked about orchards, gardens, and retreat. Their son is a chef passionate about local food. Cultivated by this family for less than a year, the property with two ponds already was producing figs, apples, cider, berries, and fish. The neighbor’s dairy herd grazed nearby.
How fitting that our early discussions about the house came from surveying the land. I had brought with me Andrew Jackson Downing’s book, Victorian Cottage Residences, to share his vision and directions for a picturesque farm in the Romantic vein. So many of Downing’s principles—accentuating the land’s contours, careful construction of views, soft and organic compositions, native plants—still resonate today.
As Judy and Larry absorbed Downing’s ideas about landscape, we began to design the residence, which is properly a foil in the landscape. We wondered why there are so few Gothic villas in North Carolina…but eventually we found some tucked away in quiet villages. We admired the comfortable relationship of these Gothic cottages with their gardens, and we took delight in their exuberant details. Judy commented that American Gothic feels casual yet dignified, maybe even a little bit wise.
The house is modeled, somewhat, on the frontispiece of another Downing book, The Architecture of Country Houses. We gave the H-shaped main house a proper entry and an expansive back porch. The main house has two wings, one for the master suite and one for the garage. The main house has flushboard siding and label molding (square hoodmolds) over the windows—from high-style or “villa” Downing—while the wings are finished with board-and-batten siding and their windows have hoods or pent roofs over them—from vernacular or “cottage” Downing.
Similarly, the main roof is slate, and the wings have standing-seam metal roofs. The main house has cusped bargeboards (made of mahogany and marine-grade plywood) with fanciful ogee curves, while the wings have plainer sawn boards at the eaves. Pinnacles, pendants, and other elaborate details of the period don’t appear, as this house leans more toward cottage than urban villa.
The house at Starberry Farm has a definite character: sleepy in the morning, then abuzz when it’s filled with people. The dwelling holds remarkable artifacts—painted stick furniture and large collage murals, sumptuous chandeliers, and bright rugs. Each piece has a story, and together they bring the house to life. In concert with the fondness for local food, Larry and Judy have a deep commitment to local art.
Visitors to the cottage are welcomed in the front hall, which sets the tone. Beside a salvaged Victorian newel post is the imposing Four Seasons cabinet. It was a drab wardrobe that had sat for months in an antiques store. A local artist painted the panels with a Pre-Raphaelite nod.
Judy wanted a warm, cozy room for use during the winter. The den, which looks over the pond, was fitted with bookshelves and built-in window seats; she calls it the Winter Room. Its mantel was salvaged from the old Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
Salvage was, in fact, used throughout the house: the kitchen ceiling is made of reclaimed beadboard from the Lucky Strike warehouse in Durham. Beams are from a demolished Vermont farmhouse; they were fumigated after they arrived on site. Flooring throughout the house is chestnut oak salvaged from a Jim Beam warehouse in Kentucky. The newel post in the stair hall, quirky chandeliers, mantelpieces, cabinets, a neoclassical sideboard that became a sink console—all of these salvaged items add history and surprise to the furnishings.
Sandra Vitzthum is a classically trained, licensed architect whose designs consider local climate, individual needs, energy conservation, and the crafts. Work has taken her from her native Vermont to Bali with many stops in between.Published in: Old-House Interiors July/August 2010