Special/Signature Issues » Home Style

New Home, Old Style

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Rick Alverson and Courtney Bowles' unassuming, two-story, Federal-style row house hardly looks like the new kid on the tree-lined block in Church Hill. Despite its fresh paint, it appears to have inhabited the spot at least as long as its circa-1890s neighbors.

Tell that to the city building inspector who came by in July to sign off on an occupancy permit. Or to the concrete and brick masons who laid the foundation a year ago last May.

"There was the challenge of an undertaking that big," Alverson says of his decision to build a historically accurate new home. "And then there's an obsession with old homes and how nothing's made that way anymore.

"It was just to make something with that much integrity … stupid, stupid amounts of integrity."

For Alverson and Bowles, that goal meant spending hours in the Richmond Public Library and on the Internet poring over old house plans and books on historically accurate construction methods. Alverson also combed the Fan, Church Hill and the Museum District scrutinizing authentic Federal-style houses.

Alverson has no regard for the builders who throw up new homes in his area -- and less for the ones who restore old houses only to remove many of the historical elements that give them character.

"What's the point of buying an old house if there's nothing left of it?" Bowles asks.

"We built with the neighborhood in mind," Alverson adds. "This is a historic district."

Accuracy and integrity meant dropping a few quid to find fittings appropriate to the era. Like the light fixtures -- which are mostly period reproduction pieces -- or the rim locks on all the doors -- which are not. Rather, they're all faithfully restored original cast iron with porcelain doorknobs.

Custom-milled in Orange County, the staggered-width plank flooring was laid in 10- to 15-foot lengths. Natural knot holes and swirling wood grains give it authenticity.

Modern and green construction elements fit in seamlessly and are not visible in the home's living spaces. Paint free of volatile organic compounds means no toxic off-gassing. An insulated and climate-controlled attic and crawl space mean better energy efficiency. A tankless water heater also lowers electric bills.

Bowles concedes there were compromises to historical integrity necessary to keep food on the table. The tall six-over-six windows are vinyl-clad outside with wood inside.

"And if we'd had more time, I think Rick would have built the [kitchen] cabinets," Bowles says. "But after a year [of construction], we just said no."

Of the house's fairly simple clapboard style, Alverson says, the decision was partly made for them. They'd restored a smaller cottage next to the lot of their present house and seized on an opportunity to buy their current lot.

"The Federal style is indigenous to this part of Church Hill," Alverson says, and in the section of the hill where they're located, clapboard was the material of choice.

"We're very conscious of the simplicity of that kind of home in this area, and just the starkness of it," Alverson says. "Also, of how when it's done right, it's beautiful." HS



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