Special/Signature Issues » Home Style

Study in Contrast

A Fulton Hill loft combines vintage school charm with the best of contemporary design.


The airy space was created from two former classrooms with all of the charm—but none of the institutional qualities—of the vintage school left intact. When Freund needs to remember something she simply scrawls a note to herself on the school's original blackboard slate she used to form her kitchen counter and backsplash. The warm poplar kitchen cabinet doors were originally located in the school principal's office. The heart pine floors, which had been covered with mastic and linoleum, were lovingly restored.

Down the hall, the school's old book room, where student textbooks were kept, has been converted into a cozy guest retreat. And huge banks of mullioned windows, each 8 «-feet-by-40 inches and custom-made for daydreaming, overlook a bucolic park with towering cedars and a spectacular view of downtown Richmond.

In 1997, Freund, along with friends Steven Biegler and Skip Woodward, purchased the building, which had been an underground artist's colony of sorts since the late 1970s. The place was a mess, but the team was set on restoring the majestic 45,000-square-foot building to its former glory, and on maintaining it as a place for artists to work.

Freund, who had kept a musician's studio in the building for many years, felt a special connection to the building, and to its previous owner, the late Gus Garber, a legendarily kind patron of the arts. After Garber's death in 1992, the building went up for sale and Freund moved back to Richmond from Colorado to help save it. "It was just one of those things," she says. "I got attached to this site. I always thought there was something very magical about this place."

During the 1980s Freund maintained a musician's studio in the building. "I was traveling a lot with my band [Theories of the Old School] and gave up my apartment because I didn't want to pay rent. I built a living space here. It was much more bohemian," she says with a chuckle as she gazes at her stylish loft. "I paid like $75 a month for about 3,000-square-feet."

Today, she lives in about 1,400-square feet, with every inch optimally utilized. The kitchen, which has exterior walls built on a 60-degree angle so as not to extend too far into the living/dining space, is small, but with ample counter and cabinet space, and thoughtful placement of appliances, is designed for maximum usefulness. "I can clean this kitchen in four minutes," she says.

A small flight of steps—cut down to size from an original flight of stairs in the school—leads to the bathroom. Originally the site of a teacher's bathroom, the space has been transformed into a personal spa with a luxurious deep tub. One of the school's original pedestal sinks was retrofit to meet modern needs. Expansive windows allow Southern light to enter. A 400-year-old painted Tibetan chest, Freund's favorite piece, adds warmth and conveniently houses linens.

Back down the stairs, and opposite the kitchen, a small sleeping nook provides quiet and privacy. Sliding doors, originally from closets within the school, allow Freund to close the room off. "Jefferson was a big sleeping nook fan," she points out. A dropped ceiling provides a location for the HVAC system. And exterior walls built at a 30-degree angle harmonize with the kitchen's unique design.

A transom between the two former classrooms helps to unify the two spaces, which can be divided with sliding doors. The second classroom houses a baby grand piano, a space to practice yoga, a drafting table and sitting area. The classroom's original closets, again clad in blackboard slate, provide ample storage.

Freund's eclectic mix of modern furnishings with vintage pieces, funky thrift-store finds and a healthy dose of Asian flavor, invites one to linger. Original art by local artists—some of whom maintain studios at Fulton Hill—punctuates the 13-foot high walls. A painting of the late building owner Garber, by former Fulton Hill tenant Amie Oliver, hangs proudly on the outside of her door.

Freund, who designed the space herself, admits that it took a lot of thought to get the space just right. "When I go into an old building I try to let the building convey … how the space gets designed," she says. "Old buildings kind of have a natural flow to them. The art of it is to stay in tune with the natural qualities of the space, to find a balance between enhancing the space and changing what's there."

Across the hall are the offices of Fulton Hill Properties, Freund's development company, which specializes in the readaptive use of historic properties. Lately, she's been keeping busy with the large Canal Crossing project in Shockoe Bottom and with renovating the Lady Byrd Hat Co. building on the canal.

"I like having my office close," she says. During the day, she can walk across the hall and make a cup of tea. She sometimes serves clients lunch in her loft. And when she has to work late, her bed is just a few steps away.

"This is really cool work," she says. "You have these old blown-out buildings. The charm is there but they have been neglected. The prospect of getting new life into them and recycling it into anew use is really gratifying."

One only has to look as far as Freund's own loft to understand just what she means. HS


Add a comment