Homebuyers shape Richmond's historic neighborhoods with renovations that pay tribute to the past
“Here the houses have sprung up like magic, and the great dreary fields of yesterday have been converted into handsome city blocks, lined with well designed and, for the most part, well built residences. “Hundreds of new houses built during the year have added to the substantial appearance of the city, and the fact that the architectural designs have been well and artistically worked out is a source of gratification to all who take an interest in the improvement of civic conditions.”
Trained architects like William Bottomley, William C. Noland and Duncan Lee, and architecture firm Baskerville & Lambert, made a name for themselves in Richmond during this time, building homes with fashionable architectural elements and academic refinement, writes Carneal. Because of the narrow lot sizes available at the time, the façade of the house was the homeowner and architect’s primary opportunity to convey what was unique about each new home, the author explains.
The details and refinements of Richmond’s historic homes remain important today as unique selling points, but as many are renovated to meet contemporary needs, it can be challenging to stay true to the home’s architectural integrity. “The front façade has to remain the same,” says April Straus, Principal Broker of Bobby + April, a local real estate company that specializes in historic renovation. “And if you add a porch or anything to the front, it has to be historically accurate.” Straus says that renovations in some areas are controlled based on their historic designation or the neighborhood association. And on some streets, the approval consists of reviewing everything including the garage. Both the City of Richmond and neighborhood associations play a role in reviewing and approving renovations.
During a recent renovation at 3126 Grove Ave. in the Museum District, Bobby + April worked with the builder to find historic photos of the front porch in order to add it back to the front of the home. The home was built in 1921 and, at some point in the home’s history, the owners had removed the porch. But with the photos, Bobby + April were able to recreate the structure and retain the home’s history. Straus and her associates at Bobby + April try to maintain the historical accuracy of the homes they help to renovate inside and out by being loyal to the home’s original carpentry, doors, flooring and the fixtures. “Because we are neighbors as well as realtors, it’s important to us to maintain the integrity of the area -- not just house to house,” says Straus.
They usually turn to Siewers Lumber to recreate the original trim if the existing woodwork cannot be salvaged. In some cases, unique carpentry presents a challenge. Doors, columns and other wood features become damaged through normal wear and tear, and some are layered with lead-based paint.
“We come across doors fairly often we don’t feel like we can recreate,” says Straus. “So we will take it down, and they’re almost always full of lead paint. So they have to be dipped and stripped by someone who does that environmentally correctly. And then they are restructured, repainted and rehung.”
“A lot of people like this area because the homes are built unlike anything you find today,” says Tolson Musik, a realtor with Bobby + April. Musik tries to educate homebuyers about the differences between a historic home and one that’s built to meet their specifications, or is just simply been built in recent years. Contemporary residences boast first-floor master bedrooms, open-concept living spaces, multiple-car garages and sprawling kitchens. Musik reminds homebuyers that they’re looking at a “used house,” just like a used car. Someone owned it before and made it their own – the homebuyer’s job is to see past what’s there now and envision the space where they want to live. “It’s incredibly difficult to get people to visualize a renovation who don’t have that skill,” says Straus. “So, if a client wants to do a renovation, we spend a lot of time taking them through job sites. You can send me photos, but what helps me is for you to stand in a space and say, ‘This is a great size bedroom.’”
THE COOKS ARE IN THE KITCHEN
Original galley-style kitchens are commonplace throughout Richmond’s historic homes, but most homebuyers in today’s market are looking for a blended kitchen and living space. “The kitchen renovations – they’re almost all similar, no matter how much money people are spending,” says Straus. “A kitchen renovation is almost always to open a kitchen up into some other living space.” But opening up kitchens in historic homes presents challenges, especially in dwellings that were originally built as duplexes. With full bathrooms and kitchens on both floors, the biggest issue is usually how to restructure the layout so a homeowner doesn’t have to walk past a shower to get to their kitchen. That usually means moving that bathroom under the staircase or moving the bathroom to some other location downstairs, explains Straus.
HORSE, CART AND OFF-STREET PARKING
Richmond’s historic neighborhoods pre-date the automobile, which means the city wasn’t designed for off-street parking and multiple-car garages. For Straus, the perennial parking question has a simple answer. “If you can’t parallel park, you might want to do some practicing before you make the move to The Fan or Church Hill,” she laughs. Although clients inquire about off-street parking when they’re looking at homes in Richmond’s historic neighborhoods, their options can be limited. Straus explains that many lots do not have enough space to build a freestanding garage. If a homebuyer is lucky enough to find a home with an existing garage, they can keep it because the structure is grandfathered into the zoning regulations. But once the existing structure is torn down, it cannot necessarily be rebuilt, even if they find evidence of the structure in an old photo.
According to William Davidson, zoning administrator for the City of Richmond, most properties in The Fan and Museum District are zoned R-6, which allows for 55 percent of the lot to be covered. In areas west of I-195 (the downtown expressway) the zoning for some properties changes to R-5, which allows for 35 percent lot coverage. The coverage guidelines apply to enclosed spaces and do not include patios, decks or unenclosed porches. Details about each zoning district in the city can be found online, and the city encourages everyone to contact the department of Planning and Development Review before construction projects begin.
IT’S IN THE DETAILS
Reshaping the living space of a historic Richmond home is no small task. In addition to the financial investment and time it takes to complete a renovation project, the process requires vision to maintain the home’s integrity while modernizing the space. And sometimes, the home’s past remains part of its future. For example, at 2125 Stuart Ave. in The Fan, with Bobby + April's help, their client converted a six-apartment building built in 1912 into a 3,780 square foot single-family home with four bedrooms and three bathrooms, including an expansive master suite.Period carpentry such as the staircase in the foyer showcases the home’s original grandeur, and pocket doors still separate the large rooms. Although the home is no longer occupied by six tenants sharing the large space, the apartment numbers can still be seen when you open the pocket doors. Those details were maintained during the renovation of the space. Home to one family now, 2125 Stuart Ave. stands with modern amenities and keepsakes from its past.