For D.C.-based architect Edgar Sever and his wife, interior designer Lenore Headly, of Sever Headly Design Group, the opportunity to renovate a deteriorating 160-year-old Alexander Jackson Davis Gothic Revival-style house in remote, sleepy Gallows, Va. seemed, like the dark rain that preceded it, to have fallen from the sky.
Lauded from D.C. to Tokyo for their signature industrial steel-and-glass fabrication designs and edgy interiors, the chance to ply their craft on the 19th century rural residence at 66 Fissure Hollow that boasted decorated bargeboards, a castellated parapet and stained glass pointed arch windows - instead of iron outrigger beams and cantilevered brushed nickel and glass stairs, for example – at first glance seemed very much out of character for the architect/designer team. “It was just like a square peg/round hole scenario, but after talking with us, the young homeowner was pretty certain we should take a stab at it,” Sever recalled of their chance meeting one night as they contemplated changing a flat tire on a flooded country road. “In fact, he refused to let us go until we said yes.”
A Descent Into The Maelstrom
It all began, according to Sever, when the couple borrowed a neighbor’s vintage Ford truck (affectionately monikered “The Relic”) before leaving their Kalorama home for an antiquing weekend. The truck was to help transport two late 18th century Pennsylvania Chippendale desks, located for them by a Southern Virginia furniture dealer, back to the District. Despite a weekend weather report that portended nothing short of a small typhoon, Sever and Headly made the trip.
“As a favor to a friend, Ed and I were doing a Georgetown row house,” Headly recalled, affirming that residential design wasn’t really their métier but “friends are friends.” Because of some unanticipated architectural incursions, in addition to the interior design work, they’d spent more than nine months in review, had just gotten Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and Advisory Neighborhood Committee (ANC) approval, and were anxious to find product and get going, rain or shine, she explained. The desks, along with a cherished heirloom Chippendale armchair and settee already on the premises, were to be the centerpieces of the 3,200 s.f. row house’s great room. The truck the couple borrowed, on the other hand, was not so cherished and suffered two separate flat tires, going and coming.
“The fierceness of the storm, the added weight of the desks and fear of damaging them, and the increasing darkness made it impossible to change the tire on the way back,” Sever said, adding that the Gallows, Va. homeowner who would soon retain their services seemed to appear out of thin air on the road that night, ushering them through the woods and down a broken path into the Gothic Revival structure to dry off. The evening turned into cocktails, dinner and a lantern and candlelight tour of the three-story structure after the storm doused the electricity. “Even by lantern, it was clear that an antiquated mechanical system, insufficient insulation, sagging cross-gabled roof, cracking foundation and leaks everywhere - not to mention drafts, cold spots, strange thumps and creaking noises we could not easily identify - would mandate razing the house in most cases,” Sever said, “but the homeowner wanted to save it. In fact, he wanted us to save it. He just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
The Valley of Unrest
Months later, plans to gut and renovate the tired property had gone through yet a fourth iteration – and endured the purchase of two new computers. “It was odd,” Sever reported. “We would just finish what we thought were the right renderings and the next morning they would be gone, almost as though someone had deleted them. We finally gave up and got new hardware.” When the homeowner reportedly suffered a fatal machine accident, Sever said they were contacted by someone who explained he was a family member –in fact the great-grandfather of the deceased – who asked that the team be his weekend guests at the house in Gallows in order to gain a better perspective of his great grandson’s wishes. “He said when the weekend was over, we’d know exactly what was expected of us,” Sever recalled.
On a clear, biting (“We could see our breath,” Headly recalled) late October Saturday at dawn, the team, consisting of Sever, Headly, project architect William Wilson and team member Annabel Lee, left Washington for the four-hour drive to the house at Fissure Hollow, buoyed by the thought that the work might actually soon begin. Though sunny at the outset, darkening skies and a violent thunderstorm just outside of Gallows hastened them toward the site. “A note welcomed us and apologized once we got to the front door,” Sever said, “urging us to enter and fend for ourselves for the first night. It said the house itself would tell us what to do.”
Again without power, and following a dinner of cold canned chili and crackers from the pantry, the group set about by lantern and candlelight assessing a litany of design and structural flaws and rot. While the foundation they discovered of 20-inch thick granite would typically preclude razing a structure, even one with significant deterioration such as this, the team was more than certain the end result would be a total gutting and redesign, according to Headly. “We wanted to save what we could because that had been the homeowner’s desire,” she said, “and though our work tends more toward raw steel than stained glass, we are proponents of preservation, especially in a region like this.” The Gothic Revival hand carved wooden fireplace, she indicated, replete with “pointed arches and quatrefoils,” needed to be preserved to honor the 19th century craftsmen whose legacy it illustrated.
With temperatures dropping and the power still out, Sever said the group carefully built a large fire and bedded down beside it for the night, only to have the flames quickly quelled by a burst of cold air. As the team huddled by dying embers, a constant tapping which turned to rapping at the door (and numerous attempts to determine what was causing it, to no avail) put everyone on edge, Headly recalled. When a final investigation by her husband yielded an ungainly black bird, it entered the room through the now half-opened door, circled the dentil, egg and dart crown molding, and perched on the pallid bust of a Greek god.
“We were somewhat surprised,” Headly said, “but nowhere near as mystified as when the diaphanous form of the homeowner appeared to tend the fire.”
“My great-grandfather, who died in 1978, doesn’t want anyone to alter this house,” he said, sort of floating, wiping some residual blood and thready nerves from a dangling forearm while explaining the elder’s plan to scare them all the way back to the District. “But I do. I really love it; it’s just that it needs to be modernized.”
“But aren’t you…also dead?” the group asked incredulously.
“Details,” the homeowner said. “So how about it?”
According to Sever, it took the team all of 30 seconds to exit the house and point the car back to Washington, the black bird on their heels.
“We’re somewhat concerned about historical review,” he explained a month later, noting that the design was currently in its fifth iteration, “but all signs point to a spring start.” When asked about working with a rather gossamer homeowner, Sever said it has its drawbacks, such as his entering meeting rooms unannounced, directly through closed doors, and hovering during project updates that the team wasn’t quite ready to share, but all in all, it’s working out.
“Over dinner the other night Lenore asked me if I’d ever consider doing another project of this ilk,” Sever said. “I wanted to say I was game, but wouldn’t you know it, quoth that darned black bird that followed us home, ‘Nevermore. Nevermore.’”
Happy Halloween from everyone at DCMud