Period-Perfect Farmhouse is All in the Details
An 1880s farmhouse gained function and flow with a period-perfect addition and other tweaks throughout
It all started with a stove. And then one thing led to another. For years, self-described old-house purists Amy and Alden Philbrick liked their 1880s red-brick farmhouse just the way they had found it: largely untouched since the day it was built, complete with high ceilings, center gables front and back, and a wraparound porch. Perched on a hill in historic Alexandria, Virginia, it had survived the years without losing its rural roots or unusual T shape.
As the family grew—the Philbricks' three children are now 20, 18, and 12—they thought about adding bathrooms, updating the heating and cooling systems, maybe enlarging the kitchen. But each time, they resisted. "This house was very pristine," says Amy. Hanging a great room off the back and calling it a day was just not an option. "We didn't want it to be like other old houses that had been blown out and messed with."
As time went by, the constraints of the 19th-century house became clear. Its "T" was formed by a broad facade with a central gable and a narrow stem just one room wide and three rooms long. The kitchen, last updated in the 1980s, was stuck at the bottom of the stem with no buffer between its back door and the yard. When the couple entertained, as they often do, guests piled up in the kitchen, neglecting the pine-paneled parlor and living room flanking the front entry. More to the point, says Alden, "Amy's hobby, cooking, was the center point of our family life. And for all those years, she had three feet of counter space."
Still, they put their dreams of 21st-century amenities on hold—until the day Alden offered to buy Amy a new stove.
As it happened, she knew exactly the one she wanted: a French import with two ovens and a customized-to-order array of high- and low-BTU burners, able to dispatch dinner for 12 in no-time flat.
The floor in the grand new kitchen, made from reclaimed heart pine, weds it to the rest of the first floor. The kitchen's four doorways and its landing for the new back stairs also evoke the past.
a ) The creamy yellow of the Quality Custom Cabinetry's cabinets' "aged" patina is the result of a caramel-tinted glaze. The plate rack's contrasting green paint makes the space look as if it evolved over time.
b ) The Calacatta-gold marble counter is set lower at the baking station.
c ) The Lacanche stove has a custom assembly of burners.
e) The reclaimed heart-pine floor makes the new kitchen blend seamlessly with the older parts of the house.
This workhorse would, of course, require breathing room, not to mention ventilation. Soon the couple was talking to local architect George Myers and local kitchen designer Robin Lynch about carving out the right space. Not long after that, they were contemplating building a new kitchen—and a bit more.
Lynch, for one, was thrilled. "This area has a lot of old houses, but this happened to be one of the originals. I knew it would be fun because it would be a restoration with modern updates—keeping a lot of the old and replicating it in the new areas to maintain the flavor."
Myers also knew the perfect general contractor, Bob Klecker, a 27-year veteran who actually prefers to work on old houses, the knottier the better.
After puzzling over the home's awkward layout, the architect proposed a tall, carefully proportioned addition coming off the right side of the house in the back that would change the strict T to more of a gentle J. Clad in brick to match the original structure, the addition would include a one-story bumpout that would help blur the line between old and new by doing a convincing imitation of a classic enclosed porch.
The three-story addition, with its brick cladding and one-story enclosed porch, is hard to distinguish from the original Victorian-era house.
f) The dormered addition, which is shown extending to the left, repeats an original gable.
g) The white-painted lap siding on the low-rise portion of the addition, which houses part of the kitchen, matches the cladding on an enclosed portion of the wraparound porch on the other side of the house.
The addition would make room for a walk-in pantry with a window to channel light into the kitchen, and a hallway from the kitchen to a new powder room and to the old pine parlor and dining room. Equipped with a wet bar so that guests could pick up drinks along the way, the hallway would boost circulation while serving as a transition from new to old. There'd be no more logjams in the kitchen, Amy noted, with traffic flowing in a figure 8.
Open shelves and glass-front cabinets finished with crown molding give this space a vintage look.
h ) A double-hung window with the interior's signature elongated bull's-eye trim channels light into the pantry and the kitchen beyond.
"Over the years, we had a lot of ideas of what we wanted to do," says Alden. So it was hardly surprising that the plan's linchpin—a kitchen as high-performing as Amy's cuisine—was only one in a series of pleasing alterations. Or that once the work was done, 14 long months later, friends could not tell where the addition began or remember where the old house left off.
Damask wallpaper and painted wainscoting preserve the existing dining room's 19th-century style.
j ) A new cased opening leads to the addition. Simpler trim surrounds the closet door.
The general contractor and his crew salvaged, restored, and reused windows, doors, woodwork, knobs, screws, and hinges. When it came time to move the back stairs and frame new windows and passageways, they copied the oak newel post in the foyer and found a mill to match the balusters and the elongated bull's-eyes that trim many of the windows.
The front door opens onto the original heart-pine staircase, which has a carved newel post and painted, turned balusters. The living room is to the left and the pine-paneled parlor is to the right.
l ) The general contractor found the original heart-pine floorboards under a layer of 20th-century oak and uncovered the original oak wainscoting under 14 layers of paint. He restored both.
As part of his campaign to document and undo what few insults the house had suffered over the years, Klecker poked and prodded floors and walls. After prying an original porch railing out of a wall added to enclose a portion of the porch in back, he had proof that the railings had been replaced at one point, so he replaced them again, this time with proper reproductions.
But Klecker's biggest find was the original heart-pine flooring, buried throughout the house under a layer of mid-20th-century blond oak.
"When I heard about that discovery," says Alden, "I did backflips for two weeks."
Tongue-and groove knotty-pine paneling was added to the existing front parlor in a previous renovation.
m) The fireplace was dressed up with molding and a mantel with turned spindles.
n ) New recessed shelves were trimmed to match original millwork elsewhere in the house.
With its brick exterior and pitched roof repeating the main portion of the house, the addition looks from the street as if it has always been there. Inside, it feels that way, too.
Alden, the real stickler in the family, says, "We wanted to make sure we made the new so much like the old that you couldn't tell the difference." He credits Myers with the big concept and Klecker with pinning down the visual cues that intensified the home's historical feel while fusing its old and new parts.
Two bedrooms became a master suite with a dressing closet and a separate walk-in closet.
o ) The custom island has a marble top, drawers, and fluted pilasters.
p ) A Victorian pier table and mirrored dresser are period-appropriate touches.
More space upstairs would allow the family to spread out while fulfilling every old-homeowner's fantasy of big closets and luxurious baths. A bedroom would become a spacious master bath, and two small baths would be turned into walk-in closets, one large enough to serve as a dressing room. Along the way the home would get a new forced-air heating system and central air, and thoughtful tweaks would hide the surgery.
A bedroom was taken over to create space for a double vanity, a freestanding tub, and an enclosed shower.
r ) One-inch marble floor tile adds another vintage touch. The wall paint is Benjamin Moore's Soft Chinchilla.
"When we started, we really just wanted a bigger kitchen," says Amy. "But once you start adding on, you've got to dig a foundation—so heck, we thought, Let's do a room above the kitchen, too." Despite the addition's size, she says, "it's very subtle."
"We both grew up in old homes," adds Alden. "We love the patina of an old floor and the history of it all. That's why we didn't want to ruin a thing—and we didn't."
A closed-off fireplace was opened up to become a focal point—and heating source.
s ) The Victorian Fireplace Shop's fireplace insert burns gas instead of coal and is made of cast iron, painted and polished to look like pewter.
The addition includes a kitchen, pantry, mudroom, and powder room.
Two existing second-floor bedrooms were combined to create a spacious master suite, and a full bath and laundry room were added on the second floor.
A bedroom, bath, and walk-in closet were added to the third floor.
Amy and Alden Philbrick enjoying the vintage-style kitchen they built onto their 120-year-old house.