A Modern House Addition
You would expect two design wizards in the furniture biz to have a house full of artful choices and at the Salerno/Labas home you will not be disappointed. All the big names of Mid Century Modern are represented in the house which is a study of retro cool. It didn’t always look like this and the back story reveals a successful design collaboration nestled in a totally groovy enclave.
Starting in the late 1940’s architect Charles Goodman and builder Robert Davenport teamed up to build 450 homes in Hollin Hills, Virginia a different kind of a subdivision south of Alexandria. The neighborhood was completed in the 1970’s, the homes are modern with a capital “M,” strict architectural covenants are enforced, design awards are routinely bestowed and the crowd continues to go wild.
“I’ve known about it since high school days when we used to drive through with my buddies and I’d say, ‘one of these days I’m going to own a house there,’” says Steve Labas, account exec with MOI/Knoll. The Labas dream came true in 1992 after he and his wife, Cathy Salerno, a territory manager for HON furniture and self described “Retro Gal” drove by a particularly troubled property.
“After we bought it the neighbors kept coming up and thanking us,” says Salerno, “it needed a lot of work.” The couple made some initial improvements but a few years ago, Labas couldn’t stand it anymore. “We told the architect to design an addition around a king-sized bed,” he says.
Up until the addition the couple had been sharing a double. To provide Labas with enough room for his heart’s desire the couple tapped rising arch star, Ben Ames, Principal, Amestudios of Alexandria, Virginia to lead the charge towards spaciousness.
“They wanted a master suite, utility room, and a new entry and we focused on squeezing that into 1000 square feet,” says Ames. Ames knocked the ball out of the park by also dropping in a screened-in porch, a front patio, and a free standing art pavilion that doubles as a poker room on certain Friday nights.
Any changes to the exteriors of houses in Hollin Hills has to be approved by the local architectural review board but a radical makever was never in the plans. “We had a vision of continuity,” says Labas, “and we basically saved up till we could do the whole thing at one time.”
Ames wanted to use the new entryway as a way to give the front yard an entirely new look. “The assumption was to use the addition to create a path and make an experiecnce out of getting to the front door. We wanted to organize the front yard.”
The entry way itself is defined by a monomithic slab of concrete bordering one edge and a frosted glass awning above. A desirable landing pad rests on the flag stone patio sequestered in between the home’s wings and ringed by landscaping. Twin four-place tables are fequently pushed together to accommodate large alfresco meals.
After-work martinis manufactured by Labas, have been known to find their way to the patio. The cocktails are typically concocted in the new utiluty room that also hides the lauundry, the mechanicals, a sink and fridge. The whole room itself then hides behind a custom fabricated pocket door just off the entry way.
To deal with setbacks the addition angles off towards the rear of the lot which updates the front façade without distrubing the original character of the house. To keep the low-profile roof lines from going squirrely, Ames had to run some of the HVAC ducts under the floor.
The new den is tucked behind a wall of mahogany cabinets that define the space and also serves as a free standing coat closet but it was supposed to be something else. “That was supposed to be an art wall,” says Ames, “bit the cabinetry became the thing to look at.” A glass partition with embedded leaves in the cabinet helps lighten the mass while bringing a dash of the outside in.
The couple’s living room remains basically unchanged except the TV was moved out to encurage conversations around the fireplace. Seating is available on the Goetz sofa, offered by Herman Miller or the molded plywood Eames chairs. There’s more Saarinen in the form of a dining room table or you can have breakfast with Noguchi while sitting on Bertoia. So many designers, so little time to sit.
Put two designer types in a room with an architect may result in some creative fur flying but eveybody on this project seemed to enjoy the interaction. “It was fun,” says Salerno, “there was some givea and take, some push and pull, but the resolution brought us to common good.”
Ames adds that linquistics wasn’t an issue in this case. “I’ve had difficult clients, including my own mother, but this was nice because we all speak the same language.”
The kum-ba-ya momnets were crucials since the renovation lasted far longer than anybody anticipated. When the homeowners applied for a variance the county showed a road running through the property that didn’t really exist. Naturally the county needed proof that there was no road.
Problematic soil conditions also slowed things down and foundations needed to be reconsidered and rejiggered. The construction pahse gradually stretched across three years. Everybody believes it was worth the wait, including the architect. “I love the relationship between the addition and the existing house and how it connects to the outdoors,” says Ames.
Labas got his king-sized bed, and Salerno got more living area while respecting the past. “It’s great to have the extra space, plus it feels and looks like it’s been here a long time,” she says.
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