A Salt Box House
Images by Hoachlander Davis Photography
For many of us, our homes are a reflection of who we are. We select places to live by looking at prices, school districts, and the feeling of a neighborhood. But sometimes finding the perfect location is hampered by a long line of high hurdles. Such was the case for Jeff and Gail Broadhurst who found the perfect spot for a house in 1987 then battled for years to achieve their dream and finally emerged victorious. The process of designing and building their charming saltbox put them both to a test that began with a very simple ad in the newspaper.
“It said, ‘beautiful corner lot in Rockville,’” says architect Jeff Broadhurst, “but when we drove up there we couldn’t find it.” At the time, he and his wife Gail were living in an apartment in Kensington and were intrigued by a slice of land in an excellent location that for some reason was priced at almost half the market rate.
After parking the car and exploring a bit, the couple located the parcel being offered. “There was a bunch of cars, vans, and busses crammed onto the lot,” says Gail Broadhurst, “it was just weird.” The tale got stranger as the Broadhursts figured out there were no utilities on the lot and no legal access to it. It could only be reached via an alley that cut into the middle of the block. The owner was a bona fide eccentric who lived in Germantown but used the lot as a workshop/laboratory for various mechanical projects.
Undeterred by space’s shortcomings, the couple explored what it would take to make the land buildable. “We hired an engineer and showed plans to the neighbors about turning the alley into a driveway,” says Jeff Broadhurst. The couple agreed to the price and got everybody, including the city of Rockville Maryland on board with the plan. But when they went back to owner to close the deal, there was a problem. “Once the owner found out we had an approved plan, he said, 'I’m not selling,’” recalls Jeff.
Now emotionally and financially vested in the lot, Gail Broadhurst spoke to the owner’s wife who overruled the amateur inventor and the deal was finally struck. During the negotiations, Jeff Broadhurst had already started drawing plans based on things that Gail said she always wanted in a house. “I told him that I liked wrap-around porches, French doors and window seats,” she says, “and I wanted a dining room because we didn’t have one as a kid.”
Jeff rolled his wife’s requests into his own desires for having a house with a large amount of open space while staying on a modest construction budget and found himself drawn to a house type that dates back to the 1600’s – the saltbox. The style takes it’s name from decorative yet functional boxes that were used to store salt during colonial times. The boxes hung on kitchen walls and featured long slanted covers. This asymmetrical pitched “roof” is mimicked in salt box homes. John Adams, second president of the United States and his son, John Quincy Adams were both born in salt box houses.
There are other salt boxes in the same neighborhood as the Broadhurst lot and Jeff used to drive by handsome rendition in Kensington that he admired – so the basic design scheme was set. According to the plans, the long sloping roof line on the back of the house would face the public street, a side door would face the driveway, which used to be the alley, and the requested porch would wrap around the front of the house which actually faces towards the interior of the block. Weather vanes, functioning shutters and brackets under the eaves turned new construction into a house that looked like it was always there.
The building phase began in May of 1988 as the couple moved in with family members to save on construction costs. Eighteen months after breaking ground the house still wasn’t finished as the builder announced he had underbid the project and couldn’t complete the job. “Money was very tight and we moved in before it was ready,” says Jeff.
Family holidays were celebrated amidst the ongoing construction as Jeff milled trim work in the basement and Gail became the painting contractor. “I was up there on a forty foot ladder,” says Gail, “I enjoyed doing it which was good because we had no other option.” Over the next few years, the couple became a family with two children as the construction slowly wound down. Details were finished as time and money became available. What emerged was a wonderfully engaging, updated take on a traditional salt box.
Broadhurst took the highly peaked roof line on the exterior and used it to create an interior living area with a soaring ceiling, and a roomful of natural light. Roof trusses were left exposed adding an extra dose of folksy feeling to the space. Family bedrooms and a full bath is located upstairs with interior window and door openings carved into the rooms looking out on the space below. Gail says, “our parents worried about the kids falling but our girls grew up without ever trying to jump over the rail and now we do balloon drops from upstairs on New Year’s Eve.”
Gail’s request for a dining room was answered with an attractive, casual space just off the kitchen, a room big enough for everyone to gather around the table. The open floor plan between the dining room and living area is broken up by a line of built-in base cabinetry that provides adequate storage for the room while permitting an easy flow between the spaces. The cabinetry was completed in 2000. The desire for a window seat was also granted by a bay window off the dining room. But to get the French doors she wanted, Gail would have to wait until 2005 when the Broadhursts decided to expand the salt box.
They bumped out the side of the house opposite of the alley, adding a family room downstairs and another bedroom upstairs. “With the kids growing up and having friends over we wanted a cozy room that could be closed off from the rest of the house so they could watch a movie,” says Gail.
The downstairs family room materialized with a line of built-ins that offer desk space, storage and a niche for the television. An upper line of lighted cabinets works great for display space. The walls were covered with naturally finished pine and the ceiling was done in period friendly beadboard. A set of French doors lead out to the patio.
Above the family room is the space inhabited by a growing teenage daughter. Beadboard wainscoting ties the upstairs and downstairs together while the trim around doors and windows doubles as ad hoc shelving. Traditional lighting fixtures add to new yet old house effect.
People and families are dynamic entities, growing and evolving over time which affects how the space in a home is utilized. In 2004 Jeff decided to open his own architectural practice by turning his daughter’s old play room in the basement into office space. Toys came out as filing cabinets and drafting tables were moved in. When the family originally bought the lot Gail had been working as a claims adjuster for an insurance company. She continued working part-time as the kids were growing up but in 2006 she got her own office and became part of Broadhurst Architects.
Over the years, Jeff Broadhurst had been making a living designing other people’s houses while also configuring and reconfiguring his own space. He came through the experience with valuable lessons. “The biggest challenge for me was learning to be patient. Working on a bunch of high-end projects for other people I learned not to freak out,” he says.
The other big upside for Jeff is the fact that the house fits into the neighborhood in terms of scale and appearance – a very hot button in the design community. “The best compliment I ever got was when I heard a neighbor say, ‘that’s guys doing a really good renovation on that old house,’” he says. But the salt box is actually new construction that was started in 1988 and is now finally finished. Right, Jeff?
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