In spring 1995, I bought a vacant house at the corner of Fourth and Hedge Streets in Charlottesville, Virginia. The house had sat on the market for a year. It was in poor shape, but I was keen to renovate. An architect, I would integrate home and office in a showcase for my practice.
Two stories, the house had brick on the first floor and aluminum siding above. The roof swept down part of the front to make a porch, with shallow arches on columns. The house looked like a pattern book design from the 1920s, Craftsman Style. Records at the city tax assessor office showed that it was built in 1930. Later, on a walk, I found a twin a few blocks away.
Despite its street presence, the house was small by current standards, 1,400 square feet. It had three bedrooms, a living room with a brick fireplace, and a dining room. The galley kitchen had a back door to a tiny back porch, and a stair down to a half basement. The first floor ceiling rose to nine feet. That and the light from windows on all sides made the house seem larger. The yard was also deceptive, overgrown and all in front. The two streets met in an arc, making the lot a quarter circle, with two narrow side yards and no back. All told, it was one tenth of an acre.
Water and electricity had been turned off in the vacant house. The realtor said the house was offered “as is,” buyer beware. I felt qualified to do my own home inspection, but I did not spot flaws so much as I saw design opportunities. The insect screen tacked on the front porch could easily be removed. By climbing into the attic, I saw that the aluminum siding covered stucco. Perhaps a salesman had convinced the previous owner that the siding would eliminate all maintenance. I would remove it and restore the stucco. A crack in the brick wall in front did not look structural. Bubbled plaster under the windows would be a quick repair. The house had radiators for heat, but no air conditioning. I saw a way to insert ducts for a central air system.
On taking possession in May, I restarted the utilities. A toilet leak on the second floor caused the kitchen ceiling to collapse. Unfazed, I measured and drew plans of the house. Then I drew a renovation and estimated what it would cost. A builder named Blodgett agreed to take on the project. He and his crew sweated through June and July as planned, and then through August.
Blodgett found that some repairs were not minor after all. Tracing the cause of the crack in the brick wall, he discovered a gap in the foundation. He dug a hole by hand next to the front porch, poured a concrete footer, and built a new concrete block wall. Backfilled, the expensive fix was invisible. Rainwater had seeped in at window heads, leading to unseen rot and the bubbled plaster I saw below the sills. New flashing was needed. A quadruple window on the Hedge Street side needed a new header. Blodgett’s crew shored the floor above, opened the wall, and manhandled a beam into place.
On the other hand, when the aluminum siding came off, the stucco proved to be in good condition. Blodgett patched holes and cracks. The new air ducts required a dropped ceiling in the kitchen. This was a convenient way to hide the water damage as well as new plumbing and electrical lines. We restored the pine floors and laid ceramic tile in the remodeled bath. New cabinets in kitchen and bath were natural maple. As a final touch, I painted the whole interior. For different rooms, I chose walls of slate blue, apple green, pale yellow and russet, with white wood trim throughout.
The move was about two miles. Loading and unloading the van happened on the same day, September 7. The weather was clear and dry, a hopeful autumn day, perfect for moving furniture. I took some framed pictures and Cyrus the cat in my car, then walked back for my bicycle. I pedaled uphill to the center of town, then coasted down Fourth Street in the gathering dusk. I stored the bicycle in the basement, with garden tools from the old garage.
David and Diane, friends who lived nearby, said my new home was a step up. It was nearly twice the size of the Linden Avenue cottage I had sold. Diane, a part-time decorator, approved of the paint colors. Money ran out, so I put off painting the stucco. The patches looked like scars, but my new neighbors held their peace. As planned, I moved my office from rented space to one of the bedrooms. I economized on food, travel and living expenses. I could walk downtown for errands. Christ Episcopal Church, where I sang in the choir, was a few blocks away.
Early in 1996, my first winter in the house, a blizzard blew in. City streets stayed unplowed for days. The neighbors and I shoveled paths in the street and got about on foot. Snowbound and strapped for cash, I was anxious. By spring, things looked better. On the Hedge Street side, a dogwood blossomed. A local landmark, the tree was as tall as the house and possibly as old, and pink. Like rose-colored glasses, the blossoms tinted the sunlight coming in my office window.
Katina Tripolos, who lived across Hedge Street, told me that people used to stand in front of the pink dogwood in spring while their relatives took photographs. Overweight and unsteady on her feet, clad in a loose, cotton print housedress, she was a former cook in a school cafeteria. Every day, she leaned over her front fence and demanded favors from anyone in sight. The neighborhood was called Greektown, she said, from the number of Greek immigrants who once lived there. The Greek Orthodox church stood nearby. The current generation had dispersed to the suburbs. Katina herself was born in Piraeus, the port of Athens, in 1930. At Easter, I took a photograph of her in front of the dogwood to send to her daughter.
Phil, a friend from my years in New York, came to visit for a week in April. Tall and thin with a dark beard, he had been an assistant to playwright Edward Albee, then worked for the Big Apple Circus. He returned to his hometown of Havana, Illinois. There in a vacant storefront, on a shoestring, he started a community theater. His production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” garnered a rave review from the Peoria Journal Star. To earn a living, Phil joined the State of Illinois as a coach for costumed interpreters at state historic sites such as New Salem, where Abraham Lincoln lived as a young man.
Colonial Williamsburg, east of Richmond, was of no interest. Phil wanted to see the new Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia, a short drive to the west. An outdoor collection of historic houses like Old Sturbridge Village, the Staunton museum also featured costumed interpreters. Phil was professionally critical but naturally enthusiastic. Charlottesville had a budding community theater, as well as the long-established drama department at the University of Virginia. If he wanted to move, opportunities were at hand.
While Phil was a guest, the guest bedroom crumbled. A crack in an exterior wall near the ceiling widened, and a layer of plaster peeled away. The heavy snow of the winter before had stayed on the roof where it melted and refroze, and water had seeped into the eave. The gray shingles were old and cracked. In fact, the whole shingle roof had to be replaced, along with rotted wood at the eaves.
As architectural work picked up over the next two years, I used the money I earned to put on a new roof of brown random-width shingles, more in character with the Craftsman Style design. I repaired the bedroom wall. A house painter painted the exterior stucco a warm beige to go with the red brick, and the scars were covered. A plague of little, lazy flies and a mysterious smell in the basement turned out to be from a leaky drain. A plumber repaired the leak.
In addition to the pink dogwood, the yard had a large Norway maple, a cedar, an arborvitae, privet hedges at the two sides, azaleas at the front, and day lilies along the arc of sidewalk. I trimmed branches, pulled weeds, cut grass and raked leaves. The privet hedges, which had gotten straggly, grew fuller and more even.
I continued to sing tenor in the church choir. I joined the Virginia Consort, a local chorus that gave three concerts each year. Membership was limited by audition, and the program was ambitious, choral classics from the sixteenth century to the present. My choir director was the pianist for the group.
To help learn voice parts, I bought a piano, a Yamaha upright with a cherry wood finish. It fit neatly in the living room between the stair and the fireplace, as if made to measure. A piano was once considered an indispensable accessory for the middle class. I was also middle-aged. If I was going to learn to play a keyboard instrument, it was now or never.
Robert Smith was a piano teacher in his seventies with a studio just off Main Street. I walked to the studio one afternoon a week. It was over a restaurant and up a steep flight of steps. Even an agile person had to pause for breath at the top. The door was never locked. Mr. Smith said it was unnecessary, but I knocked before entering.
Every square inch of wall in Mr. Smith’s studio was covered with a painting or print related to music, and every level surface had a bust of a composer or some musical object on it. There were shelves stuffed with music scores, tottering stacks of sheet music, a sturdy upright piano, a small electric fan, and beside the piano bench an ancient padded armchair into which Mr. Smith sank. He was spry, with a gentle manner and an authentic Virginia accent. He had taught in the local public schools, and he still played organ for a church. Most of his students were children, who arrived with their parents.
The first year of piano lessons was frustrating. I knew how to read music, but my eyes followed one line instead of two. I could keep a steady beat, but my fingers were clumsy. Often, I knew what note to play, but could not get the right finger on the right key. At lessons, Mr. Smith would say, “Not quite, sir,” and he would tell me the note, as if that were the problem. I asked him to assign finger exercises, such as scales in every key, which I had learned on clarinet. Piano students dread these exercises, but I was determined. I practiced every day.
“I assumed you were fond of an avant-garde recording,” said Mary, whose house stood ten feet away, on the other side of the hedge. “Then I realized that nobody would play a record like that over and over again.”
Across Hedge Street and next to Katina lived a retired legal secretary named Nanny Martin. Nanny Martin lived in the house where she was born and brought up. White-haired and frail, she had never married, but she had relatives nearby. Her memory stretched back to a day when the street was a dirt lane, the house two doors away was a stable, and chickens roamed the yard. Every afternoon in warm weather, she sat on her front porch, directly on the sidewalk. She invited passersby to sit with her, and some did. A buzz of voices floated up to my office. After five o’clock, I sometimes joined them. By then, all the chairs were taken. I stood on the sidewalk or leaned against a brick pier.
New Year’s Day of 1997, I invited neighbors, friends and business associates to an open house in the afternoon. The weather was cold and clear, and fifty or more people came. They drank coffee, tea and ginger ale; they ate cookies, crackers and cheese; and they brought bottles of wine and more things to eat. In Charlottesville, no one arrives at a party empty-handed. They trooped through the house. They smiled and chatted.
“The little triangles of brass in the corners of each stair tread,” they said, “what do you call those?”
“Squinches,” I said, “like the curved bits of wall under a dome.” I had pried them out and cleaned them, and they shone bright yellow. The open house became an annual event.
In the six years I lived at Fourth and Hedge, I had houseguests six times, including a couple from France, a friend studying for ordination as an Episcopal priest, and a young man from New Zealand who was touring the United States with a group of Rotarians. I joined Rotary Club at the urging of one of my clients. Phil, after months of hesitation, stayed in Illinois. But I did not live alone, because I lived with Cyrus the cat.
Cyrus had a personality such that friends skipped the small talk to ask: “How is Cyrus?” A small, buff tabby with faint tiger stripes, he was vocal, affectionate, and passionate about the outdoors. He spent most of the day outside, in any weather. He roamed the neighbors’ yards and hunted birds. When he wanted in, he yelled. Or he climbed the pink dogwood to a branch level with my office window and hectored me from there. I ran downstairs and opened the door. Cyrus raced down the tree branches and into the house.
Cyrus slept on my bed, and if I was unwary, crept under the cover. He survived several scratches, bites and infections, one of which required him to wear a plastic cone around his neck. The veterinarian, born and educated in England, called it an Elizabethan collar. Cyrus, who hated collars of all kinds, survived that, too. He once disappeared for a week, then trotted nonchalantly through the open door one cool October night. He accompanied me on evening walks, to the delight of people who saw us. He did not care for the piano, at least the way I played it.
His moment of glory came on another autumn night. A rat had gotten into the kitchen, where it pilfered dry cat food from his dish. Cyrus cornered the rat under the stove. I heard scuffling noises and pulled the stove away from the wall. Cyrus caught the rat, which uttered a piercing squeal. I flung open the back door. Cyrus dashed out with the rat in his mouth. He showed up the next day groggy from his raw feast.
In 1999, I landed a major commission. A corporate executive from Buffalo, New York took early retirement—a golden parachute—and relocated to Charlottesville. With his French wife and two children, he bought a five-acre lot on an artificial lake. There they built a cream-colored stucco mansion with a slate roof, casement windows, and a formal garden. French doors opened on a terrace above the lake. This project, along with others, boosted my income. In May, I paid off the loan on my house. In December, I traded in my white Chevy Cavalier for a used Lexus two-door painted a shimmering gray-green.
I took a vacation. Since college, I had studied the great cities of Europe, their history and planning, and I had pored over books on Venice. I taught myself some Italian, flew to Venice for a week off-season, and stayed in a small hotel near San Marco. I walked all day, got blisters on my feet, and crammed my eyes with art and architecture. I took a boat trip on the lagoon to the island of Torcello, site of an eleventh-century cathedral. I ate fried octopus, polenta and baccalà. In the Mercerie, I dodged crowds and bought postcards and silk scarves as gifts.
Success posed an unexpected problem. With the house at Fourth and Hedge renovated and paid for, what should I do next? Confident of my skill in residential design, I bought a lot on which to build a house for sale. The new subdivision was a long drive east of town, modestly priced, and apparently immune to cheap, mass-market development. I hired a contractor to build a two-story country cottage with a front porch, a deck and a two-car garage.
A realtor named Sue signed on to sell the property. Sue and her company gave it a minimal advertising budget. The house was completed, then lingered through the summer months. I visited once a week, vacuumed the floors, and watered the foundation plants. I tried another realtor, Frank. More months passed. I later learned that Frank used my speculative house to sell his cheaper listings, tinsel houses that were popping up through a loophole in the subdivision covenants.
Architects had been switching to computer-aided design and drafting, or CADD, since the 1980s. The hardware and software were expensive, and it took months to learn the new method. I clung to my pencil, straightedge and drafting board. But I had learned how to use a word processor, email, and the internet. In the autumn of 2001, I enrolled in a twelve-week course at Piedmont Virginia Community College to learn CADD. One of the other students, a young man named Richard, asked if I had a job for a drafter.
The prospect of an employee in my house, when I was frequently away at meetings and site visits, gave me pause. A one-room office rental was available nearby, at a rent I could afford. Adjacent rooms would allow expansion. A tenant chatted in the corridor. George, a real estate appraiser, said that the management was okay. On this basis, I signed a lease and moved my office. Richard, who was working for a concrete supplier, would come work for me in January. Together, we would set up a new CADD system.
By the end of the year, as loan payments on the speculative house eroded any hope of profit, I listed the house at Fourth and Hedge for sale. If need be, I could move to the new house. A realtor named Sharon took on both listings. In short order, she sold the house in town. A day after I signed the contract, Sharon had an offer for the spec house. It would be a financial loss, but profit from the sale of Fourth and Hedge would more than offset it.
I asked Sharon to let me sleep on it. After six years, the house at Fourth and Hedge felt old and cramped, a project I was done with. Maybe the awkward timing was a shove, a sign to move on. I could find a temporary place to live and build a new house for myself. A vacant lot near town had caught my eye. Cyrus moved with me once. Maybe he would adjust again.
The next morning, I told Sharon to go ahead.