When you take a 100-pound golden retriever out for an excursion, you expect him to fetch a big stick or enthusiastically sniff out a long-lost tennis ball. After all, he has that natural instinct to seek and deliver things he thinks will please his owner. That’s why Charlottesville homeowner Alana Woerpel credits her dog Oscar as being responsible for finding her family’s new home when she and a friend were out walking one morning last year.
The Woerpels lived in the neighborhood but had never paid much attention to the 1950s split-level home on the heavily wooded lot down the street. “It was one of those houses you passed a thousand times, but never really saw,” Alana explains. The house is set down from the roadway and the driveway switches back, so you really don’t see it from the street. She adds, “The lot feels very private, even though it’s in the middle of the city. And, of course, at that time, the lot was heavily overgrown.”
But, on this particular dog-walking morning, Alana noticed an unusual flurry of activity at the home—lots of workmen and trucks—so she stopped to inquire. One of the workmen explained that the elderly homeowner had recently passed away and the house was being cleaned out and prepared to be put on the market. Curious, Alana asked permission to look around. Though the home appeared to have seen its heyday several decades earlier and there were ladders, toolboxes and drop cloths everywhere, Alana could immediately see the home’s potential. Alana is an interior decorator with over 27 years of experience and has that knack for seeing past a home’s outward appearance, visualizing other possibilities for it.
She says, “Despite the disarray, I was immediately taken with this home.” Alana and her husband Kurt made an offer before the house ever hit the market; and, as fate would have it, their house sold just as quickly. With those quick real estate transactions, Alana had to shift into high gear—she had one month to get the new home habitable before moving day. She says, “Right away, we had to do asbestos remediation. Then, we worried about aesthetics.”
Alana has an extensive collection of “before” photos on her iPad, and comparing them to the way the home appears now provides a stark contrast. Alana has made drastic improvements to every room in the house, but has done so mostly by reconfiguring and redecorating spaces, rather than gutting rooms all the way down to the studs and starting over completely. The stylishly refurbished home preserves the home’s design intention for the dramatic—seen in the many elevation changes from room to room, the Juliet balcony in the soaring foyer, the sinuous curve of the floating staircase and the elaborate millwork throughout the main rooms of the house. Alana says, “I like old things. There’s an integrity in old things and I think there’s a way to make old things lovely without having to resort to tearing them down.”
Alana says it helps to have a practical sensibility when it comes to making decisions when you’re dealing with an older home—especially when the needs are so great. She says, “It was a triage mindset, where we had to quickly become conscious of, ‘What you can live with?’ Decide, ‘What’s good for now?’ And say, ‘Okay, time to move on to the next thing.’”
She says, “There were certain features about this home that I immediately loved and wanted to preserve—the windows, the glamorous curving stairway, the polished stone floors, the steps down into sunken entertaining rooms, the pocket doors—all those things create the home’s Hollywood vibe. Don’t you sort of expect to step around the corner and see Cary Grant mixing a cocktail for Doris Day? It’s so…1950s glam.”
From the formal foyer with its soaring ceilings and double doors, it’s a few steps down to the kitchen on the right, a few steps down to the den straight ahead, and a few steps down to the formal living room and sunroom on the left. The walls are covered in an ivory and pale gray Osborne and Little wallpaper in an oversized, contemporary trellis pattern—echoing designs on the decorative wooden trim on the dramatically swooping stairway at the far left end of the foyer.
Alana says the kitchen has seen a great transformation, but has retained many of its original elements like the doors that can hide it from the foyer, the exterior Dutch door, the butler’s pantry and the kitchen cabinetry. She explains, “With the indispensable help of builder Rich Bell, we took out a couple of walls and reconfigured the space, and arranged it so the dining table can go down the center of the room. We liked the character of the original cabinetry, but painted it and added new hardware. We installed new soapstone countertops, added new appliances and fixtures and put down Mountain Lumber’s pre-engineered Chinese Elm flooring, which is great for our pets.”
Alana says that one of the hallmarks of her style is that she prefers a quiet color palette of solid neutrals, accented by textures. Her personal favorites are shades of ivory, gold and green. The wall colors throughout her home are Benjamin Moore’s White Dove. She says, “We have so many windows, I wanted to ensure our interior living spaces would be serene. Painting the walls and trim the same color, but varying the sheen, gives the contrast.” The walls are painted in a flat latex, the trim is an oil-based semi-gloss.
On the floors in every room besides the kitchen and baths is polished flagstone, sisal installed as carpeting—or a combination of the two. The flagstone is original to the house. Alana explains that outside on the patios, the flagstone was left unpolished, giving it a weathered, charcoal-gray appearance. When they bought the home, Alana says the floors were carpeted in yellow-gold carpet. She chose sisal to replace it because it’s cost-effective and durable. She used sisal with a tiny weave upstairs and sisal with a chunky weave downstairs. She says you don’t often see sisal used as carpeting (it’s more commonly used for area rugs), and she finds it to be a budget-friendly, versatile floor covering because you can layer area rugs on top of it for an interesting, textural effect.
The den is the central entertaining room in the home, next to the kitchen with a clever bar tucked into a back hallway that passes through to the formal living room on the other side. In the corner stands a sculpture created by Alana and Kurt’s older son, who graduated from the Pratt Institute of Art in New York last year. Floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors open onto a tree-top level, elegant flagstone entertaining balcony set with tables and chic black and white cushioned lounging chairs. Blanketed here by a thick canopy of trees and surrounded by lush plant life, one truly has the feeling of relaxing in a private woodland retreat.
Another interesting detail, original to the home, is the decorative border of stone where it meets the carpet. This decorative touch not only helps blur the transition from outdoors to indoors, but adds flair to it.
Alana says there are other cutting-edge-for-its-day details about the home that she’s discovered (though they may be less apparent), such as the radiant heating in the floors and the way the heating and cooling ducts are concealed in the decorative trim work in the ceiling in the living room.
The wet bar between the den and the formal living room is a fun little space. Alana amped up its appearance with metallic Lee Jofa wallpaper that has a retro vibe. She also painted the bar’s original shelving and cabinetry in a creamy caramel color and added new pulls and countertops.
The formal living room has a pair of deep, plush green velvet sofas that face one another—just beckoning you to have a seat by the fireplace. Though the room is dressy, it’s not fussy. Alana says that’s her chief design goal for a room—to draw you in and give you places to comfortably linger. On the wall across from the fireplace is a pair of handsome built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcases on each side of the cased opening that leads to the sun porch—Alana’s favorite room.
Alana says she gravitates to the sun porch year round and loves watching the outdoor fountain and the seasons change from this room. At one end is an antique wooden day bed covered by a matelassé slipcover and a collection of pillows, while at the other end, a vintage iron café set is the perfect spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and the morning news. The sun porch opens onto one of the most interesting spaces of all—the sunken patio courtyard, which you catch just a glimpse of when you first approach the home from the driveway. It’s a favorite spot for entertaining, and Kurt and Alana have had extensive work done on the landscaping around it so they can fully enjoy the beauty of the space.
Alana says this patio is not only charming, but perhaps is also a charmed space. She explains, “Things were so overgrown, leaves were everywhere, and we were busy with other concerns, so we didn’t see them at first.” Inlaid into the patio floor like a mosaic are the patterns of a fish, a crab, a cross and a star. In the massive curved stone wall that surrounds the sunken patio are relief designs of a giant clamshell and a giant conch shell, a unicorn and a Greek god made of terra cotta. They’ve also unearthed sand-dollar-patterned stepping-stones.
Since the discovery of these patterns on the patio, Alana has learned that in the foyer, on wooden display plaques installed above the doorways, the homeowner used to keep statues of elephants. “Clearly, she had a magical, mystical sense about her and kept these talismans, probably for good luck,” she says.
Alana says upstairs was a bit of a time capsule and was arranged differently from new homes of today. She says the three-bedroom/two-and-a-half bath home had originally been built in the early 1950s for a family who had six children. All the kids slept dormitory-style in one bedroom together with a Jack-and-Jill bath connected to the father’s home office. The parents’ bedroom was at the far end of the hall and had an en suite bath.
Kurt and Alana have two sons—the college graduate, who has a career in New York, and a teenager who still lives at home. Kurt and Alana reconfigured the upstairs bed and bath arrangement and significantly modernized both upstairs bathrooms. Kurt and Alana claimed the spacious bedroom that once slept six. The former home office is now a guest bedroom reserved for their grown son, and their teenager sleeps in the room that was originally the master bedroom suite.
One spot where the home unapologetically shows its age is in the powder room off the foyer, where Alana decided to “keep the pink potty” and make it a point of design in the stylish little powder room. Woodworker Michael Keith helped rework the vanity. The walls are covered in glittery bronze and brown animal-print wallpaper as the pale coral-colored commode takes center stage as a rather sculptural and unique focal point in the water closet. She laughs, “Everybody loves the pink potty! I don’t think we can ever get rid of it, now.”
(It just goes to show that small pleasure can be taken in even the most practical of items!)
Alana’s design studio is at her home, so she had the same time constraints to establish her business in its new location as she did her family in its new home. The basement has its own entrance, and was a sunny but unfinished space with cinder-block walls and a concrete floor. Alana had a heating and cooling system installed and faux-painted the floor herself, using painter’s tape, latex paint and an oil-based polyurethane to seal and protect it. She laughs, “I’m one of those people that never sleeps. This is the kind of stuff I do at midnight and 2 a.m.”
Her fabric and wallpaper samples are organized along an entire wall in a floor-to-ceiling IKEA closet shelving system. She says, “We don’t have a design center in the area, so it’s essential that I keep my own samples.” In the center of the room is a gigantic padded work table, trimmed around the edges with wooden yardsticks. Alana says she can measure fabric and even iron on it. She also has a professional-sized sewing machine in case she ever needs to make a quick repair or an on-the-spot adjustment before an installation. She also keeps a tidy resource library of books and trade magazines, organized so she can put her fingertips on what she’s looking for in an instant.
What a treat it was for this old house to be discovered by Oscar for Alana, as she and her family have an appreciation for its style and glamour and have lovingly brought it back to life for a whole new era.
“Good boy, Oscar!”