Stepping into the entrance of 106 Whetstone Place in Charlottesville, you hear a twinkling bell from centuries ago, making you wonder… Where have I heard that sound before?
“It’s an old piece, a servant’s bell, made by the man who constructed the bells in the opening scenes of Downtown Abbey,” says homeowner Gretchen Arnold. “My husband Bill researched and found him, and this is the prototype the craftsman used to make the summons bells for the television series.”
This special doorbell at the home of Gretchen and Bill Arnold could hardly be more appropriate. With bell tones echoing in your mind, you go from the home’s entrance toward a spacious living room of yellows and grays, muted colors reminiscent of English sunbeams and opaque mists. The space is appointed with comfortable chairs, old portraits, varnished wood, and a fireplace with a fan of family plates arched over a distinctive mirror above the mantel. On the far wall hang floor-to-ceiling floral panels of Chinese figures in landscape. In one corner, a tall grandfather’s clock ticks, a replica built by Bill Arnold. In the other corner, Holly, a tricolored King Charles Spaniel, snores on the Oriental rug to the metronomic rhythm of the brass pendulum, her face buried on front paws. She is relaxed, and suddenly—as a visitor—so are you.
And that’s the whole idea.
“I’m fascinated with English homes, particularly from the 17th and 18th centuries. I like things refined and gracious, but not over the top,” Gretchen says. “My goal in decorating this house was to make it timeless. I hate that ‘out of date’ look. I like the endurance of antiques.”
The Arnolds bought the home on Whetstone Place in 1996, attracted to its interior flow and its location, close to town but hidden by mature trees and private cul-de-sacs, insulated from Charlottesville traffic. Gretchen is a medical librarian at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia; Bill is a former flight surgeon with the Navy and an anesthesiologist who retired from practice at the University of Virginia. Built in 1967, their two-story brick home contains four bedrooms and a glassed-in porch across the back.
Immediately, the first time stepping inside, Gretchen and Bill identified the home as a “retreat,” where a medical doctor working long hours could look forward to coming home, “making a fire, and kind of unwinding. That was important for him,” says Gretchen. She saw the spacious Charlottesville home as a project, having worked as a librarian in other locations while living in apartments and condos. “It was a big opportunity. And that appealed to me, although I was overwhelmed in the beginning. I was like, ‘What was I thinking? Whoa!’”
What she was thinking was establishing permanence, a kind of domestic graciousness, like scenes in a classic book she enjoys called The English Country House. “Within its pages there is this beautiful room in a Georgian house with a mantelpiece—it’s gorgeous—but if you look closely, you see a bottle of cough syrup on the mantel,” she laughs. “And I thought, ‘That’s the way I want my home to be—to look beautiful but lived in!’”
She hired interior designer Moyanne Harding of Interiors by Moyanne in Lynchburg. “I realized I couldn’t do this project by myself; I’m a professional in my field and Moyanne is a professional in hers. I recognized her area of expertise, and she did mine. We clicked.”
From the start, Gretchen, Bill and Harding’s shared interests in history and love of English antiques inspired harmonious choices. The present living room has yellow-checked draperies, accented with half-circle toile shades which combine a fresh 21st-century feel with the rich elegance of the past. A life-sized portrait from 1767 by Allan Ramsay, a Scottish painter who lived and worked mainly in London as a renown portraitist, sets the room’s tone. From a heavy gold-leaf frame, Mrs. Steele, as the woman in this portrait is known, casts her graceful countenance across the living space in which soft grays shimmer like a London fog. Another English painting from the 1770s hangs in the foyer—a youth holding his rifle in his left hand, his spaniel hunting dog on his right.
The dining room off the foyer contains a reproduction table of English yew, a soft wood of varying colors from amber to darker shades that deepen with age. A hunt board displays delicate china pieces from Gretchen’s family’s past, including a hand-painted punch bowl which dates from 1904. Her father’s family came to America around 1640 to settle in Athens, New York on the Hudson River. Her mother’s family established residence in Virginia around 1650 in the Northern Neck near Kinsale. It is this ancestry that deposited a fascination with history into her DNA. “My father was a historian. He got a job in Manassas as a park historian interested in military history and the Civil War. So as a family we went to historical sites, and we went antiquing. That was just part of my early childhood,” says Gretchen. Bill dates his lineage back to the Mayflower—hence his interest in relics and passion for history that led him to research the servant’s summoning doorbell. It was also at his suggestion that the front door, formerly a two-door entrance, became a massive custom single panel with leaded glass.
Decorating her home has taken time, but Gretchen is glad she didn’t do it all at once. It’s kept her busy and fascinated. The kitchen was redone in 2010, including the installation of a long quartz-topped center island for food preparation. Other focal points in this renovation are the black French range by La Cornue and the cabinets, finished in a gray-green lacquer with gold brush strokes.
Off the kitchen, the family room contains a French reproduction mirror with glass that looks old and conveys solidity in its setting above a stone fireplace. Across the doorway two slender rifles—one old and one a reproduction—balance the room. A gray upholstered sofa borders one wall flanked by red-checked companion chairs. Lounging on one chair, two old-fashioned Siamese cats, Coco and Lila, open their slanted eyes, yawn, stretch and settle back into warm, snoozing circles on a leopard throw. This is what Gretchen calls the “lived-in look.” It’s a look that takes its cue from the past but also from what is functional in the present.
An herb garden outside near the back door provides flavor for Gretchen’s weekend forays through cookbooks to find a recipe that nudges her, “Wow, I think I’ll try that!” And before long, the fragrance of a roasted lemon chicken with homegrown rosemary sprigs swells through the house. Colorful blooms from her yard—peonies and lilacs in spring, hydrangeas in summer—are merely a scissor-snip away.
As you wander upstairs to the private rooms, gleaming white moldings invite you into bedrooms and Gretchen’s office. A glance there reveals a computer, stacked books, and a startled Siamese cat named Amy, who springs from an upholstered lounge chair and disappears under its floor ruffle. Other bedrooms carry soothing and dark gray tones from downstairs, lending harmony and quiet throughout. The master bedroom features a queen-sized French replication crowned with draping fabric above the pillows and a hint of soothing blue in the soft color scheme. It’s a perfect place to end the day.
And the days are busy. While her doctor husband is retired, he is active, pursuing his interests in building things and researching history. Gretchen daily monitors a library profession that has changed dramatically since she entered it. While she admits to loving previous centuries, she is also a self-described “technology freak.” Today, she explains, “Our culture and my profession have intersected. It’s a librarian’s job to know what sites are useful and those that are not, and to help our clientele use and find data.”
She continues, “Libraries have always been about knowledge. And for hundreds of years that knowledge was contained in books and journals, and they did a wonderful job and continue to, but now knowledge is ubiquitous; it’s everywhere—it’s born digitally—so, who preserves it? Who makes it accessible?” Her tone is emphatic. “Nobody knows how to preserve all this data yet. But we’re figuring it out.”
Just as she recognizes the value of data—old and new—she appreciates tastes across the ages. History adds dimension to knowledge, a grounding, an understanding of something deeper. “I think,” she says, “that all of our culture is a journey, and it’s important to see where the journey started to appreciate where you are, because you are really building on that knowledge.”
And so, while she doesn’t feel like she and Bill are finished decorating their home, she feels they’ve completed “the heavy lifting.” By the way, Whetstone, the street on which they live, takes its name from the tough, durable rocks referred to by miners as “whetstones” in Northern England—another pleasing connection to the past.
Durable. Timeless. Gracious. These are attributes Gretchen Arnold admires. And the Arnolds’ home will always be a project to fine-tune and to love. “It’s a retreat, a place where you are comfortable with your animals and things. And that’s the way I want it to be—beautiful but lived in.”