A Place Between: A Virginia Home Inspired by Japanese and Italian Architecture

Homeowners play with form and function with their Charlottesville, Virginia, home.

| March/April 2003

Allison Ewing grew up in Vermont and studied traditional and modern houses in Japan. Her husband, Chris Hays, a South Carolina native, accompanied her across the Pacific and then invited her along when he studied urban networks in Venice. The two remained in Italy to work with architect Renzo Piano in Vesima for a few years.

The buildings Allison and Chris lived in, worked in, and studied during their travels filled their heads and their hearts; they returned to the States with a need for light and space that hadn’t been nurtured during their American upbringings. In Japan, they took in the concepts of ma, or “the space between two objects or two edges,” and hashi, which bridges these two edges—either physically (chopsticks bridging between the plate and the mouth) or symbolically (spanning between the secular and heavenly worlds). In Italy, they worked in a sun-drenched daylit office that “convinced us that nothing is more regenerative than daylight brought indoors,” Chris says. Eventually, they invested all of this wisdom into their family home in Charlottesville, Virginia—a midpoint along the road from Vermont to South Carolina, from Japan to Italy. A place between.

A lot full of promise

Allison and Chris, both architects who had come to Charlottesville to work with William McDonough + Partners, set about finding a place to build their home in the late 1990s. They refused to contribute to the sprawl that had already begun creeping untidily along Charlottesville’s genteel borders, yet they also sought some of that pastoral open space they’d found so appealing in rural Italy. In the Woolen Mills district, just a few blocks east of downtown, they found yet another place between.

A “company village” that grew up around a once-thriving cloth mill on the Rivanna River, the Woolen Mills district is now a place of diversity. Historic homes, subsidized housing, and luxury apartments are all part of the neighborhood tapestry. The nineteenth-century Woolen Mills Chapel still draws an active congregation. The neighborhood is shot through with threads of small town charm.

“It has a fairly urban village feeling, completely unique to Charlottesville,” Chris explains. “It feels both urbane—little more than a mile from downtown—and pastoral, because the floodplains make it difficult for people to build in great density here.”

So when he and Allison found a small house for sale along the riverbank, with sweeping views of the church spire and glimpses of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, they snapped it up.

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