Labor of Love
A couple brings the family business home by restoring and renovating their Victorian house in Falls Church.
Many married couples finish each other’s sentences. Claudine Pierce and Steve Handy are no different. As they sit side-by-side on the couch in Garner Cottage, their historic Falls Church home, their thoughts spill into each other’s as they describe what motivated them to start renovating houses together.
“We were doing our own separate businesses, going 100 miles an hour,” Claudine says. (They both already worked with buildings—she as an architect and he as a general contractor.) “We opened the paper one day in August 2000 and saw a classified ad for a historic house in Falls Church…”
Steve: “…not this house, another house…”
Claudine: “…and so we drove up and there was this Victorian house…”
Steve: “…a Queen Anne Victorian…”
Claudine: “…that had been neglected for years.”
And so the conversation continues, as they describe how they bought the Queen Anne within days and began to “gut-renovate” it.
The remodeling process was gratifying, but after living there for six years they decided they would have to invest significantly more money into the house or move. Among other things, they wanted to enlarge the mudroom and breakfast room and construct a new carriage house. But the “driving force,” Claudine says, was their desire to have more space for their teenage daughter to hang out with her friends.
The challenge was finding another property that had the history—and the potential—they were seeking. “We’re old-house people,” Claudine says. “We knew there would be a limited number of houses [in the area] we’d be interested in.”
Of course, there was that little green cottage in the neighborhood that had always caught their eye. A classic shingle-style Victorian built in 1894, it had good bones, but things had deteriorated. Its original shingles were covered with asbestos siding, and it was surrounded by overgrown vegetation. Still, its historic charm was evident. Driving by one day, Steve saw a moving van in the driveway and pulled over immediately. He walked right up and knocked on the door.
Thus began the rebirth of their current residence, Garner Cottage. Not only is it the home that Claudine and Steve share with their now college-aged daughter, Natalie (when she’s not away at the University of Virginia), it’s also a showcase of their work as the founding principals of Thoughtful Development, the design-build firm they run out of a home office on the lower level. Together, they expanded the cottage from its original 800 square feet to its current 4,200 square feet, in a manner that seamlessly blends with the original architecture.
Full of unique artwork and architectural antiques, this comfortable home is a tribute to history, craftsmanship and most of all, love.
It was probably inevitable that Claudine and Steve would meet on a construction site. The year was 1996, and they were each working in their respective family businesses in Northern Virginia. Claudine was an architect with Barkley Pierce Associates and Steve was one of the “sons” managing construction for Howard C. Handy & Sons. (Both firms no longer exist.) “When we met,” Claudine says, “we immediately realized that we had so much in common. We were even both the youngest in our families.”
Along with Natalie, Claudine’s daughter from a previous relationship, they quickly formed a tight family unit, which was formalized with their 1999 wedding.
Their first project together was renovating a condominium unit at the Winter Hill complex in Falls Church, which they turned into a little “jewel box.” After living there a year, they purchased the Queen Anne, where they settled in comfortably. But something was missing.
“The [family] businesses were going well,” Claudine explains, “but it was also getting to be monotonous. There was a lot of residential infill development happening in the area, and we were bothered by the scale and insensitivity of what we were seeing.”
Furthermore, commercial work wasn’t scratching their itch for a creative outlet. They began thinking about starting a new company to design and build homes that respected the fabric of older neighborhoods.
In 2003, they founded Thoughtful Development. At first, the firm focused on renovating old houses on speculation—that is, doing all the work first and finding buyers later. Over time, they’ve also taken on a few custom renovations for specific clients. But they never do more than three or four projects at a time. For each residence, the partners take care to study the house’s history and character, to respect the scale of adjacent homes, and to save as many mature trees and landscape elements as possible. Their design studio has no stock plan books; every house is developed in accordance with “what the house itself wants to be,” Claudine says.
Determining what Garner Cottage wanted to be was an entirely different matter.
Victorian heritage is such a big deal in Falls Church City that it even has its own chapter of the Victorian Society in America. In addition to hosting events and reenactments, the chapter has published a map and guide to many of its grandest old homes—a visual feast of shutters and shingles, turrets and towers, and many wraparound porches. At the junction of Columbia, Cherry and Jefferson streets lies a particularly rich collection of Victorians, including Garner Cottage.
Named for the house’s first owners—Claudine and Steve are only the second owners in its more than 100-year history—Garner Cottage was small, but distinguished by its large triple windows with shed canopies. The couple faced two main challenges in their quest to acquire and renovate the property. First, they had to pass muster with the Garner family, members of which still live in the equally historic California bungalow next door. The Garners knew the house needed work, but they felt protective of it and didn’t want to turn it over to someone who would demolish it.
“It was a diamond in the rough,” Claudine says carefully. “It was hard for the family to let it go.”
The second challenge was the design of the addition, which Claudine says was the hardest thing she’d ever done as an architect. “I didn’t want to overwhelm the original house,” she explains. “So I thought to myself, if the house had been built larger to begin with, what would it have looked like?
They built an addition on the back and side of the house, creating an asymmetrical footprint that allows the original section to remain prominent.
Inside, custom millwork and trim replicate original patterns from the 1880 Mulliner Millwork Catalog. (The work was done by Dean Arnold from the Wood Factory Victorian Millworks outside Austin, Texas.) Wood is everywhere, from the gleaming floors to the sturdy, broad newel post on the main staircase, marked by a delicate carving. Paint colors used throughout the house are soothing and warm—a perfect backdrop of greens and yellows and creamy white.
Steve and Claudine both cook, so the kitchen has plenty of elbow room, with a sizable center island and adjacent open dining room. Tucked behind the kitchen is a functional butler’s pantry, where Claudine stores some of her extensive collection of pastel McCoy pottery.
The kitchen opens to a comfortable living room that is a study in detail, from the varied prints on the soft furniture (which is simple and unfussy) to the dentil molding on the cabinets.
The living room has two focal points. One is the fireplace trimmed in green, custom-colored tile from Pratt & Larson in Portland, Ore., and flanked by two antique stained-glass windows that the couple made operational. The other focal point is an oversized transom window hanging on the main wall, one of several architectural salvage pieces throughout the house.
The home’s original living room and kitchen have since been converted to formal sitting rooms or parlors, providing intimate retreats from the main areas of the house.
Every detail in their artful home—every stained-glass window, every mantel, every painting, every piece collected from a roadside antique shop or a large emporium (they have their favorites up and down the East Coast)—has a story. An 18th-century garden gate adorning one wall was found at an antique show in Nashville. The 19th-century horse weather vane over the fireplace came from an Albany, N.Y., train station. The distinctive beam pattern on the front parlor ceiling is copied from a hotel in the Dordogne valley of France. Each element tells of its own history and adds to their collective story as a couple and as a family.
“We are always on the lookout for interesting shops and shows but usually spend one weekend a month focused on antiques,” Claudine says. “When we first met, I was definitely a glass-and-chrome gal, [rebelling against] having grown up in a house of French antiques. I really was into sparse and modern. Steve was influenced by his parents’ lifelong antiquing, and his style was much more traditional—think natural wood finishes and duck decoys.”
Together, they started buying painted American furniture and antiques that were more folksy than fancy.
“We have collected too many mantels, too many windows,” Steve says. “We’ll find a home for them somewhere eventually. But they always have to fit into the design.”
Upstairs, the master bedroom suite includes a cozy sleeping area with a carved wood fireplace mantel from Caravati’s Architectural Salvage in Richmond. It’s complemented by a group of small paintings the pair have picked up along their journeys. The expansive windows are anchored by a long, low window seat, with additional storage inside, custom built by their trim carpenter Jason Clough (based near Charlottesville). The master bathroom features an antique Empire-style library table repurposed as a vanity, an antique Victorian wall mirror used as a built-in medicine cabinet door and a luxurious claw-foot soaking tub. The large shower has a Waterworks exposed chrome pipe-and-valve shower fixture that is reminiscent of early plumbing fixtures.
The house’s crowning glory, however, may be the screened-in porch, which is accessible from both the dining and living rooms. A true extension of the residence, the porch is a careful balance of comfort and elegance. Dark-green painted wood is offset by the white beadboard ceiling and the cozy wicker furniture (antique, of course), as well as by the distinctive lamps, plants and leafy upholstery prints that bring the outdoors in. When guests come over, they tend to congregate either around the kitchen island or out on the porch. “The porch,” Claudine says, “is our paradise.”
As the saying goes, no house is ever truly finished. To Claudine and Steve, this feels especially true. Construction work continued even after the family moved in around May 2008, camping out in the basement for the first few months. They laugh as they recall a memorable homecoming party they hosted for their daughter when she was a student at George Mason High School, with a gaggle of teenagers walking around on plywood-covered floors and using a two-by-four board for a staircase railing. With their business doing so well, their attention was always pulled away toward other projects. “We’re like the shoemaker’s children who don’t have shoes,” Claudine says. Finally, the house was complete by Christmas 2008.
“Steve was able to trust my architectural vision for the design of the additions and renovations and let me do my thing, knowing we would work together through the finishes and details of the house,’ she explains. “We are successful in combining our home life and work life because we both have great respect for the other’s sense of design.”
On a rainy day last April, during the annual Falls Church City Home & Garden Tour, an estimated 400 curious visitors toured the home, doffing their shoes in a wet pile in the foyer. One of them was Charles Craig, an Arlington-based interior designer and historic preservationist who praised the house in a subsequent email to the Arlington Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board. “The design was excellent and the craftsmanship flawless,” Craig wrote. “So, when we hear all the moaning from applicants about the size of an addition, this is an excellent example of a large square-footage addition that respects the historic structure. It is also reconfirms my belief that good design solves problems.”
Claudine and Steve, meanwhile, are looking forward to restoring more houses together. They’re still finding homes for the many architectural salvage pieces they’ve collected.
And they’re still finishing each other’s sentences. “We want to stay local and stay creative,” Steve says.
“We love working together,” Claudine adds. “We always want to love what we’re doing.”
From her 70-year-old home in Aurora Highlands, Kim O’Connell loves writing about old buildings. She holds a master’s degree in historic preservation from Goucher College.