Tucked upon a verdant hillside on the South bank of the James River is a small but well proportioned home designed by architect Alan McCullough back in 1957. He was a Virginia Modernist at a time when there were very few but was able to create a kind of regional modernism very much at ease in a place surrounded by colonial manses. While not shying away from the use of brick or gables, he combined them effortlessly with full height single pane mullion-less windows, cantilevered concrete hearths, and terrazzo floors. The current owners, Sarah Rowland and Joe Alexander, bought the home from the original owner and put on a concrete block addition making it a true family home. And for them, the home and its place have become the culmination of a love story. They were married on a rocky outcropping perched on the cliff above the river across the street. The addition was a feature in a 2009 Richmond Home article. Recently vaMODERN interviewed the couple and toured the home and garden to learn not just about the changes they made, but how the house has changed their lives.
Interview with Sarah Rowland and Joe Alexander | by Josh McCullar
Q. Richmond is a city of great architecturally significant neighborhoods, but few modern homes. How did you discover this house when searching for a home in Richmond? Were you specifically looking for a modern house?
A. I was lucky enough to be driving down Riverside Drive one day just after I sold my sweet 1920’s American Four Square in Woodland Heights and I stumbled upon this interesting pink ( well, actually dirty Barbie Doll pink) little modern house for sale by owner, the original owner too! I just about ran off the road when I saw this little gem nestled on the hill facing the James River. We were not looking for a modern house necessarily. I was just determined to find a house near the river that could accommodate my new instant family. I was getting married to Joe and his 3 preteen girls. Joe was out of town when I found the house and all he said was if you like it let’s do it!. So for him, sight unseen, the girls too, I put a contract on it. Now that’s trust. We needed space but we also wanted something interesting and I found it. The minute I saw the little pink modern house, I knew it would be ours and I knew I would change the color of it too. – Sarah
When I met Sarah, I also met the James River and specifically the south side. I had always lived in the west end, rarely crossing the River at all. But for sure, I didn’t have a relationship with this beautiful part of Richmond. To find a home on it and a modern one at that, what a gift. Sarah has incredible taste and vision for things, especially in their “ugly” stage. She could see what this home could be, not only in her eyes, but also through mine and the kids. I also trust her completely. It’s amazing what you can do when you have that. – Joe
Q. Did you know of Architect Alan McCullough’s work before finding this home? Are there resources available so that others may learn of his body of regional work?
A. I knew nothing of Alan McCullough’s work before we bought this house. But I do know now that I love his sensible approach to space and materials. His restraint to keep dwellings a human scale and his interesting signature details such as the cantilevered fire place hearth in our house. I am told, it is just like the one at Collegiate School in Richmond. – Sarah
A total surprise to us, but one we have grown to relish. Alan is our architectural soul mate. We have shared values: clean, modern, distinctive, subtle, light, water, nature, real. I wish we could meet him – maybe in another life. – Joe
Q. Tell us about yourselves, your work, and how living here has changed the way you live your daily life or your own creative work?
A. I am a freelance art director / graphic designer that is moving into the world of wallpaper and textile design. Working out of the house is such a gift. I have beautiful views, chirping birds and a cat that keeps me on schedule. Plus I can ride my bike downtown to meetings if it is not too hot. I graduated from VCU in Communications Arts & Design. I then moved away to Boston, Japan, then on to NYC, never thinking I would come back but I did. Life is good here in Richmond. – Sarah
I am the Executive Creative Director at The Martin Agency in Richmond. I am a copywriter, by trade, but now spend most of my day leading and mentoring a large staff of creative thinkers. I come from a large family where the home was the center for everything. As a parent, I really value what a great house can bring to the people that live in it. The rooms, views, fixtures, space, light, space – all played such an important part in raising our daughters. Your home is you and you are your home. I think the kids value this home as much as we do. – Joe
Q. What about the original design did not work for your needs, and how did you make it better during the renovation?
A. The original house was just too small for the 5 of us. So we extended the house without changing the original feel of the house. We wanted to honor the modern architecture, no puffed up mini mansion and expanding to hog the river views here! We really tried to worked with the surrounding land without overpowering it. – Sarah
I think Sarah did a great job taking what was here and making it work for three growing daughters. The top level became our level and the second [lower] level became the girls’ space. It was a stroke of genius to put them under us. Teenage girls can be loud – a lot of talking, music, friends, arguing, slamming of doors – I called it the sorority Slamma Slamma Slamma. The whole floor is built into the side of hill – it was quite peaceful despite the commotion. – Joe
Q. Have you seen other McCullough houses in Richmond and how does yours differ?
A. No, I have not seen any other McCullough houses in person. The only one I know of is one that the architect Steven M. Reiss owns in Irvington, VA. I believe he is still working on a book about McCullough. This is how we met. He came to see our house and showed us a picture of his. He was the one that told us about the fireplace hearth at Collegiate school matching ours. – Sarah
I have yet to see another McCullough home in person, just in photos. Would be fascinating. – Joe
Q. The site is fantastic with a view of the river and a distant vista of the North Bank. Did the original design respond to the landscape in a purposeful way? Or has it evolved?
A. Yes, I think Alan McCullough knew exactly what he was doing when he designed this house. I like to think he was a real lover of land and that maybe he knew the land was here first and that his structures would have to cooperate and be at peace with the natural surroundings to be a place where people would want to live. – Sarah
Reading about Alan, he always put the land first and the structure second. We love how our home blends into the surroundings. The landscaping around the house is our next big stage – it will make the house even bigger because we’d like to open up surprising little terraces that become new living spaces. When you walk the grounds, the James just appears in new beautiful ways. – Joe
Q. What have you learned since moving here?
A. I have learned that a house can change you. It can effect the way you feel and the way you live with the people you love. This house is an expression of how I feel everyday, loved and lucky. – Sarah
I never knew how much happiness a home could bring. The structure, the view, the light, the location, the grounds, all bring us happiness everyday. To come home to this house after a crazy day at work puts everything in perspective. We are lucky. And grateful. Our home tells us that everyday. – Joe
Sarah Rowland is a graphic designer and artist.
Joe Alexander is the Executive Creative Director for The Martin Agency
Photography: Josh McCullar, Maggie Schubert, Doug Becker