By Joan Tupponce
The expansive valley view from the front windows of Bramblewood Farm is one of serenity and peace. It’s the bucolic panorama that Jim and Becky Craig envisioned for their Albemarle County home, though it was not immediately evident when they first laid eyes on the overgrown, stump-filled farm site more than 10 years ago. “It was a jungle,” says Becky, the property having been timbered by previous owners and then let go. Undeterred, the couple tried to find a site high enough for the location of a home as they maneuvered through the brush. “We shimmied up this tree and guessed, and hoped it was a good site line,” explains Becky.
The hunch paid off. Today the couple’s grand French country-style home majestically crowns their almost 550 acres of woods and valley.
The couple moved into their home in 2008, four years after relocating from Denver to the Charlottesville area at the beginning of the building process. They had looked for a home site along the Eastern seaboard and were drawn to the Charlottesville area because of Becky’s family. “My father was a UVA grad and had a farm in Nelson County,” she says. “We would come to the farm and go to UVA football games. We knew this area well.”
Most of Becky’s family, including her mother, lived in the Deep South, but the summer heat and smothering humidity in that area were “not the heat we wanted,” she says. “Virginia was a happy medium.”
Over the years the family lived in urban settings, everywhere from Denver to Philadelphia, as Jim built a career in mutual funds. Becky always hoped they would one day be able to move to a rural area, one that was peaceful but not too isolated. “I am a country girl,” she says, proudly noting her Alabama heritage. “I wanted some land with wildlife. I wanted quiet and privacy. We found this place and it’s under 20 minutes from Charlottesville. We had a small city and we also had the country.”
They happened upon Charlottesville-based architect Bob Paxton of Dalgliesh Gilpin Paxton Architects after seeing one of his designs in Southern Accents magazine. “We liked his work,” Becky says. “We were pretty sure he was the one who could take our vision along with his vision and come up with something we really liked.”
One of the main goals was building a home that naturally blended into its surroundings. The landscape didn’t lend itself to a brick or timber home, so the couple chose stone. “This farm is really rocky,” Becky says. “Our house looks like it could be plopped into place.”
Before the building process could begin, Paxton partnered with a structural engineer to fill in a ravine so they could create a pad for the house. “The structural engineer wanted the fill to sit for six to nine months,” says Paxton. “That was one thing that affected the construction schedule.”
In order to take advantage of the views the property had to offer, Paxton recommended that the existing farm entrance road be moved: “We tried to slide the road as far as we could to one side to respond to how the house was organized and laid out.” Today, the entrance “meanders through the property, the end game being the house,” he explains.
The couple wanted the house to face the valley to soak up the Southern exposure it offered. “We oriented the rooms so we could make the best of the view,” Becky says, noting that all of the main rooms face that direction.
So that it didn’t detract from the flow, the main entrance was positioned on the side of the house instead of the front. “We also elongated the east-west access to maximize the number of rooms that are open to the view,” says Paxton, adding that all sides of the house are “equally important” to the overall concept.
The home’s exterior as well as retaining walls and adjacent buildings are sheathed in South Bay Quartzite veneer stone sourced from upstate New York. The roof is made of slate from nearby Buckingham County. The couple did not consider using the rock on the farm even though it was plentiful. “It is too green for my taste. We chose something brown,” says Becky, noting the random tones and variations of color in the stone. “Figuring out the stone was a long process.”
Paxton used Lueders Limestone from Texas in a variety of exterior features, including the cornice, columns and porches. To evoke the feeling of a small farm complex, Paxton broke down the home’s overall composition into a series of smaller buildings that includes two charming cottage-style garages.
The couple was very hands-on during both the design and building phases of construction. “This is the fourth house Jim and I have built so we had some experience with the process,” Becky says. “We had some ideas of our own.”
One of the driving factors of the design was the long, elegant hallway with a groin vault ceiling that traverses the first floor. Jim and Becky had seen that same symmetrical Gothic arch-based barrel ceiling during their travels in Europe and wanted to replicate the style. Paxton added his own touch by designing the archway lights that line the hallway.
Another must on the couple’s list: heated stone floors throughout. “We love in-floor heat. It’s the best. Our cats adore it too,” says Becky, a cat-lover who is a regular volunteer at the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA. (A small, oblong red velvet pillow in a hallway proclaims, “A house is not a home without a cat.”)
The home’s stately but comfortable interior is loaded with finely crafted details. Venetian plaster walls are infused with marble dust to give them a warm glow. They are the perfect backdrop for the iridescent vanity in the entryway powder room made of Mother of Pearl tiles, bronze and Italian Murgiano marble, which was designed by Paxton and his team: “Becky had some materials such as the Mother of Pearl tiles that she had seen and liked a lot,” he explains.
Paxton’s designs can also be seen in the intricate mantles throughout the house, including the dining room mantle, which features marble inserts and Ionic order columns, and the elegant French limestone fireplaces that grace both ends of the family room, creating intimate spaces. “We always design the mantles in all of our houses,” he says, because the fireplaces are proportioned as true heating fireplaces, and thus are tall enough to make it difficult to find stock mantles that fit. Paxton also designed several of the andirons in the fireplaces, the stair railings and the built-in china cabinets in the dining room.
The firm’s director of interior design, R. David Craig, worked with Becky to select many of the home’s furnishings; the two traveled together frequently to shop in New York and Atlanta. One of their finds was a pair of delicate crystal 18th-century Italian chandeliers that now hang in the dining room. The home’s interior marries traditional style with contemporary flair, as evidenced by the sleek, elongated kitchen with fireplace and sitting area. The modern andirons, stainless steel backsplash, limestone-based island and detailed coffered ceiling add texture to the room. The light-filled adjacent breakfast room holds a collection of Becky’s antique Chinese Rose Medallion porcelain.
Limed oak walls and arches in the barrel vault ceiling of the couple’s generous family room complement the room’s grey, blue and camel tones. If you look closely, you can see that lime still fills some of the cracks and grains in the carved details of the wood. Tables and bookshelves are filled with family photos and Becky’s collection of Asian dolls. “I am a terrible collector,” she says with a laugh. “I have to control my urges. My house is full of collections.”
Her collections of Asian and glass art spill over into her comfortable office sanctuary, which is bathed in colors of chartreuse and aqua. The walls are walnut, but unstained, and so reflect Becky’s penchant for a lighter palette: “We got walnut and then bleached it and waxed it for a natural mellow look,” she says.
The walls in Jim’s study across the hallway are antique Chinese elm reclaimed from Ming Dynasty structures. “We found someone here in Ruckersville that goes to China and buys old, old wood,” says Jim. “It’s an interesting cottage industry.” Mountain Lumber Company sourced the more-than-600-year-old elm from structures from the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties that are being dismantled. The study opens to a spacious screened porch (with motorized screens) that faces the north. “In the summer they can get the cool air that drops down from the mountain for natural ventilation,” says Paxton.
Other unique features in the house include the couple’s octagonal master bedroom and master bath with gold onyx tile, and their 24-year-old daughter Caroline’s second-floor bathroom with glass tile, a glass vessel sink and organic polished nickel lights that resemble sea coral. “The glass tile reminded me of the Caribbean. We go there a lot,” says Becky.
In addition to Caroline’s bedroom, bath and office, the second floor also includes an upstairs study for guests as well as two bedrooms—one a high dormer room designed with old Hollywood art deco flair.
The lower floor of the house contains an attractive home theater with cushy leather seating and contemporary detailing. “Becky also has a Christmas room downstairs to store her Christmas trees,” says Jim.
During the Christmas season, Becky strategically places approximately 20 Christmas trees of varying heights throughout the house. She creates a small forest of trees in the foyer under the grand spiral staircase. “I hope it looks like a winter wonderland,” she says. “Christmas is always on my mind.”
Her passion for the holidays stems from her childhood in Alabama. Her family always made a “big deal” of Christmas, she explains. “They would send me and my siblings out to get the tree. That was my job,” explains Becky. “My mother had beautiful decorations that included hand-carved German decorations. My whole family goes overboard even to this day.”
At Christmas time, each room of Bramblewood is decorated with multiple types of greenery and pinecones. “We have all kinds of things,” Becky says of the decorations. “We have hand-carved Russian Santas and German nutcrackers. Our daughter has a collection of figurines from Colorado Springs. When she was born one of my sisters gave her an ornament every year and I did the same. I passed on my love of Christmas to her too.”
Christmas isn’t Becky’s only passion. She loves all wildlife, and she’s pleased that Bramblewood is home to all sorts of creatures.
“We are lucky enough to live in an area that has a history of albino deer,” she says. “Every couple of years we have an albino …. We have deer that will eat the corn out of my hand and a turkey that will come up to me. Even my bears are well behaved. I just never know what is going to turn up in my backyard.”