Leaf buds began appearing on Sean and Melody Wheeler’s grapevines in early April, marking the start of their seventh year as vintners of a most unusual product Sean has modestly – and accurately – dubbed “OK Wine.” In a few months he’ll begin harvesting the grapes and turning them into about 60 bottles, which he’ll share with family and friends.
It is a remarkably small-scale operation, but then it really is just the byproduct of efforts to provide shade for the alley behind the Wheelers’ historic home in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. Sean had built an arbor and realized after he finished that the vines would produce more grapes than he and Melody could possibly eat.
It was a creative solution that highlights the way the Wheelers approach most projects around their 137-year-old, Italianate-style house, and not at all surprising for a pair of architects employed by forward-thinking Walter Parks Architects.
Follow the brick sidewalk the Wheelers installed in the small backyard and you’ll weave through blackberries, figs, kiwifruits, and pomegranates, as well as a nectarine tree and a hybrid muscadine grapevine – the garden’s two newest additions.
Step inside the greenhouse, built using discarded storm windows, and you can admire the homemade irrigation system that harvests rainwater from an adjacent workshop roof. And of course, there are the grapevines.
It’s a little like stumbling into a small-scale, garden-centric version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
The property stood largely unchanged and neglected for decades until the Wheelers bought it in 2012. How unchanged? When the couple finalized the sale, the property still had an outhouse in the backyard – one of the last in Jackson Ward, says Sean, who is also vice chair of the city’s Commission of Architectural Review.
Before moving into the house with their two daughters, the couple undertook an eight-month renovation that was as ambitious and creative as their garden makeover. It included moving doorways, reconfiguring the kitchen, and significantly increasing storage. In addition to building storage spaces (and a half bath) under the staircase, they constructed a one-of-a-kind walk-in closet between two of the home’s three bedrooms, the design of which was driven by necessity.
The Wheelers used state historic tax credits for the renovation, and because the Virginia Department of Historic Resources denied their request to frame a new walk-in closet between the two bedrooms, they turned to a novel alternative.
“We created a walk-in storage space for the master suite and a decent-sized closet for our younger daughter’s room using freestanding, oversized wardrobes that we designed and grouped together where we had originally proposed to frame closets,” Sean says. “Because the space was created out of furniture and not built-ins, the design met the standards.”
One of the more recent makeovers involved their staircase. “Melody wanted encaustic tiled risers to add some Colombian flair to the entry,” Sean says. “So now we have geometric, grayscale marble tiles to make each riser unique, but we’re still debating some of the grout line colors. To facilitate the decision making, we installed most of them with a white grout, thinking it should be easier to make the grout lines darker than lighter.”
The staircase project gave the house an international twist – a nod to Melody’s childhood in Colombia. Even so, midcentury modern is the couple’s guiding light. “We take an eclectic approach but try to steer in the direction of midcentury modern,” Sean says.
Among the house’s standout furnishings is the living room’s wildly curvaceous, bent-plywood coffee table, which Sean designed and built. Surrounding it are a sofa and two chairs designed in the 1950s by George Nelson, a prominent American midcentury modernist. Sean bought the pieces from the estate of Ben R. Johns Jr., who designed the Richmond Coliseum. The Wheelers reupholstered them in a striking two-tone design.
The couple’s dining table also came from Johns’ estate. Johns used it as a drawing table. The Wheelers have repurposed it.
Other standouts include objects Sean found discarded in the alley behind their house as he walked to work. Among them are several pieces of midcentury modern furniture and a striking pendant lamp designed by Poul Christiansen and made by the Danish firm Le Klint.
Most recently, the Wheelers have been designing a bathroom vanity and shelving, but spring weather has drawn their attention out to the garden and the workshop, where Sean has just finished the wiring for a pottery kiln (to go with the pottery wheel he found in the alley and rebuilt).
“A house owned by architects is never really finished,” Sean says.