By the Book
Building a dream home can take years of plan-ning and research. Starting in 1995, Norfolk, Virginia-based furniture retailer Claus Ihlemann dedicated himself to the task, compiling design sources and inspirations in what his business and life partner Robert Roman laughingly calls “the book.” But it took the damage wrought by Hurricane Isabel’s 2003 pummeling of their home on the Lafayette River for Ihlemann and Roman to decide that they would have to realize their dream house by necessity.
“We thought insurance money from the flood would allow us to restore the house, but the settlement offer only covered basic repairs and didn’t even begin to address a total restoration. At that point, it made sense for us to consider tearing the house down and starting over,” says Ihlemann, who owns Decorum, a contemporary home furnishings store located in Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood.
“Fortunately, we owned a rental property next door that had not sustained as much damage, and since tenants were moving out, we had a place to live while we designed our new home,” adds Roman. Sleeves rolled up, the pair spent nearly a year at the kitchen table developing floor plans and whittling down hundreds of resources that Ihlemann had categorized by rooms, materials and furnishings. “I joke that Claus had been a bit retentive in his organization, but the builder and architect really appreciated our thoroughness,” notes Roman. The guides also made the job easier as the two began to plan architectural details and select furnishings. “Three books eventually became one, and we turned to it for almost every decision,” Roman says.
After roughing out basic floor plans, the couple hired Tom Retnauer, a Chesapeake, Virginia-based architect, to refine the designs. “This was a very client-driven project,” says Retnauer. “Claus and Robert had really given thought to the way they wanted to live in the space. I credit their clear vision with the ease we had in our collaboration and the success of the project.”
Creating an updated kitchen and an open floor plan to take full advantage of the riverside site topped their list. “We entertain frequently and wanted a house that could play host to intimate, formal dinner parties or summer open houses for 100 people” says Ihlemann. “The architecture also needed to blend into the neighborhood and not scream ‘new house.’”
Although the partners were satisfied with the preliminary architectural plans, they encountered some initial hurdles. “At the time we applied for permits, the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act required that any new waterfront structure have a setback of 100 feet, but by preserving the garage we were able to maintain the footprint of the original house, which was closer to the water,” says Retnauer.
Once the plans were approved, local builder Scott Crumley set his crew to work and began excavating the foundation. “On the first day, we ran into blue mud,” recalls Crumley. “These infamous clay deposits are found all over the Tidewater area and are not stable enough for typical foundation engineering.” His solution was to build on more than 34 wood pilings, each 60 feet tall. “It was a pretty harrowing experience hauling and craning pilings that large in a residential neighborhood with narrow streets,” the builder recalls. To pay for the unexpected expense, the owners put their swimming pool on hold and sold their boat.
Both Roman, who grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, and Danish-born Ihlemann enjoy a steady flow of international visitors so they made sure the house was designed with separate entrances and private nooks for guests. With hectic professional and social lives, the two required a low-maintenance dwelling, so they chose synthetic fiber-cement siding and exterior trim made from recyclable materials for moisture-resistance and durability.
Using these materials, Retnauer blended coastal and Shingle architectural styles with Craftsman elements like tapered columns. Sunrises, sunsets and spectacular views along the waterway drove the process, the architect says. As a result, porches wrap the first floor, providing sheltered outdoor spaces for the owners and their many guests.
From the entrance, gathering places on the main floor—living room, kitchen, dining area and family room—are all visible. Floor-to-ceiling windows along the southern façade offer views of the Lafayette River. The couple chose a soothing gray-green shade for the walls that acts as a neutral backdrop to their extensive collection of brightly colored, contemporary art.
“For our larger gatherings, we wanted enough space so that people could move freely throughout, be involved in cooking or just enjoy having a drink,” says Ihlemann. “The kitchen is new, but has a restored feel.” He points out the glass-fronted cabinets, 1920s-style hardware and marble countertops. The open kitchen adjoins the more informal family room with its leather sectional sofa oriented to an entertainment center.
Furnishings are an eclectic blend of antiques from the couple’s overseas travels and contemporary designs from Decorum. Roman’s former career in visual merchandising is evident in his skillful placement of their treasured pieces throughout the house. In the entrance hall, a vintage Orrefors crystal chandelier picked up at auction looks right at home above a 20th-century Danish oak desk. The living room, a study in cheerful colors, features a terra-cotta linen-covered sofa, coordinating striped chairs and taffeta draperies. Iron-and-glass tables from Bernhardt provide sophisticated accents. “We usually read the Sunday paper here,” says Roman of the sunlit space.
But the couple agrees that the best spot in the house is the covered back deck with its river views. “We love outdoor dining and eat all our meals here,” says Ihlemann. “And it isn’t unusual for friends to pull up to our dock on jet skis. The outdoor furniture had to be functional but also look great.” A line made by Ratana, a Seattle-based manufacturer, fits the bill. Woven vinyl made to look like split rattan covers the aluminum-framed chairs and tables to withstand the elements in style.
Originally planned for the backyard, the pool was recently relocated to the front of the home due to zoning issues. “Locating the pool here allowed us to consider the front yard as another large gathering and entertainment area,” says Ihlemann. “The new house has really allowed us to fully take advantage of what waterfront living has to offer.” Plans for the future include converting the garage into a Florida room opening out to the pool—and buying a new boat.
Writer Tracy Mitchell Griggs is based on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Lee Brauer is a Richmond, Virginia-based photographer. ARCHITECTURE: Tom Retnauer, Retnauer Design Associates, Chesapeake, Virginia. BUILDER: Scott Crumley, Crumley Group Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia.