A Modernist Phoenix Arises

November 2002, By Diane Lea


Asked about the inspiration for the splendid modern Chapel Hill residence of Haig Khachatoorian and Frances Gravely, renowned landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh said, We wanted it to look as if a spaceship had landed in a beautiful old garden.

That playful statement captures the spirit of the house and reflects the harmonious collaboration that occurred spontaneously among a rather amazing group of design professionals, two of whom happen to be the owners. Khachatoorian is a nationally recognized industrial and graphic designer and former head of the Department of Industrial Design at North Carolina State Universitys College of Design. Gravely is the co-founder with her mother and sister, Lee and Susan Gravely, of Vietri, an import firm specializing in sophisticated Italian ceramic dinnerware and fine home accessories. They were the perfect clients for dynamic Raleigh architect Kenneth E. Hobgood, AIA, and internationally famous Cambridge-based landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh, ASLA.

Khachatoorian reminisced about the events that brought the four together as he strolled down a graveled lane in what was, in the early 1900s, part of botany professor William C. Cokers garden. This lovely glade was the site of the home that Frances and I renovated, he remembered, looking into the deep forest surrounding the beautiful sunken sculpture garden and the remarkable light-filled home that now occupies the space. It was full of historic architectural elements that Frances had collected from two Victorian houses. But the entire home and all its contents burned to the ground in 1996. The traumatic accident, traced to an electrical surge in a water heater, generated a fire so intense that everything standing within a 75-foot radius was destroyed. Khachatoorian, whose career has spanned several continents and cultures, lost his family photo archives, a 30-year collection of Eastern European poster art as well as his portfolio, slides, books and gifts from many friends, students and colleagues. Gravely, whose rich heritage arises from Eastern North Carolina, lost family antiques and memorabilia, including childhood treasures. It took one full year to regroup emotionally and to document the loss, says Khachatoorian.

Devastated, yet enormously grateful that no one had been hurt, the pair began thinking about their future. They knew they wanted to stay on the precious Coker land that Gravely had chosen years before. With nothing more specific in mind than the desire to build a modernist house with an indoor-outdoor orientation, Khachatoorian and Gravely began the process of interviewing seven well-known architects. Khachatoorian had been impressed with work done by students of Kenneth Hobgood when he taught a studio at NCSU, so he included him in the selected list. In a gesture of complete confidence in his wifes discernment, Khachatoorian announced, I’ve put together the list, you choose. Gravely chose Hobgood, citing what she called the purity of his work and his ability to combine the design sensibilities of Le Corbusier and Richard Meier with a warm classical environment.

I was fascinated by the project, says Hobgood. It was not just building a house, it was building a landscape. After studying the site and building some models for the couple, Hobgood asked if they would consider including a landscape architect in the design process. He suggested the former head of Harvards Department of Landscape Architecture, Michael Van Valkenburgh. Khachatoorian knew Van Valkenburgh and the character of his commissions and was skeptical. Heres this international figure doing projects like the Tuilleries Walk for the Louvre, the Pittsburgh waterfront, an office for I. M. Peis son in Tokyo, and Master Plans for Wellesley College and Harvard Yard. I didn’t think we could interest him in a little garden in Chapel Hill. After Hobgood sent Van Valkenburgh background on the clients, the site and the evolving house, Van Valkenburgh flew to North Carolina. After most of a day and night of conversation, Van Valkenburgh signed on.

His first step, says Gravely, was to move the location of the house to the northern-most corner of the site. From that angle, the house becomes a progression of geometric shapes in different levels that match the grade of the site. And now we have views of what appears to be an endless green vista, something like what Haig and I enjoyed in an English country house we once stayed in. Intrigued by Gravelys love of plants and her Southern roots, Van Valkenburghs choices for the walled courtyard garden included many much-loved traditional shrubs and perennials and an alle of purple-flowered paulownia trees for the northwest side of the house.

The architecture of the house started with what Kenneth calls the pavilion, says Khachatoorian. That’s this wonderful glass walled space which is our living room where the ceiling soars to 25 feet and accommodates Frances office aerie. The living room exhibits Hobgoods facility with glass and steel, which are perhaps his signature materials. Khachatoorian points out that there are nine steel columns in the tall-ceilinged room, with the scale moderated by steel crossbeams. The columns define the entry, the living area, a sitting area and a dining area, all within a larger space that remains flowing and open to uninterrupted views of the landscape. There are so many architectural details that contribute to the feeling of this room, says Khachatoorian. There is a clerestory of seamed glass which makes the ceiling appear suspended above the steel-framed glass walls. That suspended quality is also echoed in the cantilevered roof over the west terrace. The clerestory design feature is especially lovely at night when the colors of the glass take on a blue-green cast and contrast nicely with the zinc-coated copper roof frame.

Though architecturally dramatic due to the choice of building materials and the bold geometric window walls and structural components, the houses warmth is enhanced by the subtle use of color and the smooth texture of carefully matched maple wood that is used in the homes floors and cabinetry. In addition, the furnishings and objets dart collected during vacations and business travel are carefully selected, perhaps understated.

This successful integration of art, architecture, color and texture is immediately apparent upon entering the living room from the homes discreet canopied door. A dramatic raised-hearth fireplace is the focus of the room. The fireplace surround is carved from deep gray soapstone with striations of white. Above it a wide mantelshelf displays a beautifully textured painting of a bicycle, one of three pieces in the house by Massimo Giannoni, one of the couples favorite Italian artists. A folk-art piece from Chapel Hills Somerhill Gallery sits casually on the cantilevered hearth, which is framed by a beige silk-covered loveseat and matching low cushioned armchairs, all by Barbara Barry for Baker. Moroccan rugs add a traditional look and complement the terra cotta used on wall panels and the soothing aqua of a pair of armchairs. The sitting area overlooking the terrace is furnished with a Le Corbusier chaise, informally grouped with an antique game table and two cane-seated bentwood chairs. Beneath an open stringer staircase of delicately drawn steel rails, a crystal chandelier hangs over the 18th-century French dining table. The Baccarat chandelier was a gift to my mother from my grandfather, says Gravely. She had set it aside, and when we built this house, she gave it to me.

Tucked beyond the massive column of the fireplace wall is the kitchen. Here the warmth of handcrafted maple cabinets gives a unified look to the space, which is enhanced by the use of well-designed stainless steel Miele appliances and a deep stainless steel Kohler sink. Kenneths brother, Tom Hobgood, created the kitchen cabinets, says Gravely. Kenneth designed them and Tom built them. They are like art and furniture. Tom Hobgoods fine cabinetry is also seen in the first level powder room, where a maple wall and sink surround and accent another basin with Dorn Bracht fixtures, a line selected for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art collection.

Adjacent to the kitchen is the homes den featuring a bookcase wall designed by Khachatoorian. There Baker reproduction antique chairs are covered in crme silk ornamented with taupe swirls and arranged on a suede rag rug. The effect of stylish comfort blends with the eclectic living room decor and the contemporary feel of the kitchen.

One of the residences finest features is the master bedroom. This most private space is full of the joi de vivre that permeates this remarkable home. In a space overlooking Van Valkenburghs walled garden with its old-fashioned oak-leaf hydrangeas, autumn sedum and antique roses, a gilt-accented bed from Lucca near Italys sunny Tuscan coast is arrayed beneath a cleanly modern Minka-Aire fan and accompanied by a Chatham County wardrobe. We asked a Hillsborough craftsman, Richard Grumieux, to refinish the wardrobe, says Frances. He managed to make a vernacular piece made of a mixture of woods look uniform and refined enough to blend with the wonderful 18th-century bed.

Hanging on the bedroom wall are two antique prints of a woman holding a lyre and a man holding a psaltery. The story of how these drawings, dating from 1776, were acquired says much about the adaptability that allows Gravely and Khachatoorian to turn adversity to advantage. Haig and I had planned a week in one of our favorite, unspoiled South Carolina resorts, Gravely said. We wound up in the worst summer heat on record in an un-air conditioned hotel during childrens week. Undaunted, the plucky pair went antiquing and found the enchanting pair of Armenian musicians.

This very personal home is an expression of extraordinary talent, sheer luck and a zeal for good design. Frances Gravely hopes that their experience will help convince other families to work with designers. Choosing a design professional doesn’t mean giving up ones own identity or spending money unnecessarily, says Gravely. It ensures a standard of quality and creativity which adds to the owners present enjoyment while leaving something of value for us all.

(Used by permission of METRO Magazine)