Home profile: From the ground up

Home profile: From the ground up
Christine Sennott and Fred Theobald’s home was originally intended to be a cigar shop when it was first built in 1908. Photo/Olivia Anderson

By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

By the looks of it, Christine Sennott and Fred Theobald’s Payne Street home could sell pipes, lighters and a bevy of tobacco products. Not only does it have the word “cigars” plastered across the outside wall in bold lettering, but at night the front window illuminates an inside sign of the original 1908 permit that explains the building’s intended use: a cigar shop.

Stepping inside the house, however, reveals a much different scene. The cozy, intimate home is instead a beloved living space, featuring a bright kitchen with repurposed wood, a covered pergola and outdoor patio, and two Australian shepherds romping around happily. It is very much not a cigar shop, but one of Sennott’s main goals with the home was to honor its century-plus-spanning origins.

“I love history; I love repurposing,” Sennott said.

Although the couple’s Payne Street home is now fully finished – they even rent it out on Airbnb on weekends they’re away – it once looked much different and involved a total demolition. And the process of finding the perfect place was not simple.

The couple moved to Alexandria in 2010 and stayed in a rental for several years. When they began looking for a home of their own in 2014, they were armed with a very specific checklist. Because Theobald is 6’8’’, fitting through doorways and in showers is somewhat complicated and therefore limits housing options. Plus, the couple is what Sennott refers to as “tiny livers,” so they did not want a space that was too large. They also desired a living room located in the rear of the house that opened to the back yard to allow for indoor-outdoor living.

Four years into the search, Sennott came across a listing in Old Town that included an expansive single-story studio with a folded-up Murphy bed, attic space and door leading to the back yard. Deciding that the space itself was optimal but the layout was not, Sennott and Theobald decided to tear down nearly the entire house and build their own.

The rebuilding process took approximately five months to complete.

The only part the couple kept was the front wall, due to its historic significance and salvageability. Today, half of the front wall is original and the bottom half is HardiePlank. The rest of the home was completely rebuilt; the couple installed helical piles for support, added new walls and created a second story.

But there was a caveat. Because the house was located in the Parker-Gray Historic District, it was protected and regulated by the Board of Architectural Review and the couple was thus restricted from making significant exterior alterations.

With the help of Kulinski Group Architects, a local architectural firm that was familiar with the city, they found a solution.

“Our architect came up with a really creative idea. They said, ‘Look, so long as we can’t see the addition from the street, so long as you don’t change the integrity of the view, you can do what you want,’” Sennott recalled. “… And so collaboratively, we came up with these ideas on how we could get what we wanted and still maintain the historical integrity and keep everybody happy without having to get approval.”

The solution involved a setback for the second story, meaning that the window of the second story is “set back” from the front wall and is not visible from the street. This would allow for both the front of the home to look exactly like it did before it was torn down and for a second story to exist without breaching BAR regulations.

During the research process, Sennott discovered the original permit from 1908. She discovered that her new home was initially a wood-base property purchased for $200 and intended to be a cigar shop. Instead of throwing away the permit, Sennott had it blown up on the wall of what is now the office. At night, the street-facing window illuminates the sign for passersby to see.

Named after the Parker-Gray School established in 1920, the Parker-Gray Historic District was once a haven for escaped enslaved people. When determining how to display the “cigars” sign, Sennott knew there likely was not any “fancy signage” given the timeframe in which it was originally built.

“Through process of elimination, we figured they probably would have had a painted sign so we had a local artist come in and do something to [pay homage],” Sennott said, adding that occasionally people will stop by thinking that the house is an actual cigar shop.

The pair honored their home’s history in other ways, too. They found the original support beams during the demolition, which are now repurposed throughout the house. The kitchen shelves, wood bar and feature wall in the bathroom all include repurposed wood. Sennott will host an open house brunch on Feb. 26 to further explain the home’s history and renovation.

The kitchen shelves are repurposed wood from the original beams. Photo/Olivia Anderson

The kitchen merges into the living room, which has high ceilings custom made to fit Theobald. Stark white French doors then open to a covered pergola and outdoor patio, replete with a garden and turf play area for the pups.

Though Sennott and Theobald are minimalists by nature, they also had to be mindful of BAR regulations – which meant they could not add additional square footage to the home without earning approval. So, they instead distributed the nearly 900 square feet of the original house throughout the top and bottom floors. The effort involved a great deal of creativity, Sennott noted.

“In our house, everything we have serves multiple purposes. So, we don’t have four sets of anything, we have one set.” she said. “Everything has to do more than one thing, because you don’t want to have too much stuff. … We feel that for the size of the house and the demographic that lives here, this is all we need.”

The space under the stairs, for instance, is a full pantry instead of its intended use as a utility closet. Upstairs, one of the rooms doubles as an office space and bedroom. A big Murphy bed folds down on weekends for Airbnb guests, and a work desk folds up during the week for Theobald.

The other room has three large windows that peer out eight feet to the parapet visible from the street. Underneath the space between the bedroom and the parapet is a heater and ample storage space.

“We took full advantage of [these] eight feet that I lost from [the] square foot of living space, but made it usable,” Sennott said. “There’s no wasted space in this house.”

For Sennott, who is a realtor by day, the process of building a home from the ground up was as much about creating a space to live as it was an exciting project to take on.

“My mind just works this way. I don’t see what’s there, I see potential. I’m like, ‘It can look like this, it can look like that!’” Sennott said. “It was so much fun.”

  • The Payne Street house before it was demolished.