HOMEOWNERS Rex & Jane Scatena
COMPLETED March 2003, a year after they purchased the house
STYLE Aged Italian with a hint of rural France ("We call it Fratalian")
EXTERIOR Traditional hand-troweled stucco, red-tile roof, columns and other architectural elements made of Vicenza-stone
RESIDENCE Three-story main house inside a walled courtyard with adjoining master-suite and guest wings, two outdoor pavilions, and limonaia
INFRASTRUCTURE Steel floor joists, poured-concrete wall studs, and reinforced concrete-block walls
PROPERTY The estate, "Tra Vigne," comprises 140 acres in Virginia's rolling Piedmont
FAVORITE ROOM "We spend an equal amount of time in all the rooms our living room and dining room aren't just for guests."
AT-HOME PASTIMES Jane hosts exercise classes for friends in the dance studio; Rex enjoys working in the vineyard
HOUSEBUILDING TIP "Make sure you have an architect you like. Ours was terrific at translating what we wanted into a workable plan."
Interior/Exterior Stucco and Marmarino
FREE UNION, VIRGINIA "We had never planted a single grape vine in our entire lives," say Jane and Rex Scatena. "But the idea of having a European-style villa with a vineyard around it really appealed to us."
With that in mind, the two made mental notes and took photographs of noteworthy architectural features whenever they traveled to Europe, to Italy in particular. "Our idea was to take inspiration from villas, hotels, and other buildings we'd seen, document the details, then try to recreate them as accurately as we could given the fact that we wouldn't be building a palace."
Of equal importance was purchasing an appropriate building site. "It took us three years," they say, "to find this beautifully situated 140-acre parcel of land." With plenty of room for vineyards, it seemed well suited to the type of house they envisioned. A mix of pastureland with spring-fed pond and forests with native dogwood, red bud, oak, and hickory trees, the property offered panoramic views of the rolling Piedmont and wooded Blue Ridge Mountains. What's more, it was located in the heart of Virginia's grape-growing country. "Planting vines seemed a natural use of the land that would preserve it and keep me off the streets," says Rex. "I even bought a tractor having never been on one before."
The next step for him and Jane was sitting down with architect Jeff Bushman and his associates to explain their vision. "He did a terrific job of translating what we wanted into a workable plan. We all went to Italy one time just to focus on certain details. We couldn't have done it without him."
A LITTLE SLICE OF ITALY
Jane and Rex relished the creative challenge of designing, furnishing, and finishing their home. Stone, tile, glass, fabrics and window treatments, plasters and woods, furniture and accessories they made each and every decision themselves, detail by detail.
"We didn't think a designer would work for us," Rex explains. "We'd traveled all over the world researching, collecting, and authenticating design elements, and we knew what we wanted. Because it was so personal, taking the time to explain everything to an interior designer seemed hopeless."
They furnished their villa with a mixture of old things and new, things they'd had most of their married life, as well as "a few pieces that came from our families," and things they'd purchased here and abroad, in Italy, England, France, Germany, and Mexico.
"Most rooms and many architectural elements are referenced to buildings we visited in Italy."
Everything else, however, was sourced in Italy. "Fabrics, chandeliers, tiles, lanterns: everything attached to the house is Italian," says Rex. "If you want to build a house that's a certain style, part of the enjoyment is trying to stay true to that particular style. We were trying not to make it half Italian and half something else. We didn't want to start off with a horse and end up with a camel."
The time and effort he and Jane spent, say, picking out all the indoor and outdoor lanterns might be off-putting to anyone less faithful to their mission. Yet Jane and Rex acknowledge that "something inauthentic would jump out like a sore thumb at least it would to us because we spent so much time studying this style. It was a full-time job."
"Besides," says Rex, "we had a lot of fun finding it all, buying it, and getting it back here. We brought in container after container of antiques, art, stone, tile, Venetian glass, iron lanterns, and chandeliers.
"I would peek in a crate and look at a statue here and a carved fireplace there and couldn't wait for the day they were placed. It took a mountain of wooden crates to bring all this material over, and once we burned them, you could have seen the fire from the space shuttle."
A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS
"And of course," Rex continues, "we had wonderful craftsmen to work with. It started with the architect, who recommended a few builders. We interviewed several, settled on one, and he knew a lot of good tradespeople."
Jane and Rex also brought in artisans from both northern and southern Italy to lay the tile floors and apply the stucco and marmarino. "It was easier than hiring locally because they knew how to set and finish that particular kind of tile or how to mix and apply Italian-style plasters. Their sensibility to color, size, shape, how to finish this corner as opposed to that corner...questions you wouldn't even know to ask. They deserve a lot of credit. We were lucky to have such a good team of artisans."
Finding these Italian master craftsmen took a blend of careful observation, serendipity, and perseverance. "Most rooms and many architectural elements are referenced to buildings we visited in Italy," Rex explains. The tile patterns unique to the floor of each room, for instance, are tile-by-tile copies of patterns he and Jane saw and liked in various locations throughout Italy. "We once admired the floor tile in a hotel and asked the concierge who installed it. He directed us to a family business that had been making cotto tiles for centuries. We showed them photos of different floors, and they designed them in conjunction with our architects."
In a similar manner, they tracked down a small plaster company in Vicenza skilled in the art of marmarino, a mixture of lime, marble powder, and pigment applied by hand with a trowel. "Marmarino has a very hard, very shiny-looking surface," Rex explains. "There are different grades and different applications. The more marble-dust powder, the more it gleams and the harder it becomes to apply, requiring a complicated troweling action. The end product winds up looking like marble."
As Rex and Jane became better acquainted with the owner, he introduced them to a wider variety of finishes, finishes they'd taken note of during their travels without knowing names or composition. "We brought in him and his team and worked on textures and colors with them on a daily basis. We used a material in the main salon that has vegetable cellulose in the plaster, which gives the surface suede-like characteristics like chamois, though it's not soft."
For the outside of their home, Rex and Jane selected a more traditional stucco embedded with small chunks of stone, brick, and marble, creating "a wonderfully hard exterior."
"We'd taken a lot of time in designing, well over a year..."
"It was extremely interesting to be a part of it all. We had a lot of fun. At any given time, we'd have 25 Italians here. After work, we'd set up card tables and sit around the construction site, talking and having dinner. That was really fun."
BUILDING AND DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS
Determining what they wanted the home's dimensions to be proved a particularly fascinating part of the project. "If you want the living room to be a certain size, what does that do, for example, to the entry?" Rex explains. "From a proportional point of view, the bigger the house, the easier it is to make such decisions some people figure, heck, you can just put a wall over here and be done with it. We found it far more interesting to work within boundaries."
Granted, the Scatenas had 17,000 square feet to work with, "but it doesn't live like 17,000 square feet. In some houses, the rooms feel so big you feel lost. Our home isn't that way at all. All the rooms feel spacious, but you never have the sense you can't be comfortable in them."
Hand in hand with proportion went considerations about symmetry. "The floor plan has a logical flow to it, with the bar and dining room flanking the main room. It's very easy to move around in." That kind of balance was important to Rex and Jane but not to the point of its being predictable and therefore boring. "If you look at the house in parts, every part is perfectly balanced, but as a whole, it's not. That's a credit to Bushman. We wanted balance without being slaves to it. If we wanted a window here, for example, then we might think we'd have to balance it out with a window over there. But 'over there' might be in the clothes closet. Jeff did a wonderful job of interpreting it all, of rolling up his sleeves and making it work."
"The floor plan has a logical flow to it, with the bar and dining room flanking the main room. It's very easy to move around in."
Any change in the expected sequencing of events provided still more opportunity for flexible, creative response. "An occasional dock strike or a ship with an engine problem would delay a shipment," Rex explains. "Things like that might sound insignificant, but it's very significant when things aren't on site when they're supposed to be." To work around it, "you rearrange the construction schedule and grab something else out of sequence. That's when you gotta have a good builder!"
THE JOURNEY HOME
Start to finish, from breaking ground until completion ("though we never quite know when it's done"), the house took two years to build. "We were living in the guest wing, however, and cooking on a hot plate those last six months," says Rex. "We'd wake up in the morning to the sound of concrete trucks and hammers."
He and Jane are satisfied Tra Vigne is an accurate representation of what they had in mind, and that pleases them. They find that their home lives well, just as they planned it would.
"We spend time in all the rooms almost equally. We designed the house with that in mind. Our main issue was the living room. Most people go in their living room at Christmas time and that's about it. We didn't want that. The layout of the main block of the house, with the bar and dining room flanking the salon, helps us use all the rooms all the time. They're not just for guests."
In spring, summer and fall, they dine on the terrace, sometimes by firelight as the temperature warrants. And on most winter nights, Rex builds a crackling fire in the kitchen fireplace while cooking dinner. For social events, he and Jane keep all the fireplaces burning as the evening progresses from the bar to the dining room, ending with relaxing conversation at either end of the grand salon.
Downstairs is a mirrored 32' x 21' dance studio with sprung floor, which can also be accessed by circular staircase from the master suite. Nearby is a sauna, bath, tanning bed, and, at the end of the hallway, a fully equipped 20' x 25' gym leading to a ground-level terrace. "Jane is there every day," Rex explains. "She and her friends like to work out. It's a heavily used part of the house."
Aptly named Tra Vigne, meaning "through vines" in Italian, the estate currently has 14 acres under vine and could easily accommodate another 25 to 30 acres plus a winery. "We grow Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and a red blending grape called Chambourcin. We sell our grapes to a top-notch, award-winning winemaker here in town, Brad McCarthy, who partnered with Dave Matthews to create Blenheim Winery.
Having spent years behind a desk, Rex says he gets a kick out of driving a tractor and working in the vineyard. "Harvest is wonderful, full of anticipation as we wonder how the wine will ultimately taste. It's beautiful here in the Virginia countryside, whether we're watching the fox hunt, the gorgeous sunsets, or the hot-air balloons floating by, all framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains."
Yet while living at Tra Vigne is wonderful, say Rex and Jane, "what was really wonderful was the process, the journey, all the little things we were mindful of. We were both equally interested in it. We thought about it for a long time and spent a tremendous amount of time researching seemingly unimportant details, such as bath fixtures in the guest rooms. After a while, though, there was sometimes an exhaustion factor. Once we were down to the five-yard line, it was tempting to say, 'Forget it,' and just run down to the home-improvement center to buy something. But you just have to gut it out and get to the end."
Did everything turn out as expected? "There were no real surprises. Inclement weather sometimes goofed things up, but then you couldn't hope to build anything like this without having some problems. But they weren't big problems thank God no one got hurt. Everything came as ordered. We'd taken a lot of time in designing, well over a year, so we pretty much knew what we were going to get. We were confident our suppliers were capable we had a great deal of faith in them."The biggest problem," Rex quips, "is that I was here ten hours a day looking over everyone's shoulder. I imagine that anybody who builds a house like this would want to be there. It was important to me."
When asked what they like best about Tra Vigne, Rex and Jane reply without a moment's hesitation, "The memories we have of creating and building. We're itching to do it again, although this time something in the opposite direction perhaps an urban setting. Whatever we choose, our memories will be sweet of our Italian villa in the countryside. From the first vine we planted until the last picture we hung, it was a wonderful journey."
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