The more Jim and Susie Van Hook researched French colonial architecture, the more they appreciated how perfectly it expressed their feelings about home: a place that’s warm and inviting, that says, “I was expecting you, and I’m glad you’re here.”
As empty nesters looking for a more manageable place to live, they’d explained to their real-estate agent that although they wanted a new house, they also wanted the lived-in atmosphere and understated elegance associated with much older homes: a “new-old house,” they called it.
Immediately sensing what they had in mind, the agent took them through a house she referred to as “French colonial” — an architectural term and style that was entirely new to Jim and Susie.
Though the house conveyed the relaxed, welcoming feeling they had in mind, they talked it over and said, “No, let’s not buy it. It’s almost right, but there are too many things to change.” But, says Jim, “We came away with the germ of a new idea.”
Three days later, a hillside lot in the same development came on the market. Though the developer had been saving it for himself, he’d decided to sell; Jim and Susie, enamored with the view overlooking the little village of Brentwood, decided to buy. Now that they knew the kind of house they wanted, why not build it themselves?
From that moment, they focused their attention on learning everything they could about French colonial architecture. They studied books and toured homes, traveling to Louisiana for a firsthand look at houses that defined the French colonial style.
“The French once owned Louisiana,” Susie explains, “and their building style was usually asymmetrical. But as the colonials began to move south, they came with columns and other symmetrical features more in keeping with colonial architecture. Out of it came a style that was a blend of the two.
“As you head out Charles Avenue from New Orleans toward Tulane, you begin to see the colonial element come alive. We didn’t like the starkness of colonial, the formality of everything being symmetrical and stiff. But when you throw in the French element, more curls and twists and turns, more asymmetry, that’s us! We didn’t know anything about it, but we decided to build a French colonial. We both got excited about it — we like the same things stylistically, and that made it easy.”
“I've been careful to plant good color in the flower beds because we feel like the courtyard is an extension of the house.”
BUILDING THE RIGHT TEAM
The research phase took six months. Next, Jim and Susie found an architect from southern Louisiana who understood French colonial. As for the builder, they worked with the original developer who also happened to live in the neighborhood. “He’d moved here from Baton Rouge,” says Jim, “and he lived and breathed French colonial. He was a stickler for carrying out the details of the style — little things like oversized window panes and half-round gutters and the rooster-tail overhang supporting the eaves.
“The materials he used were authentic, too. The shutters actually open and close like they would have 150 years ago on a plantation. We even have cypress millwork in the family room, kitchen, and sunroom — cypress doesn’t grow in Tennessee, so it had to be brought in from Louisiana. The brick came from an old 1890’s ice house, and ceiling beams in the kitchen and sunroom were part of an American Tobacco Company warehouse built just before the turn of the century. Woodwork on the porch and floors came from the same warehouse. Those floors are the thing people comment on the most — you can’t get away from the fact it’s old lumber. Must be five inches wide or so, heart-of-pine with all kinds of knots and interesting character.”
Many ideas came from Jim and Susie’s own research. “We knew we wanted ten-foot ceilings upstairs and down. And lots of appropriate millwork. It’s important in finishing a room. Even in the closets, we were conscious of the value of trimwork. I’ve been to houses where it was overdone, but if there isn’t enough, the rooms are too vanilla. Nobody walks in and says, ‘Oh! The millwork!’ but it makes a subtle difference.”
The file of photographs they’d accumulated from their travels helped Jim and Susie clarify their preferences. “As we looked through the pictures, we’d find a theme developing,” explains Jim. The photos also proved useful in explaining ideas to their contractor. “We’d show him a picture of something we’d seen on a trip and say, ‘This is what we want.’ The pictures made it so much easier to communicate.”
Much to their dismay, it would take another six months once the design was completed before construction could get underway: the building codes required retaining walls at the back of the house to deal with the unusually steep slope and porous soil. “We were frustrated at the thought of looking at a concrete wall just outside the back door,” says Susie. “Then we came up with the idea that we needed a landscape designer to see what we could do to make the area attractive.” Adds Jim, “For every problem, there’s a solution” — an adage he subscribed to throughout the building process.
He and Susie enlisted the talents of a landscape designer who, having just relocated to the area from Charleston, was conversant with Southern style. He suggested adding a courtyard and “came up with a beautiful design. He was as much a stickler for authenticity as the builder.”
True to form, the courtyard is built with long sweeping walls of brick, stone, and stucco punctuated by intimate seating areas. The stone came from an old dry-stack fence laid by slaves in 1830. The walls are built of old brick — “it has a look you can’t get any other way,” Susie explains. “The wrought iron was designed just for that area. We showed him pictures of gates from New Orleans, and he did his own version. It took awhile to find a company to make them, but they’re spectacular.”
All in all, Jim and Susie are delighted with the results. “What at first was disappointing became a thing of beauty. It’s as though we have another room out there,” says Susie. “I’ve been careful to plant good color in the flower beds because we feel like the courtyard is an extension of the house. When it snows, it feels like it’s snowing in the house.”
AND DON’T FORGET THE INTERIOR DESIGNER
Susie and Jim emphasize the importance of bringing in a good interior designer early in the building process. “He really affected the build-out,” says Jim. “We learned that ‘builder’ is not synonymous with ‘artistic design,’ so never ask him, ‘What do you think?’ He’s more concerned with the walls being straight and with building to code and making sure the electrical goes in at the right time. But a designer says things like, ‘What if we make this an arch instead of a square?’ I could show you place after place where we veered from the original architectural design because the designer said, ‘I think we could do more with this if we…'”
And just how do you go about finding a good designer? Sometimes happenstance. Jim and Susie got their referral from the owner of an exterior lighting company in New Orleans. “He told us, ‘The finest designer in the world lives right there in your town’. He gave us his name and number and the rest is history. We’re still friends six years later.”
And if you have to track someone down yourself? “First of all, if they say, ‘I can do any style you want’, don’t hire them! Our designer said, ‘If you’re looking for ultra-contemporary, you’ve got the wrong person. I do traditional with a lived-in look.'” Jim and Susie knew he was the one.
BUILDING ADVICE BASED ON EXPERIENCE
Jim and Susie loved the process of learning and studying and building. “We refer to it as ‘fun work,'” says Susie. “There were no conflicts between us. We each respect the gift the other has. Jim can look at a blueprint and visualize it, but I can’t. I’m a little bit better at visualizing the furnishings and colors in a room than he is.”
If one of them felt strongly about a particular room element, the other would acquiesce. “We’d say, ‘It doesn’t matter to me. I want you to have what you want in this room.’ We just really like to please each other.”
“It was like a hobby,” says Jim. “A great outlet for us. We had little aggravating moments, but they were so overshadowed by the fun of the project. If we’d been in a rush, we couldn’t have done what we did. We didn’t have to move, we weren’t going from one town to another, our kids were gone, and we had time to make it into a project. We have all good memories about the process.
“But it’s important to stay on top of it, to stay involved in coming over and seeing what they did each day and to ask for clarification. We found there were very few times that there was tension. The end result was good relationships.
“Regarding the builder, don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Builders by nature seek the means of least resistance. Though ours was a quality builder, he’d sometimes drag his feet about something we wanted, and we’d say, ‘No, there’s a way to do this.’ It’s your money, your home. Do very little compromising.”
DECORATING: THE INSIDE JOB
“Susie has a deep sense of roots,” says Jim, “and a sense of decorating that’s consistent with that: traditional, warm, and inviting. She’s also the best grandmother in the world. You put all that together, and that’s why this house feels so much like home.”
In keeping with the home’s exterior, Susie decided to accent her colonial interiors with touches of French style: the chandelier in the breakfast room, for instance, came from France. “There is also some Hispanic influence,” she says. “The Deep South is not far from the Hispanic culture. That, combined with the French influence, is something we respond to.” A pattern evolved in Susie’s approach to decorating. “I’d have an appointment with the decorator, and we’d take each room and do its colors. We’d work several hours in a room, and we might get it put together or not.”
Authenticity proved to be the key in decorating as well as building. Susie furnished the family room and guest room with primitive pieces they’d inherited from Jim’s family and she’d refinished throughout the years. The interior decorator Susie worked with strongly suggested augmenting those pieces with other antiques when he felt they’d make a difference: the Oriental rugs, say, or the lighting fixtures. “Couldn’t we get a copy that would look just as good?” Jim would ask. “I thought we were overspending. But when it was done, I’d look around and think, ‘It works!’ It’s part of that lived-in look. The antiques have a warmer quality without being showy or ostentatious.”
The designer would bring things to the house — perhaps a painting or 19th-century tapestry — and Susie and Jim would live with it for awhile. “If it didn’t work, it went back,” says Susie. “It took time, but that was part of giving the house that relaxed, lived-in look.” She and Jim knew they’d succeeded when their home was included on a tour of historic homes, some dating back to the Civil War. “We laughed, ‘It’s only three years old!’ That’s what happens when you salvage things and give them new life.”
MAKING GROWN-UP CHILDREN FEEL WELCOME
Before building, Jim and Susie asked themselves what they wanted from this era of their lives. Right then and there, they made up their minds that both of their married children should have their own room in the new house.
“We have strong feelings about our family,” Susie says. “Festive times together make life all the more meaningful. We wanted our children to be sure they have a home even though they’ve left the nest. This is still their place, too.” Each bedroom has its own bath and dressing area. “Everybody has their own world with all the privacy and convenience they need.”
“I've finally gotten to a place where I can relax, kick off my shoes, and let my soul catch up with my body.”
THE JOYS OF HOME
The house is big enough to give both Jim and Susie plenty of room to retreat. “We both like to read,” says Jim. “We read in the bedroom, sunroom, or family room, and Susie knits. We have no media room — we’d rather read the paper than watch the news — but we have a lot of bookcases.”
Evenings often find Jim and Susie winding down on the old-fashioned wrap-around porch furnished with cushioned swing, a pair of wooden rockers, and a white-wicker seating arrangement. “We really enjoy our front porch,” says Jim. “We sit out there a lot in the evenings and sometimes go out there to eat. We watch the changing seasons, and we watch the planes come and go in the distance. That’s what our grandson loves best! The view still takes my breath away.”
He and Susie love this house. “People tell us, ‘This looks just like you!’ We’re at home, and that’s the important part.”We were poor kids,” says Jim. “We’ve never forgotten that. All our lives, we’ve worked. We feel extremely blessed and grateful. We look around and say, ‘Wow! Can you believe we live here?'”
Susie puts it this way: “I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can relax, kick off my shoes, and let my soul catch up with my body.”
LOCATION: Brentwood, Tennessee
RESIDENCE: 6,600 square-foot French colonial
PROPERTY: An acre and a third near Nashville
HER FAVORITE ROOM: “The kitchen is a homemaker’s dream.”
HIS FAVORITE ROOM: “My office is my own little world. It has a fireplace, a 150-year-old desk, and a nice view onto the front porch.”
SHARED PASTIMES: Gardening, reading, and porch-sitting (“the view still takes our breath away”)
HOUSEBUILDING TIP: “Find the right interior designer and bring him or her in early—it really affects the build-out”
WHY FRONTGATE?: “We get stacks of catalogs, but it’s Frontgate we look forward to receiving every time. The products are so well done. It’s a quality outfit.” — Jim Van Hook