Carrie Nieman Culpepper: Some interesting people must live in this house. It’s definitely rooted in traditionalism but worldly and fresh.
Molster: I think of it as boho meets Virginia gentleman. She’s Charlestonian and had a very Southern upbringing, but she teaches meditation and is quite relaxed and informal. Her husband is a Virginian and an attorney. He’s got his library with volumes on Virginia history, and she has all of her Buddha statues.
Didn’t the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts own this house?
Molster: Yes! My clients bought it about three years ago from the museum. It was called the Oaks and dates from the mid-1700s. Its original site was outside of Richmond, but it was picked up and moved to the city in 1927. I don’t know if you remember, but it used to have floral wallpaper in the hallway.
Was there anything sacred that couldn’t be changed?
Molster: We upgraded all of the systems, and I convinced the owners to open several of the doorways, but it was essentially a renovation within the footprint. There was a question of whether or not to paint over the dark woodwork, so we had a restoration specialist take a look. He was fine with repainting most of it, but in the small back stairwell, he discovered a banister and handrail that are even older than this almost 300-year-old house. He told us flat out we could not paint them.
How did you grapple with all that woodwork in your design?
Molster: That old, mellowed wood really started speaking to me. We kept 75 percent of the wainscoting and window trim — stained poplar — which we polished and waxed. It marries the architecture with the furnishings and the client’s art.
What’s the story of that incredible collection of paintings?
Molster: Most of the work is by Mary and William de Leftwich Dodge, a mother and son who are distant relatives of my client’s. The artists were Virginians who lived in Paris before World War I. During World War II, when so many public and private collections were being pillaged, the European relatives in possession of the works shipped dozens of the paintings to my client’s grandmother for safekeeping. When the war was over, they wrote to retrieve the collection, but it would have been so expensive to send it all back, they ended up telling her to keep it. Mary was known for her portraits, and William became a famous muralist with pieces in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and a commission at the Library of Congress. There are also contemporary works in the house from several Richmond and Charleston artists.
I notice you took a different approach to displaying the art in each room.
Molster: With such an abundance of canvases, I divided them into groups. I clustered examples of specific genres: landscapes in the bedroom, female portraits in the dining room. I measured the wall and then taped off the same amount of space on the floor, where I began laying out the paintings for color and balance. Often, I’d hop on a ladder to get perspective. The living room’s gallery wall features some of the couple’s favorites. It’s a mix of everything: high and low, old and new, antique and modern.
Was it challenging to design around such strong historic architecture?
Molster: We decided to fight fire with fire. We wanted the interior furnishings to be as strong as the architecture. Scale was key. The art goes all the way up to the crown moldings, and the curtains hang from floor to ceiling. There are generous light fixtures and significant, tall lamps. Everything has a feeling of muscularity and presence. The color intensity has a continuum throughout the house — the study’s palette of bluish green with red feels powerful, while the living room has that great pump-kin color and big art. That’s what creates cohesion — proportion and strength.
See more photos of this gorgeous home:
This story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of CQ.