Local developer Mike Degen has teamed up with Abby Construction several times over the years to give new life to properties that have seen better days.
There was the burned out brick shell at 1200 Prince Edward St. that’s now a focal point on the block. There was the skinny, dilapidated house at 600 George St., now looking good with its red siding and white trim. And before that was the granite block edifice at 1206 Washington Ave. that was updated and added onto. Each was challenging in its own way.
Then, back in 2015, local real estate agent Suzy Stone introduced Degen to one of her listings, 1716 Highland Road in Fredericksburg’s Westmont neighborhood. It’s a leafy, post-World War II community off William Street, next to Oak Hill Cemetery, known for its winding streets and eclectic collection of houses of various styles. Back in the 1940s and ’50s it would have been considered on the outskirts of town.
Degen looked at the house as he would any other, as something he could buy, fix up and resell. But this house was different. From the front it looked like a basic white ranch, right out of 1950, with a large chimney at the center.
But it also had two angled wings sticking out from the back, forming a V-like shape. Even more strange, the angles of the wings were different—non-symmetrical—and one wing was longer than the other.
Also setting it apart was the Frackelton block construction. Frackelton Block Company was founded by Robert Leigh Frackelton, who actually built his own house in Westmont with namesake block to demonstrate how solid a cinder block house could be.
Degen thought about all the interesting aspects of the house and liked it so much he decided to make 1716 Highland Road his own. He called on Abby Construction, knowing that project manager John Hewitt would have some ideas. “Sometimes we’d have the same idea, the same thought,” Degen said of Hewitt. Degen also would add Richmond architect Bob Steele to the team to formulate a workable plan.
“It was going to be basically the same house, except that we’d take it apart and put it back together again,” Degen said, making a long story short. “We tried to keep everything that was good.”
Degen said the initial plan was to pursue a classic, mid-century modern design, given the home’s 1950s style and construction. But that gave way to the more timeless Craftsman style that Degen thought the wiser choice. Note the tapered porch columns, the tapered chimney, the soffit brackets and trim inside and out that reflects the simple and flat Craftsman style.
Exterior overhangs above certain windows are covered with standing-seam metal roofing. The siding is HardiePlank and Hardie shakes, painted in custom colors.
With the project now completed, it may be the same house, but it is also very different. The center, front portion got a second floor and was widened by a foot to add living space. An addition provided space for the new two-car garage and bedrooms. A new front porch was also added, as well as a swimming pool with surrounding patio out back. All the bathrooms were given heated tile floors. The floors are scraped bamboo throughout.
To increase interior volume, cathedral or tray ceilings were added in key living areas. The foyer, which got a new window to brighten the space, also got a beautiful dome ceiling with rope lighting hidden around the circumference and light fixture hanging from the center.
All of these things, along with the skills of interior designer Robin Steele, Bob Steele’s wife, have turned the house into a magazine-caliber showplace. But for Degen, the odd angles were as confounding as they are key to the home’s unique design.
“I am all about symmetry but with the wings at different angles and different lengths, we were going to have to adapt it to make it look right,” he said. “It had to have one point of origin.”
That turned out to be an opening at the center of the patio’s back wall. The pool had to be off center, but the broader space to one side holds a table and chairs to balance things out.
Facing the pool is a multi-season room with removable, light plastic windows to provide an open porch whenever the weather is right.
Another challenge involved the original construction, Hewitt said. Though the house didn’t sag, it did suffer from a lack of support, he said. The solution was to install steel posts and beams that would not only bolster the original construction but also support the new second story.
“We expect this will still be around 100 years from now,” he said.
Changes to the interior floor plan are many and designed to improve both flow and comfort. In the left side wing, for example, the kitchen and dining room were flipped to opposite sides of the family room. That puts the kitchen in a more central location as the heart of the home, and the little-used dining room at the far end.
The kitchen becomes a gathering place, featuring a T-shaped granite center island with the cooktop built in. Tall chairs pull up around it. Upper cabinets are off-white, lower cabinets are dark brown and appliances are stainless steel.
The new second level adds a master guest suite with a luxury bathroom and contemporary linear fireplace. An upstairs landing area is filled with comfortable seating. Much attention was given to trim and wainscoting, up here and throughout the house.
The house sits on a 3/4-acre lot that also became part of the project. New retaining walls allowed the steep lot to be leveled and driveways reconfigured.
With its new second story, the house totals about 4,000 square feet of living space, Degen said, but the floor plan allows him and his wife, Amy, to live almost exclusively in the main level’s 2,500 square feet.
“This is a great house for us,” Degen said. “We didn’t expect it to turn out this good.”