July/August 2007

Chiles house, Raleigh, NC. (Photo by Jim West)

By Bruce D. Snider
Time marches on. But in custom building, it doesn’t always march in a straight line. Take this house. Only 40 years old and fast headed for an early grave, it was rescued by a team of builder/architects who had not yet been born when it was new. These young craftspeople, some of them fresh out of architecture school, rebuilt it in a style that is older than their grandparents. Which, of course, we call Modernism. In spite of the looping path, however, the building arrives at the present day in very fine form. The bones of its once deteriorating structure support a house that is visually stimulating, great fun to live in, and—this time—built to last.
Vinnie Petrarca, 34, and his crew at Tonic Design had been watching the house for a while, hoping to get their hands on it before it got scraped off. Modernists by training and inclination, they liked its flat-roofed form, its exposed steel structure, and the way it seemed to float in the treetops of its steep, wooded site. The odds of finding a patron who shared their enthusiasm, though, did not look good. The house sat on a desirable lot that could be subdivided to carry two new houses. Worse, the building itself was in a miserable state. The steel frame and concrete floor decks were intact, but the rest was rapidly heading south. “It was a melting wood structure, just falling apart,” Petrarca says. When he showed the place to an Ohio couple planning to retire here in Raleigh, N.C., curb appeal was in notably short supply. “It was a rainy day in January,” Petrarca remembers, “and there were tarps all over the house.” Still, he pleaded its case. Despite appearances, he maintained, the house was still “strong in concept.” The couple left unconvinced. READ MORE…