Architect’s Wand Makes Princesses of Ugly Sisters

PUBLICATION: Alexandria Port Gazette Packet
DATE: December 17, 1992

When Shirley MacLaine invited Jack Nicholson into her suburban Dallas house in the film “Terms of Endearment,” he answered, “I would rather stick needles in my eyes.”

With similar horror, many people recoil from the sight of broken-down, seedy houses. But architect Gaver Nichols likes the adventure of turning around derelict and obsolescent buildings—architectural dogs, you might say.

“I like to play with the potential that old houses and commercial buildings offer, “Nichols said. “Inside their sometimes grimy shells, many old structures have tremendous potential for contemporary living.”

According to Nichols, the job of adapting old buildings to new uses involves selective destruction of rotten or eroded materials, then judicious reassembly to meet the needs of the new owners—whether those needs involve meticulous historic preservation or retrofitting the building for contemporary reuse.

Nichols’ current project is refitting three sinfully ugly, flat-roofed concrete row houses dating from the late 1950s at 1316, 1318 and 1320 Cameron St., near the corner of West Street. They looked like ruins. They were utter dumps.

Though their appearance was gruesome enough to make your eyes ache, the foundations and concrete-block walls were sound enough to salvage, so Nichols and contractor Russ Seward decided to move ahead with plans for total redesign and renovation.

“You have to think about what it can be, not what it is, ” said Nichols.

Nichols is a young architect with endless energy and optimism, and with no hint of spikiness – the perfect temperament for the job of wrestling with broken-down buildings. While most architects would have recommended bulldozing the three dumpy sisters without a twinge of regret, Nichols relished their glorious resurrection.

Now completely done over, the trio of narrow row houses shows no signs of their humble origins. Nichols has used a number of architectural flourishes to make the houses appealing on the exterior. He raised the old flat roof, and added a third story with a steeply pitched, red standing-seam metal roof, and three gabled dormers. Over the rough concrete walls he laid on putty-colored clapboarding punctuated with mullioned windows, colorful paneled shutters, and crisp white moldings: dentil cornices, vertical edge boards and ornamental pilaster entrances.

The houses are perhaps a bit flamboyant in their repro-colonial fancy dress, but they are nonetheless appealing from the street, and make attractive additions to the neighborhood – which is not exactly South St. Asaph Street.

Inside the houses, Nichols was faced with a litany of constraints. The houses are narrow (only 12 feet wide). And there are no side windows, so banishing dingy row-house darkness was a major priority. To bring light inside, Nichols turned his attention to the rear, since the formal neocolonial facades offered little chance for innovative window design.

At the back of each floor, Nichols installed doors with full-panel glass openings. On the first level, the kitchen door opens to a deep garden. On the second and third levels, doors open out to small but rather romantic balconies.

For extra light, Nichols opened the ceiling of the second-floor study all the way up to the roof, creating what real estate agents call the “cathedral ceiling.”

With clever design, Nichols allowed the dormer window to act as a skylight. By using the dead space of the attic, he created some lofty and dramatic space in what otherwise would have been a pedestrian row-house bedroom. An interior window shoots light from the skylit study into the windowless center hall.

To conserve living space, Nichols set the heating and air-conditioning equipment in the attic over the thirdfloor bedroom. When working with tight dimensions, a good architect has to conserve every square inch of livable floor space.

Nichols ha resuscitated the ugly sisters with considerable attention to volume and light. His new spaces are imaginative and amusing.

Nichols has redesigned a number of obsolescent houses in Del Ray, including his own turn-of-the-century farmhouse on Monroe Avenue. He is now converting a derelict 1906 firehouse in Camden, NJ, into modern office space, carefully preserving its ornate Italianate shell.

“Nichols has resuscitated the ugly sisters with considerable attention to volume and light. His new spaces are imaginative and amusing.”

This dumpy trio of narrow Cameron Street row houses from the fifties received a major facelift and complete internal restructuring from architect Gaver Nichols.
Photo shows the elegant results

The sisters before their makeover