This 200-year-old Tidewater, Va., home was a hodgepodge of additions when a Philadelphia couple contacted Muse Architects and contractor Tim Maloney to help them restore it. “Going to Machipongo is like going back in time,” says architect William Kirwan. “It’s not connected to the mainland of Virginia. It’s just cotton fields, old stores, and old homes.”

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A Georgian-style plantation home in Virginia's Tidewater area gets a modern update in keeping with its history.

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Bringing back the entry porches facing Hungars Creek and creating 21st-century living spaces drove the design. Armed with a 1920’s photograph, architect Stephen Muse, Kirwan, and staff architect Mary Margaret Stacy returned the waterfront facade to its former grandeur and created a modern interior that still fits with the original architecture.

Twice as Nice

Originally built in 1784 by the Upshur family and expanded in 1829 by Abel Parker Upshur, a prominent Eastern Shore judge who served as Secretary of the Navy and later Secretary of State under John Tyler, the Georgian-style plantation home really had two fronts — a formal one facing the road and the other facing Hungars Creek, which leads to the Chesapeake Bay.

Using a photo from the 1920s and the extant roadside porches as inspiration, Muse and Kirwan mirrored the design on the home’s creek side. “In this isolated part of the country in the late 1700s, it would have been more common to arrive at Vaucluse by boat than by horse and carriage,” Kirwan says. “We knew the waterfront facade would have had equal if not more of a welcoming presence than the roadside facade.”


“The [existing] house had terrific rooms,” Kirwan says, “one–room deep so there were views of the waterfront and the entry court.” The original log cabin was 1½ stories, but “there was a hodgepodge of spaces.”

In the mid-20th century the cabin was connected to the main house. The narrow galley kitchen in the existing plan didn’t function well, lacking a family living space and sufficient entries. Muse Architects placed the new kitchen and breakfast room away from the living spaces — a convention that harkens back to the early 1800s — and connected it to the main house with a modern pantry. The galley kitchen was reconfigured into a bar and a mudroom.

Shingled Out

Rotted wood meant the architects were unable to salvage historical house parts or reuse existing materials. Instead, they matched the historical designs with modern materials.

Like many homes in the Tidewater area, the main house roof was cedar shingle. Matching new and old roofing was not an issue because all of the structures received new Western red cedar shingles.

The porch trim materials are all custom-milled 5/4- and 1-inch red cedar, primed, and painted. The columns are also custom-made cedar.

New clapboard wood siding extends into the older, historical wood siding, which had a bead along it that Kirwan recreated. He also specified custom exterior molding around the windows to match the historical molding.

Live-in Kitchen

The client, an interior designer and restoration expert, who also enjoys cooking, wanted the architects “to design something with the same ‘genetic code’ as the house, something with the same size and scale but using modern construction techniques,” Kirwan says.

The designers added more windows — even though earlier inhabitants may not have had those — because the clients wanted “a kitchen to live in as well as cook in” and to enjoy the beautiful views of the property.

The timber framed ceiling, copper sink, and period lighting work together to evoke an earlier time.

Twin Peaks

Taking a cue from local historical architecture, rooflines step down from the main block and double chimneys (with two flues) are common. These gave Kirwan the opportunity to introduce the high small window (bringing light into the kitchen), which corresponds with high windows on the other gable ends of the home and over the butler’s pantry.

The original gable ends were brick. To break up the brick’s mass in the renovated gable, there’s a recessed arch in the chimney base. The arch also doubles as a garden feature.

Hit the Bricks

In the breakfast area, which bumps off the kitchen with a creek-side view, Kirwan designed a brick floor using new bricks that closely match those in the main house. The floor extends into the kitchen.

Built on a mud slab over a wood structure, the ductwork and electrical wiring are in a crawlspace below the floor. The heat created by the ductwork is enough to warm the floor, and the building envelope provides a thermal break between the interior brick floor and the exterior brick veneer that clads the concrete block foundation.

More REMODELING articles about historically sensitive renovation:

Window Keepers: For historic windows, replacement is not the only option

Revisionist History: A quaint Queen Anne gets an historically sensitive yet transformative addition

Respecting the Past: Historically sensitive renovation in Dexter, Mich.