Some say you can never go home again; that the streets and faces of your past must inevitably evolve, making way for something new. That adage proved true for one couple who, after 30 years spent raising a family in Georgia, hatched plans to start their next chapter as empty nesters in the hometown they both share: Chattanooga, Tennessee. Among 19th-century brick buildings and tree-cloaked neighborhoods, they discovered the timeworn soul of their childhood stomping grounds intact. Over the decades, however, its urban core had blossomed from an industrial hub into a cosmopolitan city famed for its sparkling Riverwalk, merging waterfront nature trails with lively streets filled with arts and culture.
After finding the perfect plot in a historic neighborhood near downtown, the owners recruited residential designer Laurel Powell to build from the ground up. The couple “was looking for their next home adventure, something a bit more creative,” says Powell, whose design—like Chattanooga itself—mixes novelty and nostalgia. “I wanted their house to feel as though it could have been built 100 years ago or yesterday,” she explains. “A place that would provide a feeling of excitement and awe, but at the same time, comfort.”
From the beginning, the project struck a sentimental note, as the build reunited the couple with their old friend Kim L. Woods, the general contractor who constructed their first house in Georgia three decades earlier. Since then, “he became a very dear friend to us,” says the wife. “He’s a great builder and a good listener. We would never want anyone else to build our home.”
Together, the design team focused on imbuing the new build with antique character, seen in steep rooflines reminiscent of English Tudor cottages and a curvaceous Cape Dutch-esque parapet crowning the garage. Inside, Powell conjured “that feeling you get walking into a small, historic chapel.” Exuding an old-world ecclesiastical feel, the foyer opens with a groin-vaulted arch that flows into luminous and convivial living spaces defined by cathedral ceilings and 15-foot-tall windows. “When you walk in, it’s like a sanctuary with all that light coming in,” the husband notes.
Skilled artisans were also enlisted to infuse the home with a 19th-century industrial quality that underscores the city’s architectural past. Referencing downtown Chattanooga’s aged brick buildings, Powell brought in decorative painters to weather the dwelling’s exterior brick with limewash and artful dabs of extra mortar “to make the masonry appear as if it has been patched and painted over time,” the designer says. Blackened metals also accent the interior, evident in aluminum-clad windows and iron display cabinets forged by a local blacksmith to complement the wife’s prized collection of pewter.
While the architecture alludes to the past, the interior design transcends it, blurring traditional with contemporary. Slipcovers dissolve the formality of highback upholstery. Sumptuous rugs soften the solemnity of oak flooring, stained to resemble the European oiled wood the husband favors. The kitchen, meanwhile, is a study in unexpected contrasts, marrying stainless steel countertops with patinated materials like a leather-wrapped refrigerator and antiqued mirror glass. And reflecting the wife’s gothic art style, the residence showcases dark, enigmatic abstract works by local artists Addie Chapin and Cydney Parkes. Overall, a monochromatic palette of fresh whites and stormy grays informs the abode’s mercurial nature, shifting at will from bright and modern to moody and atmospheric.
Throughout the project, Powell harmonized these diverse elements by way of repetition. The curved outlines of the Dutch-inspired parapet, for example, reappear throughout the home in scales great and small: the arched millwork dividing the living spaces, the silhouette of the kitchen island and the custom headboard Powell designed for the couple’s bedroom. So, too, does brick cultivate a sense of familiarity on the welcoming porch, adding warmth to its fireplace and floor. “I try to develop a visual language early in a project to create a consistent lens throughout the design,” Powell explains. “I truly believe the body feels that unity when you’re in a space.”
For the couple’s return to Chattanooga, it feels like a second life. Combining the best aspects of the past with the things they’ve come to love over the decades, they created a present where memories can be made with those they cherish. Concludes the husband, “When the sunrise comes up over the Tennessee River, the light that fills our home is a daily reminder of everything we love most.”