This piece first appeared in the spring issue of The Piedmont Virginian, the quarterly magazine of the Piedmont region of Virginia (go to http://thepiedmontonline.com).
SOME HOUSES are a patchwork of rooms–an addition here, a deck jutting out over there. In some houses a guest has to wander through a maze of rooms just to find the powder room.
And then there are houses that have been added on to by orderly minds. Seven times.
Looking out onto the Rivanna Reservoir outside Charlottesville, nature photographer Robert Llewellyn, one of the orderly minds in question, explains the evolution of the house he shares with wife Bobbi, a psychotherapist. The house was built around 1960 and when the couple bought it, in 1975, it was basically the spaces that are now the living room, a small bedroom near the front door (more about that later), a small dining room now used as a media room, a bedroom now Robert’s library and a kitchen. Now it’s 4,700 square feet in size. The living room–essentially a pair of cozy curved blue sofas facing a fireplace–seems dark, but that’s just by contrast with the southern light that is blasting in from the glass doors that face the water below. In fact, all the wood paneling throughout the house might translate as a bit heavy were it not for the brilliant light, even on a dim day.
Everything in this direction, Robert says, gesturing to the east, is the family’s living space. Everything to the west–he gestures again–is his work space. He doesn’t need to point out that all the principal rooms, left and right, are arrayed along the ridge with direct views of the water. “The water is always different,” Robert says, as though he needs to explain its appeal. “I get up each day and just look at it.”
The wide tiled hallway that leads to the rooms in both directions forms a kind of spine for the house. One can sit in the photographer’s office–the room farthest west–and see all the way through to the openings of the rest of the rooms, a grand Baroque enfilade of doorways with a Piedmont touch. “I like being able to see Bobbi in the kitchen,” Robert says. He also likes one-level living for a different reason than the one cited by most people. Yes, he has never liked stairs, but that’s because “I never know what’s going on up there,” he says with a practiced grin.
A few years after buying the place, “back in the Reagan era,” the Llewellyns built a larger dining room adjacent to the old one; they built it over a 5,000-gallon water tank and installed solar panels in the roof to heat the water. Here in the bright dining room Bobbi’s touch is manifest: Some of the plants flourishing on shelves around the airy conservatory-like space are 20 years old.
Back in the wide hallway one passes into the spacious master bedroom, also added on. The eastern edge of the house is an all-glass sitting area attached to the bedroom, just the thing for water-watching.
Parallel to this row of rooms is a second hallway, farther back from the ridge, this one leading to the bedrooms of the couple’s two daughters, now 31 and 26. Each was allowed to design her own space. One gave herself a turret, affording her a view all around (and giving the house a quirky roofline); the other added a loft balcony inside her room. Both are off on their own now, but the rooms are still fresh and inviting. There were several architects involved with all these additions and permutations, Robert says, the main ones being Seth Warner, who studied with Michael Graves, and Bob Paxton, of Dalgliesh Gilpin Paxton Architects.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves in that back hallway are more evidence that something special, yes something orderly, is going on in this house. The shelves showcase hundreds of bones and shells, collected by the older daughter, Cara, since childhood. This area “became a natural history museum,” Robert says, but it pales next to what’s in the working portion of the house.
Over there, in the west wing, is a series of large, airy rooms in which books may line the walls but the interest is in the glass cases stacked in the center–well, stacked all over the place. In these cases, the photographer of “Remarkable Trees of Virginia” and “Seeing Flowers: Discovering the Hidden Life of Flowers” shows off the raw material of his latest projects. He’s working on a photographic book on seed pods, and here they are–dried and skeletal and lit from beneath by enormous light tables to reveal their basic architecture.
Capturing the objects in full focus has allowed Robert to marry his artist’s eye with his training as an engineer: Robert’s camera is mounted on a vertical stand that moves the camera up and down at tiny increments, each image having a different focal point; a computer program puts the in-focus parts together to form one shot in which the entire flower, seed pod, whatever, is completely in focus, something not possible in one photo.
(As miraculous as his photos are, what’s more so are the tidbits of nature Robert has picked up on his photographic journey. Many types of orchids, he explains, stay in bloom so long simply because their pollination is quite specialized and takes a long time; only when a blossom has given up its pollen is its work of procreation done, and so it can wilt and die.)
If Robert’s work space, with its elaborate console and computer monitor setup (three giant screens that he conducts like an orchestra), other parts of the house reflect Bobbi’s spiritual interests. “People say there’s a feeling about this house,” she says, and she has a point. Maybe it’s the view or the airy, uncluttered spaces, or perhaps it’s because Bobbi has studied meditation with international masters and now leads regular meditation groups in the house.
Here’s where the bedroom by the front door comes in: It’s now an altar room, filled with the belongings of a Tibetan lama who is in a three-year silent retreat in upstate New York; when he returns, he will remove his altar to a meditation center of his own.
Having followed her own path from nursing to clinical social work to meditation, Bobbi has assisted at healing ceremonies for patients at the University of Virginia Hospital. One of the world’s five major types of medicine–the others are western BioMedicine, Indian Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine–Tibetan medicine has a combined mind-body awareness that Bobbi finds fascinating. And as a founding board member of Arura Medicine of Tibet, she is committed to establishing a Tibetan Medical and Meditation Center in Charlottesville.
Meanwhile, the healing properties of the Llewellyn home–the wonderful light, the airiness, the rooms that spool out to the east and west, the creative and gentle inhabitants–are quite good enough.