Balance of power 

Symmetry reigns in a Georgian town house, where colors are strong and old becomes new

Lest his opening remark sound arrogant, be assured that Gray wears the courtly demeanor of a Southern gentleman, modestly delighted that others find pleasure in his home. He'll open the house for visitors during the Fan District Holiday House Tour this month. (See Agenda for details.) For the tour, he'll decorate simply, with greens, a large tree near the front door and a garland on the stairway. Nothing else is needed.

"The house truly looks best at night," Gray says. The strong gold, tomato-red and turquoise walls, which are striking by day, shimmer dramatically at night. Original sconces in the living room enliven the doorways and mantel with intricate patterns of light and shadows. Gas- and wood-burning fireplaces glow at dusk, while broad shafts of sunlight drench the interiors during the day. It is a house to behold whatever the hour.

Gray worked for the fifth time with contractor Chris McCracken of Landmark Custom Homes, who credits Gray's design skills with the project's success. "Bruce is very methodical and has very good taste, and we have excellent communication, so there aren't a lot of surprises," McCracken says. "He understands that when you're renovating, the hardest thing is the unknown. Older houses have a ton of electrical and plumbing issues to hurdle, and once you start uncovering things, the budget might tend to escalate. You have to take care of the things that need taking care of, like having a sound roof and keeping water away from the finished product. You have to pay attention to the stuff you don't see."

In this case, the house was soundly built and required fewer improvements than previous projects the pair has tackled. "We redid the kitchen fairly extensively," Gray says, "and renovated the powder room. We totally redid the master bath." All of the changes were planned to incorporate a sense of history along with modern layouts and fine materials.

Visitors enter the foyer, painted by Adam Elliott to show off the elaborate, original millwork. The walls are a cream-of-tomato shade, with a striped tone-on-tone effect in an adjacent hallway.

"The house was much darker when I bought it," Gray says, "so I brightened it up a little." For the first year, though, Gray lived with white walls and trim. Then he added color, one room at a time. His choices are particularly vivid backdrops for precise assemblages of antiques, etchings and objects.

For the living room, McCracken built valances for the windows in a style that matches the original mantelpiece mirror. Beneath them, draperies fabricated by Jack DeTreville frame the windows with lustrous green silk. A Steinway grand piano, built in 1916 and purchased at Richmond Piano Company, graces a corner.

In the dining room, a large table built by Rick Vogt showcases masterful workmanship and finely-matched mahogany woods. Instead of a center floral arrangement on the table, Gray places lemons in tall glass compotes which echo similar pairings throughout the room. Gray frequently hosts dinner parties for 12 guests, all illuminated by the crystal chandelier his parents bought in New Orleans 40 years ago. Above it, the ceiling is painted a pale blue, in contrast to the deep turquoise walls and white millwork.

Gray's childhood soldiers stand at attention in a glass cabinet. Watercolor paintings by his grandfather are grouped opposite gilt-framed landscapes and seascapes. Sumptuous window treatments of Scalamandre fabric and imported trims are among Gray's favorite design details in the dining room. He selected the fabric, which also covers the dining chairs, after poring over hundreds of swatches in New York with designer Betsy Kuykendall.

Black walls, floor, fixtures, shutters and ceiling give unexpected punch to the powder room. Gray selected a painted cabinet at Neiman Marcus to house the gold-plated sink and fixtures, which gleam against the dark surfaces in the understairs space.

From the powder room hallway, guests can move into the octagonal library, which is fitted out in red gum paneling and bookcases. A leather sofa from Leo Burke and French club chairs from Domicile are grouped around an Asian cooking table. A portrait of Garland Gray, grandfather of the owner, presides over the fireplace. Views of the garden show its formal boxwood and brick design, its terrace framed by a new balustrade. Marty Martin of MTM Landscaping, another frequent collaborator on Gray's projects, installed the garden's new features and maintains the grounds.

Despite the comfort of the formal rooms, it is Gray's kitchen that most often accommodates a crowd. To improve the area's function and flow, he took a set of smaller rooms, removed a wall, transformed a window into an exterior door, rearranged appliances and added a center island.

On one side of the kitchen, a bar sink and icemaker provide a focal point with crystal decanters and a granite surface. Along another wall, a curly cherry countertop gives warmth to a long expanse of original glass-front cabinetry. Inlaid wood floors outline the space with a contrasting border and were installed by Nu Look Floors. Stainless steel appliances, black-and-white photographs and halogen lighting give a contemporary edge without disrupting the house's historic charm.

Upstairs, Gray created several guest suites, a sitting room and office, a master suite with dressing room and an extraordinarily detailed master bath. Marble floors, vintage fixtures from Waterworks in New York, a glass-walled shower the size of a small room, and handsome details give this space crisp elegance.

Though the house maintains the character befitting its 1928 origin, it now has the amenities to bring it comfortably up-to-date. McCracken says of the finished project, "The materials and craftsmanship of older homes is usually so much better than new ones. In a renovation like this, you're taking something of architectural significance and breathing new life into it. I think it gives us both a great deal of satisfaction." H S



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