Turn of the centuries design
By Mike Harris '93 MA, UNCG Magazine assistant editor
Photography By David Wilson, assistant photography editor

A heron coasts overhead though a light mist, riding the air currents toward Mount Vernon and the Potomac.

George Washington would have known this site well.

Seven UNCG Interior Architecture students have come to know it too. Since last fall, they have studied the rooms of historic Woodlawn, on part of the original Mount Vernon estate. They know its history, its layout, its materials, its landscape.

UNCG was invited to be a part of a competition: Design the interior of 200-year-old rooms for a modern family. It would be a unique showcase. The National Trust would oversee everything. Only American products would be used. Students would meet some of the leading lights in the industry. Their work, if they won first place, would likely warrant a story in the Washington Post.

Today and tomorrow, their year of work goes on the plaster walls, on the wideboard floors. It's 8 a.m. The drizzle has stopped. Time to finish unloading and get to work.

The call came out of the blue, Professor Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll said.

The MADE: In America organization researched university interior architecture and design programs. Years earlier, they'd debuted The All American Room in the U.S. Capitol. With this All American House collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, they wanted a broader reach.

Among the universities they approached were UNCG, chairman James DeLorbe explained. He was impressed by UNCG's response.

Ultimately, UNCG was selected to design six rooms. George Washington University did two. The Corcoran College of Art + Design did a virtual design for another house on the property.

Sixteen UNCG students formed themselves into teams, creating scenarios and designs. It would be “a reinterpretation of Woodlawn for a 21st century family,” explained Leimenstoll.

They made presentations in December. Seven continued the work to fruition over the spring.

“We took bits and pieces from each of the concepts,” Kacie Leisure explained, as she worked on stenciling that morning in the master bedroom. Kathryn Frye, soon to enter an internship with Disney, did the same.

All the students were at work, arranging furniture, making pillows, placing stencils and art works. “Divide and conquer,” Leimenstoll advised, as she moved from one room to the next.

In the Lafayette Bedroom, Nicole Ware cut white borders off huge printed panels that lay on the floor. They're a map. Soon they would cover one wall of the adjoining room.

Downstairs, Sharon Frazier considered three mirrors that would hang in the passageway.

Each of the students brought her unique flair and experience. Frazier received her bachelor's in Business from the Bryan School in 1996. She had a career with Luminaire, a prominent furnishing design showroom in Chicago. She was the accessory buyer. (She selected the mirror with Mt. Vernon on it, for example, and the framed antique postcards and door knobs for the parlor.) Even as a junior at the Bryan School, she said, “I dreamed of being in this program.” It was always her intention to come back. But she had no portfolio. She formed a plan. She attended the School of the Art Institute's continuing studies program. Soon, she had her portfolio and was ready to apply.

“I was so committed to it.” She wanted to be true to herself, she explained, and develop her own design language and voice.

“You have to learn how to follow your own artistic instincts,” she explained. She pointed to her heart. “You have to look in here, to make your work unique.”

Looking back, staring ahead

Woodlawn was completed in 1805 on land George Washington carved from the Mt. Vernon estate. He gave the land to his step-granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, and Lawrence Lewis, and encouraged them to build a home there. Eleanor had lived with them since she was small.

The home was designed by William Thornton, architect of the US Capitol building.

In the master bedroom, stenciling and garden-theme prints complement the carefully selected furniture and accessories. In the master bedroom, stenciling and garden-theme prints complement the carefully selected furniture and accessories.

As she continued her stenciling work, Kathryn Frye explained because it's an old, historic home, measurements were sometimes a few inches different from what they'd expected. “It's a real design project. It's exciting.”

The scenario the students had created was that of a married couple with one teenage daughter.

In the master bedroom with various hues of blue, six prints of plants from The Farmer's Wife on Elm Street have been hung. Some students remarked on the heart shape suggested in some of them. Leimenstoll said, “It is a master bedroom.”

Next door, a tall orange ladder stood in the Linen Room. The palladium doorway opened onto a vista of the old Mount Vernon estate. In the distance, the Potomac and a tall clump of poplars mark the first president's home.

Susan Hellman, acting director of this Historic Trust property, noted there was once much less tree cover and the home would have been visible.

Near the stairs, Lauren Postlmayr worked on a pillow. The only graduate student of the team, she was teaching a computer-aided design course. She will get her master's with a concentration in historic preservation in December. She hopes to return to California and work for a historical preservation firm and also teach.

What drew her all the way from LA? In Los Angeles, she explained, historic preservation is undervalued.

“Everyone thinks there's no history in California — we tear it down," she said. “It's inaccurate. We have historic buildings on the National Register.”

Her professors at Woodbury University advised her on the relatively few interior architecture programs that offer a concentration in historic preservation.

She chose UNCG. “I packed up my car, drove cross-country, and here I am.”

She'll take back to California what she has learned at places such as Woodlawn.

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