The idea of living in a converted church is something that’s probably on a fair few people’s Pinterest vision boards but for Aneesha Rao, it’s now a reality. Her newly renovated home in Richmond, Virginia is housed in an 1800s Gothic Revival Presbyterian church and is a striking mix of old and new architecture. Aneesha also employed the services of many local creatives and artists to bring the space to life, including interior designer Mariya Boykova. In this piece, Aneesha and Mariya walk us through the journey of taking a historic space and transforming it into a place that is storied, artful, homey, and uniquely Aneesha’s.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your home?
Aneesha Rao: I live in Richmond, Virginia in the St. John’s Church Historic District, known affectionately by locals as Church Hill. A neighborhood known for its cobblestone sidewalks, gas lamps, and award-winning restaurants, Church Hill is the historic backdrop of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech at Virginia’s second revolutionary convention.
I live in the center of Church Hill, close to a smattering of beloved restaurants and cafes. My house is close to a neighborhood coffee establishment, Riverbend Roastery. It makes my mornings smell like vanilla, sugar, and coffee beans. My partner is the coffee roaster, and I like to think I can smell his work when I walk around (as weird as that sounds).
If I walk two blocks I can stop by JJ’s Makery for a delicious scone, biscuit, or slice of freshly baked quiche, or I can stop by the wine shop I frequent (okay, far too frequently) named Second Bottle. Anytime I want fresh bread, I walk south towards Sub Rosa, a Bon-Appetit-reviewed and beloved bakery. I feel spoiled — I feel like I live in a little perfect town with little perfect shops made for little not-so-perfect me.
In Church Hill, I live in a brick Gothic Revival Presbyterian church, built in 1850 and adapted into 12 condos in the late 70s by a prominent local architecture firm — Glave, Newman Anderson and Associates. My three-story condo has original heart pine flooring and private access to the church’s steeple. My unit encompasses the church balcony — detailed with wooden arches that were affixed by hand-made nails (which I can only imagine date back to the late 1800s).
Q: What drew you to the building?
Aneesha Rao: I admittedly bought the property somewhat blind from a location perspective. I wasn’t intimately familiar with the neighborhood. A friend of mine, Emilie, who I always thought was the coolest, liked Church Hill, and that was good enough for me.
The first thing I noticed about the property was light. It floods in the condo from beautiful 20-foot Gothic windows, and is kept buoyant by the architecture. The light is almost opaque in quality — actual, structured, light.
The light drew me to the building, and is the reason I bought the property. Big decisions for me are almost always made on gut, instinctual feeling — I just knew if light filtered through the property this way, I could carve out my own happiness.
Q: What drew you to designing this project / home?
Mariya Boykova: The incredible pre-existing architecture really drew me to this space! I knew it would be a challenge to create intimate but separate spaces within such an open floor plan, and I really wanted to take on that challenge. Every project is like one big puzzle where I take clients’ needs and try to blend them into the existing space.
Q: What’s it like living in a renovated historic building and more specifically, a church? Can you feel its history? And how do you aesthetically marry the old and new?
Aneesha Rao: It’s rewarding — I’m in this funny position now, where I serve on the board of my condo community. I’m familiar now with DMA Reserve Studies, or even the precautions one should theoretically take to preserve the architectural facade of a building while repointing brick. I’m admittedly not as familiar with the upkeep and maintenance of an historic building as I would like to be, but I’m learning.
Aesthetically, marrying the old and new has been an interesting experience. I feel like the experience is really felt in the items —
- I bought giant church lights from a Southern Episcopal church to hang in the main living area.
- I have a wooden chair that resembles a modern pew that a local artist Harvey McWilliams made.
- I have a Luigi Massoni for Guzzini bar cart that harkens to the 1970s and early 80s, when the condos were built.
I think at the core of it, marrying the old and the new is just adjusting for the height of the space. My condo has a lot of vertical space, and there’s a lot of vertical height to play with. It’s an interesting challenge from a visual perspective, and a fantastic way to think through space.
Mariya did a fantastic job with a challenging project.
Q: How do you go about designing the space?
Mariya Boykova: I work closely with the client, and a lot of times I am working with furniture, art, and objects that they already own. I try to translate the clients needs for function and the ideal style that they are going for as best as I can with the use of moodboards and space planning. First, I like to figure out the best floor plan option for the use of the entire space and then make the necessary structural changes, color choices, furniture, and material selections. The balance of items in each room and how much negative space is left for the client to move and live in is extremely important and something I focus a lot on.
Q: What role has design played in creating your life and space?
Aneesha Rao: I worked closely with my interior designer, Mariya Boykova, to realize my goals with this space. I selected Mariya because she has this uncanny eye for understanding exactly what goes where, what needs to happen next, who to employ, how long a project should take, and how much a project should cost. She’s also not afraid to say “no,” which is a characteristic I love in people in general.
- I also worked with Kelsey Sykes, who owns a botanical design studio, Old Time Feeling, who helped design the steeple space by sourcing objects and materials and plants. She introduced me to new plants that are mainstays in my home now, like the ric rac cactus.
- I worked with Kelsey Copeland, who is a local woodworking artist who owns Copeland Studio to build the custom bookshelf on the second floor. She had built a similar bookshelf for an independent bookshop that I saw on Instagram and I just knew that I had to have it in this space.
- I worked with Ethan Hickerson to photograph the space — I knew I wanted to work with Ethan, and only Ethan, for quite some time. I feel the same way about Ethan that I do about the church, in the sense that he’s uncannily talented at capturing light.
Each person that was involved in this project brought their own unique perspective, experience, and skill-set to the project as a whole. I’m so fortunate to have worked with all these designers and artists.
Q: What are some of your favorite pieces and how did they play a role in the design of this space?
Mariya Boykova: I really love the 70s lucite and fiber art that hangs in the dining area. Choosing the right scale of items such as this giant piece to tie such a vertically open space together was super important. I also really love the mid-century reproduction kidney bean sofa and 70s lacquered linen wrapped table in the foyer. I wanted to incorporate curved shapes because I think they give a better flow to an open area and make it a more functional multi-use space. Furniture, color selection, and the right layout are all important pieces of tying a space together while highlighting shapes that are a part of the existing architecture.
Aneesha Rao: I love the dining area. The dining table is an original Florence Knoll executive table. It boasts a natural oak veneer top and a steel base with a polished chrome finish. The seats are authentic Breuer Cesca chairs for Thonet, with plum vinyl upholstery seating.
The dining area feels big, do you know what I mean? It feels like I can eat dinner, discuss something important (like taxes), and smooch my partner all at the same time. I work at the dining table most days — so it’s the place I inhabit. Food is placed on the dining table, drinks are had around the table. It feels like the magnetic center of the condo.
Q: Do you think our external environments affect our inner world?
Aneesha Rao: I think so — I have sought out beauty in my inner and outer world in the form of fashion, design, literature, and art. It has made my inner world more rich, because I’m enjoying the present moment when I simply inhabit space. I think meditation does something similar — I don’t have concrete or real thoughts on that. Just that it is.
I look around and it’s not that the design of my home makes me feel an emotion — happy or sad, it’s that I’m surrounded by structures, shapes, colors, and artworks that I find beautiful. And in those moments of just appreciating beauty — I just am, and it just is.
Aneesha Rao is the Head of Marketing at Humming Homes, an application and service in the home services space that takes the pain out of managing a home. Aneesha is a seasoned (and sensitive) marketing executive, with over a decade of experience in the D2C, luxury, and fashion spaces. She loves to solve complex problems with frameworks and simple math. In her free time, she likes to read, try new biodynamic wines, and spend time with her partner in their church.
Mariya Boykova is a freelance interior designer with 10 years of experience, who also runs a vintage furniture store in Richmond, VA called 68 Home where she pulls pieces for her clients. In between interior design projects, she is working as a set decorator or art director on film sets and commercials. She likes to create thoughtfully designed and functional spaces for real life clients as well as fictional characters.