By Kerry Dale
Okey Turner doesn’t have a business card, and if he did, he doesn’t know what he would put on it other than his name. “Some people have called me a house artist,” he said, “and that sounds about right.”
The Middleburg resident is not a formally trained architect, yet he designs and oversees the building of and renovations for some of the finest houses in the area. His style is distinctive, clean and traditional, taking any house and transforming it into what might have been.
Additions and homes that seem to have grown organically over time, always both elegant and historic, are his specialty.
The New York-born, self-taught house wizard’s first fascination with architecture took hold when he lived in Philadelphia in his early 20s. “I fell in love with old houses,” he said, “and decided that I wanted to find one to renovate in Virginia.”
That led the college-trained painter/sculptor to Hot Springs, Virginia, where he picked up his first project. “I wanted to live in Charlottesville, but I couldn’t afford anything there,” said Turner, adding that he remembers thinking, “Now what do I do?”
His very first house, The Pillars, was a grand 1890s Greek Revival “summer villa,” which more resembled a mansion than a cottage. Young Turner dove into the project and began the total renovation of the approximately 6,000-square-foot estate that took him three years to complete. He then sold The Pillars so he could begin the next in a long line of restorations.
His second house was Broadlawn, an 1850s Episcopal church in nearby Warm Springs that he converted into a house for the Richmond diocese.
A visit to the Middleburg area at the invitation of the late Sis Worrall, an iconic social and business leader in the community, led him to the hunt country in the 1980s.
“Sis invited me to ride in the Christmas parade,” he said. “I was the last one left after the parade when a Washington Post reporter showed up. He photographed and interviewed me about my opinions about fox hunting, which I knew nothing about. I had borrowed the hunt clothes and the horse, and there I was in the Washington Post.”
Middleburg felt like the right place for Turner to continue his restoration of old houses. He loved the area and there was an abundance of properties to work on.
Over the last 30 years, Turner guessed that he’s renovated three properties (seven houses) for himself and 35-40 houses for family and clients. The Middleburg countryside is speckled with houses Turner has transformed, very often finding
their beginnings with a drawing on a napkin.
“We’ve done many jobs for Okey with the project sketched out on a napkin,” said Brad Brown, a partner in Maidstone Construction. “He used to do sketches so good you could frame them. His pencil work is amazing, but now it’s mostly napkins.”
“Okey has made so many bad places nice,” says John Coles, a prominent Middleburg real estate agent and Turner’s long-time friend and colleague. “I used to take photos of ugly houses and send them to Okey and he would do a drawing to show a client what was possible. I cut my teeth in real estate with those drawings and Okey’s vision.
“Whenever a house that Okey has worked on comes on the market, it sells faster than most and at a great price. He’s so talented.”
Turner’s career began with the desire to bring a home back to its glory, but he only had to please himself with his early projects. “My best client is myself,” Turner said. “But I love working for other people, too.”
Turner said his greatest experience with any client was when he worked for the late Bunny Mellon.
“She was amazing,” he said. “No one knows about her because she was so private. All this design stuff you see in magazines, she did in the 1950s. She did it all first. She took Pilates with [Joseph Pilates], had therapy with Jung. Her dress designer was Givenchy and her favorite artist was Mark Rothko. She was a true visionary.”
In the design of his projects, Turner tends to take a poetic approach. “Architecture is like a language,” he said. “It has grammatical rules you can study and learn, but you need to adapt and take poetic license. I see the potential in places and I go from there.”
Clearly, Okey Turner, like Bunny Mellon, is also a visionary of sorts, beautifying this area one house at a time.
Photo by Kerry Dale: Okey Turner