About two miles past the Maryland border into West Virginia, the Potomac River bends in a soft L, fringed on one side by a jagged limestone cliff rising up 90 feet. At the top, a dense forest is strewn with massive boulders that conjure an almost prehistoric sensibility.
This remote spot might seem an odd location for a house—until you glimpse the remarkable views of the river disappearing into the horizon in both directions. That’s what captivated sculptor Loraine Strait during her search for a parcel of land to buy. “I wanted to live in the forest and be by the water,” she says. “When I saw this land, it fit the picture I had in my mind.”
Strait had just moved back to the U.S. after 25 years in Paris. She quickly purchased four riverfront acres, which housed an abandoned limestone quarry that had been gouged into the cliff side. Until about 60 years ago, a cable car had transported limestone over the Potomac to the nearby C&O Canal, where it was loaded onto barges and sent downriver to be pulverized for concrete.
By the time Strait arrived, all that remained from that slice of history was limestone—and plenty of it. She and architect Greg Wiedemann, whose firm she hired to design a combination home/studio on the site, fought their way through the woods to the edge of the cliff where haphazard rock formations left behind by the quarry made walking difficult. “I had trepidation bringing Greg because I figured he wouldn’t want to come all the way out here,” Strait recalls. She couldn’t have been more wrong: The architect was stunned by the view and challenged by the prospect of designing a home on such a unique site.
Strait tasked Wiedemann and project architect Barbara Sweeney with creating a modern structure with a small footprint that would optimize the river views while ensuring privacy from a three-story house next door that was also under construction. In addition, “it was very important to all of us that we maintain the character of the site,” Wiedemann says. Working with contractor Carl Petty, “we left the boulders strewn and cut down as few trees as possible to save the forest.” Even the ipe-wood walkway to the front door wends its way around a sea of rock.
Sweeney suggested they build the house parallel to the cliff side and angled to block views of the neighboring house. The rectangular glass-and-steel structure cantilevers over two poured-concrete volumes that seem to rise out of the limestone. The river-facing wall is an expanse of glass, while the solid end walls feature glass panels at the corners that meet the window wall and enhance the panoramic effect.
The biggest challenge was the foundation. “You not only couldn’t have a basement, you couldn’t have a conventional foundation because this is solid bedrock,” explains Wiedemann. To ensure the stability of the limestone, he and his team consulted with a geologist who knows the terrain. The consensus was to pour concrete over the whole rock formation, which was faulted and deeply weathered. One fissure in the rock surface was more than 40 feet deep.
“A series of concrete piers supports the foundation wall,” Petty says. Each pier rests on concrete that was poured over the bedrock to level it.
Strait’s sculptures in clay and metal informed the choice of materials for the home. The structure is framed in steel and clad in glass punctuated by panels of ipe. Balconies in front and back are made of steel and ipe, while inside, the radiant-heated floors are polished, black-tinted concrete—reminiscent of Strait’s cast-resin sculptures, many of which have a bronze patina.
Visitors enter the 2,200-square-foot house through one concrete volume on the lower level and climb the steel-and-ipe staircase to the second floor, encompassing an open-plan living room/dining area/kitchen, plus a master suite, guest room with en suite bath, powder room and studio. Sliding barn doors conceal closets and laundry. The garage, housed in the second concrete volume, is connected via an outdoor path between volumes. It accommodates a car as well as Strait’s metalworks studio.
Though she brought furniture with her from Paris, where she maintains an apartment, Strait ultimately replaced much of it with clean-lined, modern pieces that reflect the style of the house. Her kitchen is streamlined, with IKEA cabinetry, BoConcept bar stools, quartz countertops and a glass-tile backsplash. Blocks of Mondrian-like color throughout the house add warmth.
Strait is very happy with her home in the forest. “Lorie wanted the structure to be second to the place,” Wiedemann says. “We tried to embrace the natural beauty of the site while having a minimal impact on the land.”
Anice Hoachlander is a principal at Hoachlander Davis Photography.
ARCHITECTURE & INTERIOR DESIGN: GREGORY WIEDEMANN, AIA, principal; BARBARA SWEENEY, AIA, project architect, Wiedemann Architects, LLC, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: CARL PETTY, Carl Petty Associates, Ltd., Washington, DC.
Architecture & Interior Design: Wiedemann Architects LLC; wiedemannarchitects.com. Contractor: Carl Petty Associates Ltd.; Linton Engineering, LLC; lintonengineering.com. Geology Consultant: GeoConcepts Engineering, Inc.; geoconcepts-eng.com.
THROUGHOUT Flooring: Poured concrete. Woodwork: Ipê. Windows: VistaLux by Kolbe.
MASTER BEDROOM Yellow Chair: Owner’s collection.
STUDIO Chest of Drawers: Clignancourt Antique Flea Market, Paris. Stool: Owner’s collection.