History has a way of charming us in unexpected ways. Designer Cindi LaPietra toured at least 80 prospective houses in her search for a new family home. None struck her until the day she and her daughter were driving around looking at a few listings and they spotted a stately Federal-style home set on a manicured lawn in North Potomac.
She immediately fell for the property. Known as the Manor House at Belvedere, it was the 19th-century estate of landowner John Lawrence duFief. “As soon as I opened the front door and looked in,” she recalls, “I said, ‘This is the house I want. I want to live here.’”
The fact that the home was in a state of disrepair did not deter LaPietra. “It needed quite a bit of work,” she admits. “It was in distress.” A three-week process ensued to convince her husband Joe, an insurance executive, that buying the 71-year-old house was the right thing to do. It needed a new boiler and a new water treatment system. There were pinhole leaks throughout the house, so all the pipes had to be replaced. The bathrooms were a mess, as was the fishpond in the backyard, which was brimming with 17 full-grown koi.
Her husband had reservations about the amount of work it needed, but LaPietra had a vision of what the house could become. She recalls telling him, “I want that charm. The trim, the big plaster walls, all of that had some kind of history to it.”
duFief’s original estate was built on the property in 1850. He owned 700 acres between what is now Route 28 and the C&O Canal, where he transported 10,000 barrels of flour a year to Georgetown. The original house was purposely burned down in 1935 to build a newer home, but its stone foundations can be seen in the basement today. (duFief’s land was sold long ago, but his legacy remains, albeit with modified spellings, on such area landmarks as DuFief Elementary School and Dufief Mill Road.)
Her husband had reservations about the amount of work it needed, but she had a vision of what the house could become. She recalls telling him, “I want that charm. The trim, the big plaster walls, all of that had some kind of history to it.”
It was with a deep respect for its past that the LaPietras wound up buying the house, pinhole leaks and all. Cindi LaPietra immediately began a transformation that would restore the home to working order and accentuate its stature, embellishing it with her own historical interpretations along the way. Before she and her husband, their daughter and two sons moved in, she addressed the big-ticket items right off the bat, hiring contractors to install heating and plumbing systems, overhaul the bathrooms, strip and refinish the hardwood floors and paint the entire house.
As she planned her design program, she knew she wanted a total departure from their former home, with its light color scheme and formal interiors. Enthralled by the timeworn patina of Tuscan architecture, she focused on the Old World style as she selected colors and furnishings. One of her goals was to avoid the use of white, preferring an aged look throughout the home. As a first move, she painted the whole first level a creamy yellow (Duron’s Millet, perhaps in reverence to the property’s agrarian days).
“One way I like to create a flow is painting a house within the same card of color and then building on that with an array of faux finishes or maybe a deeper shade of that color,” she explains. With a consistent base in place, LaPietra hired decorative painter Christine N. Barnette of Christine Nicole Productions to help execute her vision throughout the main rooms.
They started in the foyer, creating a crackled effect on the walls for texture. On the staircase, Barnette aged the white spindles and added a copper glaze to the handrails. “I wanted something that was durable,” says LaPietra. “With the home being old, we are going to have cracks here and there. So I wanted to kind of fit in with that and also have it be resilient to kids’ fingerprints going up and down the stairs.”
The room to the left of the foyer was the formal living room—until LaPietra decided to convert the large space into a comfortable family room instead. It boasts a large sectional, a flat-screen TV and a grouping of family photos on the wall. “I knew for a fact I did not want a formal living room like my last home,” she explains. “I’m not a formal person. I want anyone who comes to my house to feel like they can curl up anywhere and put their feet on my furniture.”
On the other side of the foyer, in a smaller, cozier space, LaPietra decided to create a one-of-a-kind adult lounge. It’s a sophisticated spot with a wood-burning fireplace where she and her husband can regroup with a glass of wine after a long day or couples can gather and chat, away from the distractions of TV. A faux-leather finish on the walls, and one on the ceiling that resembles copper lend the room a clubby feel, as does the hand-painted bar in one corner. The seating arrangement—four comfy chairs upholstered in different, complementary fabrics and a pair of ottomans—encourages intimate conversation.
“I wanted four chairs and two ottomans as opposed to sofas,” explains LaPietra. “I wanted everyone to have their own individual place to sit. I bought the ottomans in because I thought they were versatile and we could pull them out if we have extra couples, which we do so often. And I love mixing fabrics together. I like combining different fabrics on a piece. I think it makes a world of a difference…Sometimes you have to push yourself to be a little brave and basically say to yourself, ‘If it’s in the same colorway, it’s going to blend together.’”
The parlor leads to a narrow sunroom that LaPietra has made her home office. With a computer and fabric samples tucked into an armoire and plenty of natural light, it’s the ideal workspace. Barnette painted the existing white bricks on the wall with earthy shades to extend the outdoor feel.
The most dramatic faux treatment embellishes the dining room. LaPietra and Barnette pored over a book of Italian landscapes as they discussed how the room would evolve. “She brought me pictures of buildings in Venice, Old World buildings with water stains. She wanted to capture that whole entire feel on the wall,” recalls Barnette. “The challenge was how to capture this, make it stylish and work with the colors and fabrics in the room. That was my focal point.” A seven-layer process ensued that ultimately replicated the exterior walls of a crumbling Italian villa, complete with copper “streaks” leaking from the “roof.” Metallic copper and gold embellish the tray ceiling.
LaPietra knows how to play up the details, even in small spaces. In the foyer powder room, she also achieved an “outdoor” look. Italian river rock paves the floor and climbs the wall. Water from a faucet in the wall spills into a hammered copper sink, evoking a fountain in a rustic town square. Says LaPietra, “I didn’t want to put the mirror over the sink. I wanted you to feel like you were outside, kind of going up to the spigot and washing your hands.”
In the large kitchen, in addition to the house built in 1985, the kids do their homework and the family has dinner together every night at the roundtable. “Eighty percent of our time is spent in the kitchen,” says LaPietra. “We always cook dinner and feel like it’s very important as a family to have dinner together at night no matter what we’re doing. You find out a lot about kids during the dinner hour.” A grapevine trellis painted on the ceiling by Barnette creates a credible bridge between the indoors and out.
The family’s three-acre parcel of land recalls the property’s farming days. A horse barn and granary dating back to the early 1900s still stand on the grounds, along with modern-day amenities like a large pool and stone patio with an outdoor fireplace. Then there’s the koi pond they also inherited. “Something else I had to learn after coming into this house was how to take care of koi. I used to kill every goldfish that the kids brought home,” LaPietra reminisces. “We came upon Harmony Ponds, which really got the pond up and running.” When she was told the pond was overpopulated, LaPietra gave some of the koi to a homeowner who was expanding his fishpond. The change must have done well for the LaPietra school, she says, because “Lo and behold last spring, I found 11 new babies swimming around.”
Bill Bandy, landscaper of the Manor House at Belvedere for more than 30 years, still tends its lawn and gardens today, which are home to centuries-old maple and oak trees.
With the first floor and children’s rooms done, LaPietra is turning to the master bedroom and bath, where’s she’s planning to create a spa-like retreat. She also has her eye on the barn. “One of my dreams of living here is to turn the barn into my office. It will take a lot of refurbishing,” she says. With Cindi LaPietra’s creative energy and enthusiasm, it’s just history in the making.
Designer Cindi LaPietra’s stately Federal-style home (this page) is built on the former estate of John Lawrence duFief. In her sunroom-turned-home office (opposite), she pores over fabric and color samples in the company of her two boxers, Roxy and Riso.
Photographer Gwin Hunt is based in Annapolis.
Interior Design: Cindi LaPietra, Bella Interiors, North Potomac, Maryland Decorative Painting: Christine N. Barnette, Christine Nicole Productions, Inc., Glen Burnie, Maryland
Landscaping: Bill Bandy, Lawns Unlimited, Poolesville, Maryland