Home & Design

A House on the River

A couple builds a casually elegant dream home overlooking the Potomac

A House on the River

The home blends into the scenery with its rough-hewn
composite stone façade. The main entry is actually on
the third floor, with two lower levels built into the existing
terrain. Architect Robert Mobley designed an abstract motif
on the home's front gate depicting the meandering Potomac River.

A couple’s quest to find a home site on the Potomac River came to an end when architect Robert Mobley showed them a five-acre wooded parcel that had come on the market in McLean. Not only did the property enjoy dramatic views of the river 100 feet below, but it also boasted a small beach with river access. This was a prerequisite for the husband, an avid outdoorsman who wanted to be able to embark on fishing trips right from his back yard.

Ginna Leatherbury and her husband were not strangers to living amid nature. In the early 1990s, they completed a weekend mountain house, designed by Mobley and built of wood and stone on 50 unspoiled acres near Little Washington, Virginia. For years, the couple had been thinking about trading the McLean condo where they lived during the workweek for a new home in a more pristine setting—if only they could find the right spot.

The McLean lot Bob Mobley discovered for them fit the bill. It was close to town, but its wooded setting and river views made the property a true escape.  Before long, the land was theirs, and Mobley hit the drawing board. “They told me they didn’t want this one to look like the mountain house. On the new house, it was pretty clear that they wanted something more formal, and something that would take advantage of the river view.”

The sloping lot dictated where the house needed to be. “The site was configured in such a way that we didn’t have a lot of space to move the house forward or backward,” explains Mobley. Intent on designing a home that would blend in with rather than dominate the landscape, he proposed a plan: to build the house into the slope, maintaining a low profile on the front elevation. The finished home has four stories plus a roof deck, but the lower two levels are only visible from the back.

“We decided to do a ‘vertical’ house,” says Mobley. “From the street, it’s two stories. The two lower floors are partially in the ground but still have floor-to-ceiling views to the north and the river. We tried our best to give every room a view of the river.”

Drawing from the Arts and Crafts style, Mobley emphasized the horizontal lines of the home on the exterior. Clad in engineered but completely realistic-looking stone with a standing-seam metal roof, the house blends unobtrusively into its surroundings. “I wanted a house that looked like it belonged on the river,” says Mobley.

The architect played up the drama of the setting in his interior plan. From the front of the home, visitors have no visual clues that the house is set above the Potomac. The single-story foyer opens into a soaring 35-foot-high great room with a wall of windows that finally reveals the river below.

Despite its low profile, the home consists of 12,000 square feet of highly functional space. It incorporates an exercise room complete with an indoor “endless” pool and sauna, plus a dedicated fly-tying room, where the husband prepares for fishing trips, on the lowest level; two guest rooms, a media room, a wine cellar and a complete guest apartment on the next level; and the foyer, great room, dining room, kitchen and an office for Ginna Leatherbury on the main entry level (actually the third floor). Upstairs is the master suite with a sitting room and luxurious bath, as well as a trophy room where the husband, an avid hunter, displays many of his conquests. Above it all, a private roof deck with a hot tub, fireplace and fabulous river views beckons. There are eight fireplaces, seven bathrooms and an elevator on either side of the home.

During the planning stages, Ginna Leatherbury and her husband engaged interior designer Linda Houghton, who also decorated their mountain house. “Once we had the final plans, Linda was involved,” says Ginna Leatherbury. “She made so many changes I never would’ve thought of. I couldn’t recommend working with a designer at that stage more highly.” Houghton made some valuable suggestions on materials and art lighting well before construction began.

“Though they travel, their real joy is in their homes and in entertaining,” says Houghton of her clients. In the great room, she explains, “The expanse of vistas and the view of the river expand as you come into the house. We wanted to create a place where you could sit and enjoy the view and the architecture of the space. The color scheme was critical to that, with browns, beiges and strong red accents. It still has the feeling of the great outdoors, but it’s a totally different kind of retreat.”

Once they selected a color palette, “the hunt began,” says Houghton. She and Ginna Leatherbury embarked on the detailed process of choosing furniture, fabrics, rugs, art and accessories for the new home. “It became very eclectic as we went along,” says Houghton. “There are a lot of traditional lines in the house—the columns, the moldings. The furnishings are transitional. We realized the artwork would be modern—a good counterpoint to the house and furnishings.”

Despite its soaring height, Houghton brought the great room down to earth with comfortable upholstered pieces, panels of gossamer fabric that merely frame the massive glass windows and a custom rug of her own design.

The great room opens directly to the dining room, where a dropped coffered ceiling establishes a sense of intimacy. A decorative paint treatment on the ceiling, which is lit around the rim, adds a patina of elegance to the space. The granite-clad fireplace is a mirror image of the larger one in the great room.

The adjacent kitchen is sleek and modern with a curvy low-voltage lighting system, stainless-steel appliances, lacquered cabinetry from Studio Snaidero and even a wood-burning pizza oven. The husband, a gourmet cook, also enjoys grilling on the large deck located right off the kitchen.

Now settled in to their new “city” home, the couple enjoys the change of seasons in their aerie, where they often spot eagles soaring above the treeline. From the main garage, a driveway winds around to a garage behind the house, where the husband keeps a fishing boat that he built himself. He hauls the 17-foot craft down to the river with an all-terrain vehicle. In accordance with environmental regulations, the path to the river turns from pavement to gravel as it nears the Potomac; contractors managed to establish the path without disturbing a single tree.

“In the summer, it’s an oasis. Everything is so lush,” enthuses Ginna Leatherbury on a sunny fall afternoon. “In less than four weeks, you’re going to be able to see forever. We’ll be able to see if the water is clear or muddy and what the current is like. We have a drop-dead view of the river when the leaves are down.”

The soaring great room.

Homeowner Ginna Leatherbury and interior designer
Linda Houghton collaborated on furnishing the new residence.

In the great room, red accents punch up the neutral color
scheme. Houghton designed the rug and Chinese red-lacquered
cabinetry, where a television and stereo equipment are stored
out of sight.

In the dining room, the coffered ceiling features a decorative
paint treatment by Donna Callahan. The fireplace surrounded
in granite is a mirror image of the larger one on the opposite
side of the adjoining great room. When the leaves are down,
guests enjoy unencumbered views of the river.

The sleek modern kitchen features professional-grade appliances,
lacquered cabinetry from Studio Snaidero and a curvy light system
that Linda Houghton customized on site.

The home’s five-story wrought-iron balustrade is capped in maple
to complement the hardwood floors. Paintings and an acrylic
sculpture from the Phoenix Art Group create interest above the

A small sitting room on the fifth floor opens to an oasis in the trees.
This private escape boasts cushy outdoor seating from Brown
Jordan, a fireplace and a hot tub (not pictured).

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