Serene Sanctuary

A newly renovated modern house in the woods shows off its owners' collection of native art and nature photography

 

The original home was overhauled and clad in new colors and materials that blend into the surrounding woods.

The four-story house with walls of glass perches on a slope leading down to lush woods and a stream. At first glance, the setting suggests you’re somewhere in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains or the Shenandoah. But if you check your bearings, you’d discover that Arlington’s Spout Run snakes around the opposite side of the woods, and the stream is a tributary to the nearby Potomac River. The property is virtually across a bridge from Washington, DC.

When Andrew and Margaret Davis decided to relocate to DC from their lakefront home in Evanston, Illinois, they were taken by the property’s enviable position and natural setting. But the house itself—a post-and-beam contemporary built in the 1970s—suffered from decades of wear and tear: The previous owners had raised seven children in the original property.

The Davises, who have two daughters, recognized a diamond in the rough and bought the house with the intention of remodeling and furnishing it in a mere seven months, just in time for their planned move. On a recommendation from their real estate agent, the couple met with architect Thomas Flach of Kohler Homes and asked him to take on the challenge. While reviewing Flach’s portfolio, they also discovered the work of interior designer Michael Roberson, who at the time was collaborating with Flach on a project. They hired her to furnish the home in the same time frame.

“We needed a sanctuary in our lives to decompress,” explains Margaret Davis. “We enjoy being close to an urban environment. The view was number one on our list. We realized what it could do to keep us relaxed in an information-overloaded world. So we asked Tom and Michael to find the ‘language’ in this house and make it work.”

Flach set to work on a plan that would upgrade the home’s exterior and interior surfaces, overhaul its kitchen and baths, create a spacious master-bedroom suite and improve flow on the main entry level of the house. Meanwhile, Roberson flew to Evanston to survey and photograph her clients’ existing collection of art, furniture and Oriental rugs.

“The goal was to transform this worn-out house with lower-end finishes and fixtures into a state-of-the-art piece of modern design with full security, whole-house audio and cat5 networking,” says Flach.

Upon entering the original house, views of the woods were blocked and the foyer was cramped by a large bulky staircase. Flach relocated a new custom-designed maple and mahogany stair to the end wall of the great room, opening up the view and creating a more spacious foyer. “The stair became a design opportunity,” explains Flach. “It serves as a sculptural element on what was a blank wall at the end of the great room.” He also added a new floor-to-ceiling window at the bottom of the stair that reveals views of the creek below.

Flach and Roberson proposed a material palette that would reflect and amplify the home’s natural surroundings. They chose African slate floors in the foyer and kitchen. In the great room and dining room, wall-to-wall carpet was replaced with environmentally friendly bamboo. The designers retained the original wood-and-beam ceiling in these rooms—but applied a darker stain.

“The house is about the woods. That’s why you have the beams in here,” says Roberson. “But the beams had been painted a really unfortunate redwood picnic table color. We managed to stain them the way they should look.”

All interior doors and trim were removed and replaced with natural maple doors and minimalist mahogany base boards and casing. Flach also redesigned a new railing on the upper-level balcony, employing the same contrast of light maple with mahogany. This top floor is home to a guest bedroom suite and Margaret Davis’s office.

The design team worked at breakneck speed to meet their clients’ move-in date. “The entire project had to be designed, permitted and built in six months. Some long lead items had to be ordered before the architectural drawings were even completed,” recalls Flach. “At a certain point in the project, the painters lived in the house and took breaks only to eat and sleep in sleeping bags on the floor.”

Roberson and the Davises decided to adhere to a subdued, natural color scheme that wouldn’t compete with the panoply of scenery outdoors. In the great room, the brick fireplace was parged and painted a putty color so it became a simple architectural element. Complementary fabrics on the modern sofas and chairs echo the shade. Grass cloth wall covering softens the two-story room’s acoustics and adds subtle texture and color.

Roberson settled on a clean, pared-down look that would emphasize her clients’ collection of art and rugs. Oriental rugs in the great room once graced Margaret Davis’s childhood home; they were part of her mother’s collection. A lithograph that the couple purchased in Holland makes a bold color statement above the fireplace. It is the work of Belgian artist Corneille, one of the founders of the CoBrA art movement in Paris in 1948. Completely by coincidence, Margaret Davis recently discovered that the artist who painted one of her mother’s paintings, Karel Appel, was also a founder of the CoBrA movement and a close associate of Corneille’s. Appel’s painting hung in her mother’s living room and presided over the very same Oriental rugs. “My mother is not alive any longer,” she says, “but she’s with us here.”

“The goal was to transform this worn-out house with lower-end finishes and fixtures into a state-of-the-art piece of modern design,” says architect Thomas Flach.

The Davises travel frequently and seek out indigenous art wherever they go. “We have a deep interest in native art and crafts. When we travel, we want to buy pieces that are high-quality native art, including rugs, paintings and sculpture like wood and soapstone carvings,” says Margaret Davis.

The Davises, who host frequent dinner parties, report that guests love to linger in their newly appointed home. Andrew Davis is the president and executive director of the American Press Institute and is also a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Margaret Davis works with non-profits in the fields of art, religion and education. When they entertain, whether it’s a social gathering, a work-related event or a bit of both, “People walk in and they start relaxing,” says Margaret Davis. “They don’t want to leave. I always think that’s a test if people are comfortable or not.”

Roberson created a sense of intimacy in the two-story dining room by hanging lights with white lamp shades just a few feet over the dining table—a solution she has applied to a number of dining rooms. “I love lights like this,” she says. “They create this beautiful, romantic kind of ambiance. And they put a glow on the table—better to get it on the table and not on the people.”

During the renovation, the existing kitchen with its outdated cabinets and appliances and fluorescent lighting was entirely gutted. Judy Bracht from Stuart Kitchens worked with Flach and Roberson to create a modern new space with stainless-steel appliances, granite countertops and generous cabinetry. A sitting room and dining table in the kitchen survey the natural scenery behind the home and provide the perfect spot to linger over morning coffee.

The master bedroom is located one level below the main entry and public spaces. During the design stage, Flach and his clients decided to incorporate an existing library and small bedroom into a significantly larger master suite. The epitome of serenity with an Asian flare, the master bedroom is swathed in muted colors. A wall of windows lets in the views; a sliding shoji screen can shutter the windows for privacy. The adjoining master bath, also designed by Judy Bracht from Stuart Kitchens, ties into the nature theme with its use of river rock tile, dark wood and a limestone surround on the oversize tub. A spacious dressing room and sitting area round out the bedroom suite.

One of the Davis daughters has a bedroom on the same level, though she is now in a public-service program in DC and lives on her own. Her sister, who’s still in high school, enjoys a bedroom on the bottom floor, which is also home to Drew Davis’s study, a mini-kitchen, a big-screen TV, a pool table and foosball. In short, it’s the perfect hangout for guests of all ages. The main room opens up to the back deck and its terraces and pathways leading into the woods and down to the creek.

Originally painted battleship gray with white trim and a brown asphalt roof, the exterior of the home also underwent a transformation. Flach and Roberson had all of the siding stained a uniform shade of green and added copper gutters and a cedar-shake roof. “Now it just nestles in the woods, whereas before, it really stood out,” Flach says.

Roberson enjoyed working with the Davises because their personal treasure trove of art and craft brought meaning to the process; the pieces project who her clients are. Says Roberson, “It’s nice to work with people’s collections and know that when you walk out of the house, it’s their house and it looks like their house.”

The homeowners, meanwhile, are delighted with the way their new home complements and showcases their art. “Because they are native pieces and very much influenced by nature, it’s perfect for them to be in this home where nature is part of the architecture,” says Margaret Davis. “It’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship.”

Photographer Gwin Hunt is based in Annapolis.

Architecture: Thomas Flach, AIA, Vice President, Kohler Homes, Burke, Virginia Renovation Contractor: Thomas Flach, AIA, Vice President, and David Pierce, Project Manager, Kohler Homes, Burke, Virginia Interior Design: Michael Roberson, ASID, Michael Roberson Interior Design, Arlington, Virginia. Technology: Stewart Rankin, Silver Screen & Sound, Towson, MD.

Architect Tom Flach’s design replaced the original stairway that crowded the entrance and blocked the views with a sculptural new stairway.

On display in the great room are a totem pole carve by Francis Horne, Jr, and two nature-inspired prints given to Andrew Davis while he was on command in Korea.

 

The original brick fireplace was parged and painted a putty color. Grass cloth wall covering, bamboo floors and natural maple and mahogany-stained trim let the natural surroundings and art take center stage.

RESOURCES

ENTRY

Chinese Chest: East & Beyond, McLean, VA. Lamp: Holtkötter. Photograph: Michael Johnson, Mt. Carroll, IL.

LIVING ROOM

Antique Chinese Chest: Marco Polo, Kensington, MD. Sofas: Tokay Blue through Hines, Washington, DC. Sofa Fabric: Pollack through Donghia, Washington, DC. Chair: Dunbar Furniture. Armless Sofa: Donghia, Washington, DC. Coffee Table: Florence Knoll Collection, Knoll, Washington, DC. Lighting: Tech Lighting Monorail System. Rug: Clients’ Collection. Wall Covering: Maya Romanoff Woven Straw, through Donghia, Washington, DC.

DINING ROOM

Custom Lighting: Michael Roberson. Chair Fabric: Pollack through Donghia, Washington, DC.

POWDER ROOM

Vanity: Antique Indonesian Table, Marco Polo, Kensington, MD. Vessel Sink: “Iron Bell” by Kohler. Mirror: Antique. Sconces: Nessen. Wall Covering: Maya Romanoff Woven Straw, through Donghia, Washington, DC.

MASTER BEDROOM

Lamp: Holtkötter. Bedside Chest: East & Beyond, McLean, VA.

MASTER BATH

Bath Design: Judy Bracht, Stuart Kitchens, McLean, VA. Stone & Tile: Renaissance Tile, Alexandria, VA.

 

Michael Roberson designed hanging lights in the dining room that cast a romantic glow on the table.

In the powder room, Roberson converted an antique Indonesian table into a vanity.

A sliding shoji screen creates an Asian feel in the tranquil master bedroom suite.

The master bathroom also incorporates elements of nature from its limestone tile and dark wood to the silver gelatin print by Michael Johnson.