Many Washingtonians clamor to throw their last outdoor parties of the season as the days of summer dwindle. Slightly cooler and less humid than prior months, September still serves up blooming gardens, a bounty of fresh produce and the irrepressible music of crickets after dark.
For interior designer Skip Sroka, principal of Bethesda, Maryland-based Sroka Design, the impromptu dinner party he held last September at his Washington home was especially bittersweet. Not only was summer drawing to a close, but he and his partner, John Kammeier, had just finalized plans for a new custom home in DC and construction would soon be underway. This would be the final al fresco party they would host in their home of 10 years.
But when it comes to entertaining, Sroka has never been one to fuss—for reasons sentimental or otherwise. This casual garden party was meant to be as relaxed and carefree as a worn pair of Topsiders. Seven friends would come over for drinks and a simple dinner on the terrace; later in the evening, Kammeier, an apparel industry executive, would arrive on a flight home from Italy and join the festivities.
No matter how large or small a gathering, Sroka swears by preparing all of the elements—from flowers and place settings to appetizers and main courses—in advance. “If you’re going to have friends over, you can’t spend all of your time in the kitchen because then you’re not with your friends,” he says. In this case, he purchased lilies, peonies and roses a few days ahead of the party and created simple arrangements in his service kitchen that morning. “Buy your flowers tightly budded because they’ll last longer,” he recommends. “You get to enjoy them longer….buy them two or three days before you’re doing an event.”
Sroka pulled out dinnerware a few hours before guests would arrive. The outdoor table was set, the napkins folded and the salad plates placed on trays on the island awaiting last-minute assembly. He also lined up dozens of votive candles on the tables and terrace walls. “Candles are one of the most inexpensive ways to create that festive mood,” he says.
Minutes before the first arrivals, Sroka put a few prepared spreads and crackers on trays. He lit a low fire under the pot of homemade pasta sauce that he had prepared the day before. Then he greeted guests, poured libations and chatted on the terrace until it was time to cook the pasta.
While Sroka makes entertaining look like a breeze, a lot of careful planning and innovation went into designing this home where traffic easily flows in and out through seven pairs of French doors. In 2001, Sroka and Kammeier gutted and completely rebuilt their 1942 residence—once home to legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Following the interior renovation, they set their sights on improving the outdoor spaces. “About four years ago we decided to expand the terraces and create a few more outdoor rooms,” Sroka says. “The living room had a cocktail terrace, but then we created the sun terrace behind it. And we pushed the area around the kitchen forward with a retaining wall to create a really nice outdoor space.”
Over the years, he and Kammeier used the terraces constantly, whether enjoying a quiet breakfast over the newspaper or hosting a large party. “For as much as people complain about Washington,” says Sroka, “there are actually a lot of nice days that you get to be out.”
Once dinner was finally served (delayed ever so slightly by a photo shoot underway), Sroka’s friends were chatting up a storm. He was the life of the party—only leaving his friends to stir the sauce or open a wine bottle. He also enlisted help from his guests, who were happy to plate the salads or fill the water glasses. “It was a great success,” says the designer.
As he readied for his July move, Sroka reflected on leaving the home where he has celebrated so many happy occasions. “There will surely be a couple of points where it will be very sad. There are no two ways about it. But I’m sure that by the time I arrive at the new house I’ll be back into the present.” And, no doubt, ready to throw another garden party come September.
Timothy Bell is a photographer with studios in Washington, DC, and New York City.