Home & Design

Portfolio- On the Water's Edge

An open-air great room transforms a weekend escape in
St. Michaels

Portfolio- On the Water's Edge MAY/JUNE 2010

Over two decades in their mist-gray weekend house in St. Michaels, Maryland, two generations of a Washington family have embraced the outdoors. Their Eastern Shore idyll can be measured in memories of nature—the day the deer swam by on Broad Creek; the year a hurricane whipped one long island into three just past the boat dock; the seasons when swans flocked by the dozens to this waterside paradise— all viewed from a simple patio.

“The view is everything to us,” says a grown daughter.

But for all the pleasures of their retreat, the owners finally were compelled to acknowledge two small discomforts that come with the privilege of living just 100 feet from the water’s edge: unrelenting sun and insects. A little more than a year ago, they decided to add a screened porch to gain more shade and keep unwelcome creatures at bay.

But where to build it? What seemed like a simple idea became a quandary: Putting an addition onto the living room would have blocked the view from a favorite bedroom. Building a free-standing structure beside the swimming pool would have put the porch too far from the house and distant from that incomparable view. “I didn’t know how to do it,” admits the wife.

Finally, architect Merle Thorpe of Washington, DC, resolved the issue by proposing to locate a screened-in great room at an undervalued corner of the house near the garage.

To call the 40-by-19-foot space a porch is to miss its grander qualities. The gracious 17-foot-high room, which extends off one end of the living room, effectively doubles the family’s panoramic access to the water. By letting the porch jut out beyond the existing house, Thorpe also created a dramatic new waterfront axis: From the outdoor room, the natural sightline follows the shoreline across the length of the property to specimen trees at its most distant point. The shift in perspective has given the family a dramatic new view as well as a three-season outdoor living room.

“We’re very slow learners,” the wife says with a laugh. “We should have found Merle 15 years ago.”

“Sometimes, it takes a while to ask the right questions,” Thorpe responds.

The architect, who has been designing homes on Maryland’s Eastern Shore since 1989, takes pride in understanding the interwoven factors of location, climate
and ecology. He envisioned the porch as a “dramatic screened extension of the house” with doors both to the living room and onto the lawn terrace.

Broad eaves provide protection from the elements while still allowing the space to be caressed by gentle rain and welcome breezes. A roof monitor with operable
windows adds light and additional air circulation. The space features a fully equipped corner kitchen with grill station as well as a grand brick fireplace to take the chill out of fall evenings. The generous floor plan allows ample space for dining and comfortable seating under exposed rafters, which are stained gray-green to show off the wood grain.

The porch’s minimal structure takes its cue from shipbuilding rather than contextual architecture: Masts were sunken into a sturdy foundation to achieve invisible strength. Between the slim columns, screened panels are barely visible, thanks to the use of black powder-coated stainless steel; their fine mesh prevents no-see-ums from getting through.

Architecturally, the rhythm of the porch columns is designed to echo the windows of the existing house, which the owners had gutted and remodeled two decades ago. To provide a seamless visual connection between house and porch, the interior woodwork was painted “house gray.”

The owners had hoped to gain more expansive space for outdoor cooking, which the entire family of a dozen adults enjoys. The gas grill, previously located near the driveway, caused people-jams around the chef, rather than on the patio. The former cooking station has been transformed into a generous formal entry leading to a screened six-by-16-foot breezeway. The new route brings visitors directly from the drive to the host at his grill, or to the welcoming sofa beside the Rumford-designed fireplace. 

“This solved everything,” says the wife. The porch provides “a lovely kitchen to cook in” with pale yellow cabinets set on stainless-steel legs. The practical brick floor can be hosed down easily thanks to weep holes in the baseboards. All appliances are salt-tolerant and countertops are made of matte-finish Juparana granite.

The project took six months to complete, working with Dirck K. Bartlett of ILEX Construction. Only one tree was lost in the process. Roof runoff is collected in gravel channels and piped into a swale.

A bonus of the design is a small courtyard garden off the breezeway, where a pink-blooming crape myrtle and a mahonia shrub create a serene miniature landscape among fog-gray river rocks. In Thorpe’s eye, the project, like this tiny garden, “crystallizes what it’s all about on the Eastern Shore.”

Linda Hales, former design critic at The Washington Post, is collaborating on a book about the landscape of the U.S. Capitol. Photographer Anne Gummerson is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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