Susan and Michael Keenan had always wanted to live by the water. So when they decided to leave the bustling McLean, Virginia, area for a quieter, slower-paced lifestyle, they were thrilled to find five acres along the Severn River in Annapolis. And this was not just any five acres; it included an existing, one-story fisherman’s cottage, literally 35 feet from the water—a proximity that would have been impossible to duplicate with today’s waterfront zoning requirements.
There was only one problem: The cottage was more like a shack—and a shack in disrepair. Since the Keenans’ plan was to live in the fisherman’s cottage while they built a larger home close by, they realized they’d better tackle the cottage first. They hired architect Scarlett Breeding of Alt Breeding Schwartz to spearhead a complete overhaul of the structure that would adhere to the original footprint while at the same time increasing living space and taking advantage of the location’s remarkable vistas.
The cottage nestles at the bottom of a steep drive, with wooded hillsides rising up to either side of it while the river flows behind. Breeding designed a vertically oriented house with tall ceilings “to maximize its presence between the two hills,” she explains. The house—three stories high and 28 feet wide by 36 feet deep—sits 14 feet above the flood plane with a dock that stretches out almost from the house, providing a home for the family’s boat. “We can fish from our deck,” Michael Keenan, a retired telecommunications executive, says with delight.
In this unusual home the river is a powerful presence, and Breeding took this into account when making her design decisions. Walls of floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic views from every level, and from the top floors (where the small strip of land separating the house from the water isn’t visible), there’s an uncanny sense that the house itself is floating on the water.
The first floor houses a spacious foyer and what Breeding calls a “multi-purpose room” with its own bath and deck, currently in use as a bedroom suite for one of the couple’s teenage sons. The second floor contains the main living area, for which Breeding designed an open-plan layout that encompasses kitchen, dining and living rooms to make the rather narrow space feel larger. Beyond the kitchen, a narrow laundry room/home office and pantry includes a wall of windows overlooking the slope of the driveway. “Because of the size of the house, every inch of space had to be used,” Breeding explains. “It’s functional and the windows make it work and keep it feeling open.”
Breeding included an elevator shaft (currently doubling as closet space on each floor) in the event that the up-and-down lifestyle of the house ever becomes problematic; a wide staircase wraps around it. The third floor houses a spacious master suite with a spectacular river view that’s visible even from the shower, where Breeding installed a window. “When we lie in bed we don’t see a thing but water,” says Susan Keenan. A giant mirror in the master bath faces the bedroom to reflect the light. Another bedroom with its own bath is located down a short hall; it belongs to the couple’s other teenage son.
The Keenans liked the idea of their rustic fisherman’s cottage, so Breeding followed that vision in her choices for design and materials. Natural timber columns support each of the three decks, with thin cable rails to minimize intrusions on the view. The exterior siding is board and batten, and bead-board wainscoting appears consistently throughout the interior. “The windows are Cottage-style, two-over-two windows with extra large panes,” Breeding says.
Susan Keenan played a major role in the interior design, working with interior designer Maria Galiani to choose a palette of soft colors for the walls and a range of natural materials that connect the house to its environment, including clefted slate floors on the bottom level, limestone in the baths and kitchen backsplash and granite for the kitchen counters; flat-plank, sawn-oak floors impart warmth on the second and third levels. In the main living space, the clean-lined fireplace provides a focal point, with a floor-to-ceiling, clefted-slate surround and a massive, eye-catching, antique twisted-pine mantelpiece.
The Keenans have been living in the house just over a year now, as— in the hands of Alt Breeding Schwartz—their sprawling, Old World European-style house slowly takes shape on one of the hills above. According to Michael Keenan, it will be another year or so before they can move into it—but the family is in no hurry to leave their quaint fisherman’s cottage. “We love it,” Keenan says. “It’s just what we wanted.”
Photographer Anne Gummerson is based in Baltimore, Maryland.
ARCHITECTURE: SCARLETT BREEDING, AIA, project manager; SARAH FAVARO, lead designer, Alt Breeding Schwartz Architects, Annapolis, Maryland. INTERIOR DESIGN: MARIA GALIANI, Galiani Design Group, McLean, Virginia. CONSTRUCTION: TIM MCGRATH, McGrath Builders Inc., Stevensville, Maryland.
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