Upon learning that a developer was planning to purchase the lot adjacent to their home overlooking the Potomac, Dick and Jane Stoker did what most homeowners only dream about. They bought the property—and got a bonus: Along with preserving their pristine river view they gained a century-old cabin in desperate need of preservation.
The Stokers rose to the occasion, enlisting the help of Kai Tong, director of architectural services at Hopkins & Porter. The challenge was to maintain the cabin’s historic integrity while turning it into a 21st-century guesthouse. The task, initially envisioned as a relatively straightforward update, swelled to include replacing the entire exterior back wall with glass and infusing the rooms—a bedroom loft and an open first-floor sitting area, game room and kitchen/dining space, all centered around a massive, free-standing stone fireplace—with the whimsical style of its new owners.
“We look at projects as an opportunity to make a big transformation, and this was certainly a transformation,” says Tong. “But in a certain sense it really remained a log cabin.”
In fact, the cabin’s exterior façade stayed almost entirely intact down to its original logs and white mortar. Tong and his crew added a welcoming, curved concrete slab porch and upward-tilting overhang—a first hint to guests that this is not your grandfather’s cabin. They also created a new front door of tempered glass, set between imposing stone piers that abut the original wall; this juxtaposition mingles old and new elements, something Tong did consistently. “Throughout the project, I looked at how to bring opposites together in a graceful fashion,” he says.
He also emphasized the contrast between dark and light in the house; for example, additional lighting filters between the slatted stairs, highlighting the play between dark and light. “Cabins by their nature are dark and opaque structures, so there was the question of ‘How do we open that up in a skillful way so we bring in light but still remain true to the cabin’s nature?’” Tong recalls.
The concept of contrasting elements is most grandly realized through the massive expanse of frameless glass at the back of the home that overlooks a new outdoor amphitheater/gathering space and the natural beauty beyond. Accentuating the panorama is the slight upward tilt of the rear roofline, which naturally lifts the eye to the sky. Recessed pockets in the ceiling conceal remote-controlled opaque shades that filter glare while preserving the view.
“As you enter the cabin and walk back through it towards the river, the structure begins to dissolve around you and disappear,” Tong says. Although the renovation necessitated removing interior partitions to open the space, he preserved several of the original log corners that serve as a whisper to the past.
Tong installed a new, wide-paneled, old-growth Eastern pine floor and restored the original rustic fireplace; otherwise, the space is notably lacking in traditional, heavy cabin décor. The furniture, most of it custom, was selected by interior designer Barbara Hawthorn, who had previously worked with the homeowners and knew how to realize their sensibilities. Because they planned to spend a lot of time entertaining their grandchildren in the cabin, she added an abundance of playful colors and shapes, including an entryway bench with indentations for small, medium and large posteriors; oversized, brightly hued chairs in the sitting room; and two egg-shaped Lucite chairs that dangle from the ceiling in the playroom. The dining table is constructed from a single piece of curvaceous wood complete with bark and beautiful imperfections, surrounded by an assortment of creative seating.
Like a relief wall in the playroom—where wood slats reveal a subtle map of the river’s course—the bathroom also pays homage to the Potomac. An undulating countertop and cabinetry “melts” into the original wall, complemented by a pattern of river stone flooring that creates the appearance of a shoreline leading into the large, door-less shower. In another effort to bridge the old with the new, the shower is backed with glass that encases the original log wall.
Tong utilized an assortment of sustainable elements. Rainwater drips from the copper roof and is collected in old whiskey barrels for watering plants on the property. The cabin’s new cooling system is a hidden, high-velocity, small-duct system.
Walking through the cabin on a recent winter day, Tong acknowledges the importance of adventurous homeowners and a strong team of craftsmen in creating this all-custom space, which won both a 2010 COTY award for creative design and the Home & Design Award of Excellence. “Having an interesting and creative design concept energizes the entire team, including the owners,” he says. “The wonderful operating team was one of the most gratifying things about this project.”
Catherine Applefeld Olson is based in Alexandria, Virginia. Kenneth M. Wyner is a photographer in Takoma Park, Maryland.
RENOVATION DESIGN & ARCHITECTURE: KAI TONG, AIA, Hopkins & Porter, Potomac, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: RAY HORNSBY, production supervisor, and DON LOWERY, lead carpenter, Hopkins & Porter. INTERIOR DESIGN: BARBARA HAWTHORN, Barbara Hawthorn Interiors, McLean, Virginia.