When Suzie and Bob Hawkins find time to sit back and enjoy their new front porch, the designing couple can sip a cool drink and admire the rewards of living in one place for decades. The generous flagstone expanse shaded by white- blooming Natchez crape myrtles has timeless style. But the refined country look speaks of a new era. The porch is a defining element of the renovation of the couple’s Bethesda, Maryland, home. They have transformed a classic two-story family residence into a sparkling retreat for empty nesters.
“It’s what we always wanted to do,” says Suzie Hawkins, an interior designer.
With its backdrop of towering oaks, the site maintains the charms of old Bethesda. But a new cobblestone border along the drive hints at big changes inside and out. The one-time Dutch Colonial cottage has been enhanced with an addition and dressed up with elegant stonework. White-painted columns add a formal touch to the porch, which has become the new outdoor living room. Banks of French doors now open the interior to the outdoors, merging the design passions of the residents. Bob Hawkins, founder of Hawkins Signature Landscapes, calls the ambience "Nantucket meets the Hamptons,” but insists he’s most at home in the Adirondacks. Overall, the style is crisp but casual.
This idyll took a lifetime of professional attention to achieve. Nearly three decades ago, the couple bought a 1919 cottage with young twins and a third child on the way. The sizable lot offered an insurance policy in that it could be subdivided. The downside: The house was in utter disrepair. Suzie remembers "raccoons living in the kitchen.” Bob recalls how his mother cried when she realized how much work they would need to do. House and garden were improved “piecemeal” for years as the couple raised a family.
By 1997, the children were on their own and Bob and Suzie were looking to downsize. They considered Annapolis, where their son had attended the Naval Academy. And yet, there was something in the familiar view—willowy Kashmir deodar cedars set off by white-blooming azaleas at the end of a verdant lawn—that called the couple home. They decided to apply their skills to redesigning the house.
After architect Devon Perkins tweaked their plans, the couple embarked on a 1,000-square-foot expansion and complete interior upgrade. They started construction in August 2008 and finished in time to sit on the porch during the summer of 2009.
The impact of the renovation is apparent from the street, where an arbor beckons visitors in. Adirondack chairs on the lawn recall Bob’s college days in Ithaca, New York, where he studied horticulture at Cornell. Natural stone provides a unifying element outdoors. A new, permeable semicircular drive sports four stone pillars topped with planters overflowing with Breathless euphorbia, cordyline, sweet potato vine and Margarita, Ebony and lemon white lantana. The new wraparound porch is underpinned by a stone foundation, and the master suite’s wing has a stone façade.
Bob credits Suzie with the preponderance of elegant white-blooming trees and shrubs. Casual flagstone pathways reflect Bob’s love of the country. He has planted the walks with creeping mazus sporting masses of lavender blooms between the stones in spring. Just inside the arbor, White Dazzler impatiens put on a show.
The house acquired a foyer, a master suite with fireplace and vintage beamed ceiling, walk-in closets and a first-floor laundry room. Radiators were eliminated, windows enlarged and French doors installed. The dining room was sacrificed in favor of closets and a white marble master bath.
During an earlier renovation, rooms were sited to look out on patios and the lush backyard, where Australian tree ferns, Little Lantern ligularia and ginger enliven the view. This time, the master suite addition got its own focal point when Bob tucked a cascading water feature and patio off the bedroom. It is set off by plantings of Nellie Stevens holly, rhododendron, dwarf clump bamboo, dwarf Gumpo azaleas, English weeping yews, boxwood, nandina, Patriot hostas and Fanfare impatiens. The ensemble forms one of a series of garden vignettes intended to draw visitors around the house.
Consulting an architect produced two improvements on the original Hawkins design. By angling the new wing ever so slightly, the couple created a more interesting footprint, improving views and achieving a more integral relationship between the addition and the front garden. As for the old dining room, it disappeared without a whimper. “We never used it,” says Suzie. The family dines casually in the breakfast room overlooking the back garden. The kitchen and breakfast area were remodeled in 1997 and refreshed in the recent renovation.“The flooring is reclaimed marble with the wrong side up because we loved the patina of the large slabs but didn’t want shiny,” says Suzie Hawkins.
Bob sleuthed for vintage lumber for ceiling beams in the master bedroom and family room and random-width reclaimed oak for flooring to achieve a vibe he calls "polished country.” A massive flagstone that had served as a picnic table from the early 1900s became a fireplace surround for Bob’s enlarged study.“I feel like I left something of the original house," he says.
Bob didn’t have to go far for stone. The house sits on a vein of white quartz, which supplied a third of the material. A Scranton, Pennsylvania, quarry provided the rest, in tones of tan and brown rather than typical Pennsylvania blues.
Suzie designed an alcove for the master bed and wainscoting for the walls. She used a palette of neutrals with natural fabrics and a few well-chosen antiques to create a low-key, sophisticated environment.
"We were always kind of relaxed,” she says. “I think you have to be who you are.” As she often tells clients, “You’re the one who has to live there.”
Linda Hales, former design critic at The Washington Post, writes about architecture and design. Allen Russ is a photographer with Hoachlander Davis Photography in Washington, DC.
RENOVATION ARCHITECT: DEVON PERKINS, AIA, LEED AP, Hickok Cole Architects, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: SUZANNE HAWKINS, Suzanne Hawkins Interiors, Bethesda, Maryland. LANDSCAPE DESIGN: BOB HAWKINS, Hawkins Signature Landscapes, Bowie, Maryland. RENOVATION CONTRACTOR: POTOMAC VALLEY BUILDERS, Bethesda, Maryland.