The homeowners pondered the decision to renovate their 1980s Colonial or build a new house on their secluded, 25-acre property outside Ellicott City, Maryland. “We did a lot of soul-searching. We even thought of moving, but we love the site. It’s so quiet and private,” says the husband, an entrepreneur whose business portfolio includes publishing, transportation and athletic footwear companies.
After discussing scenarios for improving their home with three architects from different firms, he and his wife turned to a fourth—Cunningham | Quill Architects of Washington, DC. “They were the first ones who really listened to us and built the design on our ideas,” says the wife, who teaches students with disabilities. Together, the couple and their architect made the decision to tear down the Colonial and build anew.
The homeowners’ wish for what they call “comfortable elegance” led architect Ralph Cunningham to organize the residence like a traditional country house with two wings splayed outward from a central pavilion. While that symmetrical arrangement sounds stuffy, the completed house feels light and airy.
Stone cladding around the base visually reduces its apparent size, particularly at the rear where the building rises to three stories. HardiePlank siding above the stone is accented by the graphic lines of mahogany screens around large windows, which supply plenty of daylight to interior spaces.
Inside, streamlined furnishings and soothing colors defer to the views of nature from nearly every space. “We wanted to blur the line between indoors and out,” says Cunningham. “The connection between this house and the landscape is very important.”
The architect decided to place the new house in the same spot as the couple’s previous dwelling, on the prow of a hill within a clearing encircled by tall trees. This location allowed for a walk-out basement on the lower side of the site that provides rooms for family games and movies, and an indoor pool enjoyed year-round by the couple and their two children. A freestanding garage at the front of the house is connected to the basement through an underground tunnel.
Principal rooms, including the kitchen, family room and master bedroom, are positioned at the back of the house to take advantage of views across a lawn to the Middle Patuxent River. To maintain this vista, the original pool was demolished and a new infinity-edge pool built on a terrace along the lower side of the house so it isn’t visible from the main floor. “It’s great to go to a pool, but not so great to look at it all the time, especially during the winter,” says Cunningham.
Landscape architect Kevin Campion achieved a smooth transition between the house and its natural surroundings through raised terraces, fountains and layered plantings. “The gardens are an extension of the architecture,” Campion says, pointing to low walls that continue the stone from the house into the landscape.
From the gravel driveway, a travertine-lined portal leads to a double-height entry foyer. One end of the hall opens to the expansive living room and views across the stone and grass terraces on the east side of the house. The other leads to a room where the wife holds classes; students can enter directly from the parking court at the front of the house. Behind this space is a secluded library with a fireplace where the owners enjoy reading and watching television.
Beyond the foyer, curved walls lead into the open kitchen and family room at the center of the house. The dining room extends to one side and the wife’s office flanks the other. A staircase between the kitchen and living room leads to the second floor, where the children’s bedrooms occupy the east wing and guest suites the west. The light-filled master suite occupies the center bay above the family room with windows on three sides offering river views during late fall and winter.
In designing the interiors, Cunningham collaborated with Massachusetts-based architect—and former Washingtonian—Bruce Danzer. This is Danzer’s first residential project and he approached it with the same rigor as his commercial work. “I was very methodical in showing the owners options of how we might furnish each room,” he says. “It wasn’t about creating a show place but a comfortable house for a family.”
Trips Danzer made with the couple to showrooms in Boston, New York and DC led to a mix of high-end pieces by New York designer Dakota Jackson and French manufacturer Hugues Chevalier, and less expensive finds from Crate & Barrel and Room & Board. “Once we had a collection that worked,” recalls Danzer, “we spent weeks developing a chalky, impressionistic color palette similar to the landscape outside.”
In the main rooms, armchairs, tables and sofas are grouped into conversation areas for family gatherings and frequent parties. “There can be 50 people in this house and you don’t realize they are here,” says the wife of the interconnected spaces both inside and outside the house. The couple ensured the home would meet their future needs during retirement by installing an elevator and insisting on wheelchair accessibility throughout the interiors.
Practicality aside, the two clearly consider their new house, with its swimming pools, movie theater and game room, as a year-round retreat with better amenities than a resort. As the husband notes, “Even on vacations, we find ourselves wondering when we can go home.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to Home & Design. Maxwell MacKenzie is a Washington, DC-based photographer.
ARCHITECTURE: RALPH CUNNINGHAM, FAIA, Cunningham | Quill Architects, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: KEVIN CAMPION, ASLA, Annapolis, Maryland. INTERIOR DESIGN: BRUCE SKILES DANZER, JR., AIA, LEED AP, LAB [3.2] Architecture, Provincetown, Massachusetts. CONTRACTOR: POTOMAC VALLEY BUILDERS, Bethesda, Maryland.