Standing on a wooded property for sale in Silver Spring, chef/restaurateur Ruth Gresser and artist Barbara Johnson fell immediately for its pristine stream views and peaceful vibe.
The only wrinkle? The property’s 1950s ranch house was sited on the other side of the lot, with no connection to the surrounding splendor. But this didn’t deter the couple from closing the deal. They had recently toured Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut and as Barbara Johnson remembers, “We loved that the architect considered the whole property as the house and each of the buildings and even the lawn as rooms.” The Glass House inspired an idea: Rather than remodeling their house or building a new one, Gresser and Johnson would try to do both.
The couple was drawn to Bethesda architect Mark McInturff’s modern work, so they called him to discuss their project. “Ruth said her partner is an avid gardener but they live in the woods where deer eat everything,” McInturff recalls. “She said they wanted a courtyard house. I heard that and it was like she ‘had me at hello.’ Few people think about their house as a combination of interior and exterior spaces. From there, we were very simpatico.”
As they outlined their vision and requirements with McInturff and project architect Peter Noonan, possibilities unfolded. Gresser—owner and chef of Pizzeria Paradiso with locations in Dupont Circle, Georgetown and Alexandria—sketched out the kitchen. Johnson, meanwhile, wanted a studio and space to showcase art. Together, the couple wanted room to entertain in a home that would celebrate but not overwhelm its site.
Though Gresser and Johnson had assumed the existing house would have to come down, the architects proposed a thoughtful renovation that would save it, turning it into a functional part of the whole. It would be one of a collection of structures arrayed around a central courtyard, and would house a master suite, guest room, office and art studio.
“The house was well built and had been maintained, which gave us the luxury of being able to live in it before we undertook the project. The fact that Mark was able do exactly what we wanted, which was to keep the house and have us live here made sense,” says Gresser, motioning to their new, light and airy living space.
Today, a gate beside the renovated house admits visitors into the courtyard, which contains a pool and gardens. A path leads into the home’s new wing. A varied palette of black-painted brick, corrugated metal, steel and mahogany defines the exterior structures, which include a long gallery linking the old and new wings, a screened porch, a car port and a steel wall rusted to a rich patina. “I wanted a Richard Serra but couldn’t afford it,” quips Johnson.
As the design evolved, straight lines and right angles were shifted, thrusting the volumes into the forest to maximize the views and enlarge the courtyard. “We had designed some flares in the new wing,” explains McInturff, “but Peter said, ‘Let’s flare the whole thing.’ It’s almost as if the whole property is opening outward.”
Despite its crisp, modern veneer and volume, the new wing envelops visitors like a cocoon with sunlight, colorful art and warm wood finishes. The combined kitchen, dining and living space occupies the very spot where Gresser and Johnson first fell in love with the property. The dining area faces the screened porch, with a glass NanaWall that opens so the couple can place tables end to end and accommodate dozens for holiday meals or special events. They also enjoy quiet get-togethers in the living room around their modular Mah Jong sofa by Roche Bobois.
In the kitchen, black concrete countertops and a powerful stainless-steel stove and hood are anchored by a banquette and cookbook library. The chef resisted her partner’s plea for a larger kitchen and island, opting for efficiency and ease of movement between two long, parallel work surfaces.
A stairway leads to a loft, Gresser’s personal retreat. It was here, seated at a table from her first restaurant on P Street, that the chef wrote her forthcoming book, Kitchen Workshop—Pizza (Quarry Books), which comes out in February.
The loft, says McInturff, “allows this to be a big, high space that is soaring and exuberant and yet right in the middle of it is a place that’s cozy. It’s like a big, suspended basket.”
Johnson, meanwhile, has created a visual feast in the new wing and gallery, showcasing her own work as well as pieces the couple has acquired. “As a painter, most of my decisions are made alone. So it was really exciting to work with Ruth, Mark and Peter because of our shared aesthetic,” says Johnson, who splits her time between painting in her studio and running Art Works Now, an art education and social justice non-profit. (McInturff is currently designing a new building for the organization in Hyattsville.)
A portrait of Johnson’s mother, who passed away in 2012, hangs next to the sliding door to the master bedroom in the original house. “I like the connection to the past,” says Johnson, “and I like that we were not the people who tore down the house. There’s a certain integrity to working with what was there.” The renovation bumped up the roof above the bedroom and Johnson’s studio and created a spa-like master bath. New windows overlook the courtyard and pool.
“Because of the courtyard, we live in the woods now,” says Gresser. “It’s very different and very wonderful.”
She and Johnson are so grateful to share this property that they can’t stop quoting a mantra that hit them one night after settling in: “We hope the people who own this house never come home.”
Julia Heine is a designer and photographer at McInturff Architects.
ARCHITECTURE: MARK McINTURFF, FAIA, principal in charge; PETER NOONAN, AIA, LEED AP, project architect, McInturff Architects, Bethesda, Maryland. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: Edward Bisese, Masters Landscape Design, Annapolis, Maryland.