When the prospective owners of a property in Bethesda first saw the small rambler sitting awkwardly on its site, they didn’t even bother to go in before buying it. They didn’t need to. “I wasn’t worried,” the wife remembers. “It was a nice location.”
Two years later, the rambler had come down and the couple, relocating from Chicago to be closer to their children and grandchildren, had moved into their idyllic new home, nestled in a serene setting. Having lived in a handful of other homes—including one on Lake Michigan—the wife says, “This is absolutely my favorite house of all. No contest.”
Before building, she and her husband had clear ideas for this next stage of their lives. “I wanted a feeling of spaciousness and a sense of the outside when you’re inside,” says the wife, an artist. She requested the convenience of one-floor living with lots of natural light, but also wanted privacy. After playing an active part in planning the house, she acknowledges that at the start, “I had no idea at all what was going to be here.”
Architect Stephen Muse took up the challenge. While he has won many awards for adapting designs to their surroundings, he found little worth adapting here. “Wherever possible, we try to work with the house,” he explains. “But this one was in a bad spot, with a big circular drive and a pool in a shape not known to man,” he explains. “It had everything we didn’t need.” The architect’s central question became, “How do you put a house that is open and contemporary on a standard suburban lot and still give owners the privacy they’re looking for?”
His answer is a U-shaped plan that places main-floor living spaces around a central courtyard framed on two sides by pavilions. The courtyard is now the peaceful focus for gardens that have transformed the property into a private haven screened from neighbors. The pavilions enclose the kitchen/family room and the wife’s painting studio on one side and the master bedroom and bath on the other, followed by an outdoor pool. Along the front, second-floor bedrooms for visiting family and an office for the husband, an economist, overlook the courtyard and pavilions, all aligned in an orderly sequence. “It’s a simple, rational floor plan,” says the architect. “I like rational and disciplined.”
Landscape architects Lila Fendrick and Doug Stookey collaborated early on to help position the house on its hilltop site. They created a level parking court and integrated distinct plantings all around, from massive hollies at the back to a rain garden near the street. Layers of evergreens buffer views to neighbors, realizing Fendrick’s vision of a park-like setting that she describes as “a little woodland with big trees all around.”
As in the house, simple, straightforward lines define the gardens. “Deceptively simple,” Fendrick comments, noting that “a lot of thought went into paving patterns and planting materials to make it organized and perfect.” The parking court, for example, is elegantly paved in bluestone with dark-gray granite edging; it also doubles as a basketball court. Along the home’s glass façade, Fendrick planted a row of sweetbay magnolias because, she says, “they’re not particularly dense, so light comes through and there’s still privacy.”
Strong vistas link the house and gardens. On the main axis from the living room, the restful back lawn leads to a seating terrace and ends at a solid stone wall, softened by sheets of water spilling over it. Muse designed the honey-hued wall and a matching outbuilding behind the pool for function as well as beauty. Wisteria climbs along a trellis rising from the structure, which neatly hides a generator and pool equipment.
The architect considered the house from every angle. “I was very concerned with views from the house out to the garden, and through the house,” he says. Instead of an entirely open two-story entrance, he added architectural interest by exposing structural beams from the second-floor hall to the front wall. The beams form a linear shelter along the edge of the living/dining area. Looking down from above, they appear to project beyond the exterior wall, taking the form of wood outriggers supporting an outdoor trellis. Stainless-steel rods cast changing patterns of light and shadow onto the oak floor.
The trellis provides sun protection on the front, in much the same way that large roof overhangs shield windows on the back. The overhangs and narrow bands of windows that lift up the roofs and the pavilions themselves were inspired by Prairie-style architecture originating in the Midwest. “We wanted to give the house a personal form for people from Chicago,” says Muse. “The spirit of the project comes from the owners.”
Interior designer Jodi Macklin organized furnishings around a neutral palette of mid-browns and grays—“very light, clean and airy,” she says, “so it wouldn’t detract from the architecture.” Transitional pieces in the living and dining areas and a relaxed sectional in the family room are understated and minimal, following the owner’s preference for less rather than more. Everything, says Macklin, “had to look good, but also had to function. We were trying to be very mindful of the grandchildren.” She points out that all upholstery fabric was treated for durability, and reachable accessories are made of unbreakable metal or plastic.
White walls set off bursts of color in the owner’s paintings. Her favorite colors—blue and purple—appear in the paintings and are picked up in floral prints on living-room cushions. The hues reappear in the perennial garden’s blooms outside her painting studio.
“We love living here,” says the wife, who views her new home also as an art project. “There’s an element of sculpture to it. It’s beautiful in a quiet way,” she observes—especially at dusk when automatic astronomical timers turn on, and all dimensions of the unified house, garden and interiors are bathed in light.
Tina Coplan is a Chevy Chase, Maryland, writer. Photographer Maxwell MacKenzie is based in Washington, DC.
ARCHITECTURE: STEPHEN MUSE, FAIA, principal, and ERIC HURTT, AIA, project architect, Muse Architects, Bethesda, Maryland. INTERIOR DESIGN: JODI MACKLIN and MELISSA HAENDLER, Jodi Macklin Interior Design, Chevy Chase, Maryland. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: LILA FENDRICK, principal; DOUG STOOKEY, project landscape architect, Lila Fendrick Landscape Architects, Chevy Chase, Maryland. LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR: Chapel Valley Landscape Company, Woodbine, Maryland. BUILDER: GEORGE COLLINS, Peterson + Collins Inc., Washington, DC.
LIVING/DINING ROOM Sofas & Small Armchairs: thebrightgroup.com. Sofa & Dining Chair Fabric: hollyhunt.com. Long Pillow & Chair Fabric: donghia.com. Coffee Table: johnbooneinc.com. Rug: floorcoveringresources.com. Dining Table: oldtownwoodworking.com. Dining Chairs: artisticframe.com. Art by Dining Table: Custom by the client. Pendants: illumininc.com.
KITCHEN/FAMILY ROOM Sectional Sofa: montauksofa.com. Fabric: cowtan.com. Armchair & Fabric: roomandboard.com. Rug: floorcoveringresources.com. Coffee Table: walkerzabriskie.com. Chandelier over Dining Table: verellenhc.com. Dining Chairs: mcguirefurniture.com. Bar Stools: suiteny.com.
OUTDOORS Patio Table & Chairs: dwr.com.
MASTER BATH Cabinetry: Custom by petersoncollins.com. Countertop: Thassos through marblesystems.com. Fabricator: unitedstatesmarbleandgranite.com. Floor & Shower Walls: Calacatta tile through usmarbleandgranite.com. Shower Floor: architecturalceramics.com.