The 1992 contemporary house had fallen into disrepair by the time Bethesda architect Jim Rill was called to its sweeping shorefront on Maryland’s Gibson Island, south of Annapolis. Its new owners, Houston transplants with a passion for design, could see its modernist potential. Rill could see its bones—and liked what they foretold.
“It had a big idea, but there hadn’t been follow-through,” says the architect. He draws a picture to show how a series of structural walls seemed to emanate from an invisible center like rays, widening out toward vistas of the Chesapeake Bay. Small windows, oddly placed walls and even the kitchen cabinets obstructed what could have been open sightlines to the water, with its ever-changing colors and passing wildlife. As Rill began to rethink and reorganize the home’s layout, those structural walls—along with a dramatic circular stair tower—became the foundation for his redesign. Everything else was gutted to emphasize the layered, open spaces with radiating views that expand outward from the entry along those rays. “The idea was to express the connection to the landscape,” says the architect.
First, he reclads the synthetic-stucco exterior with natural materials: stone for the stair tower, metal for the window casements and overhangs, and cement panels to highlight the strength and structure of each ray. These panels, he says, “look like stronger elements that hold the lighter materials.”
Achieving the right scale was paramount: The existing, standard-height glass doors topped with small, square transoms sliced and diced the water views; Rill replaced them with single-pane windows and doors that reach heights of eight to 10 feet. He also moved the front door from the side of the house to the center, within a two-story glass façade that he enhanced with much larger windows. Motorized shades throughout the home offer privacy.
Formerly, the front door—reclaimed from a temple in India—had opened into an enclosed vestibule where visitors were greeted with a wall. The new glass-door entry lets guests see through the house and out to the water before they even step inside. The temple door, meanwhile, holds a place of honor in the new basement-level wine room.
Rill reorganized and streamlined the interior layout, removing unnecessary entryways and hanging kitchen cabinets, for example, to emphasize the views from front to back. He even gave the first-floor master suite its own terrace and glass “front door,” through which one can see to the wall of windows in the back. The second floor houses three additional bedrooms, while the basement includes an exercise room and spa.
The architect worked closely with his clients to design ample display space for their extensive art collection, amassed over decades of traveling the globe. He created a neutral backdrop with creamy-white walls to keep the focus on the elegantly framed art. But his most dramatic gesture was replacing a traditional spindle-lined staircase with a new, curving stairway that emulates the one at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which the wife has visited often. “We wanted it to be a sculpture in itself,” Rill says.
Another imperative was establishing an art studio for the wife, who started painting as a second life pursuit in 2010. Initially a figurative painter, she recently began portraying all manner of birds that fly over the water and through her gardens. “I never gave birds a second thought” before moving in, she says, but her home’s pristine setting has inspired her art, which now reflects a new appreciation for eagles, great blue herons, hummingbirds, goldfinches and monarch butterflies. “I work with nature as a subject,” she explains. In fact, she even painted the doors to the bar and pantry closets in her new kitchen to reflect its waterfront views during autumn.
The couple wanted each room to be designed around existing furniture and other belongings they have collected over the years. Even before his clients moved to Maryland, Rill visited them in Houston to take an inventory. He measured each piece of furniture, created a plan for where wall art and sculpture would be placed, and designed custom cabinetry. As a result, the couple didn’t need to purchase much furniture before moving in—and they knew where everything would go.
The renovation hewed closely to the home’s original footprint, save for some small but significant additions. Rill extended the two outer rays in back to frame a wider deck and accommodate an outdoor kitchen and enclosed a covered porch so he could expand the master suite. He also added a second garage—a bonus, the wife says, because her husband can keep all the tools in his while she hangs art in hers.
The best “art,” however, is the unfolding view outside the great expanses of glass Rill incorporated into the design. “The structure itself frames a series of environmental scenes as you walk through, and each outdoor scene is so beautiful,” the wife marvels. “Each day, a new picture is created by the re-ordering of the natural environment and light.”
Jennifer Sergent is an Arlington writer. Photographer Helen Norman is based in White Hall, Maryland.
Architecture: James F. Rill, AIA, Rill Architects, Bethesda, Maryland.