In a little-known part of northeast Virginia, a protruding puzzle piece of Loudoun County nestles between the borders of Maryland and West Virginia. Here in the gently rolling valley of Short Hill Mountain, a couple with longstanding ties to the Washington arts community found the country haven they had been seeking. Architectural photographer Maxwell MacKenzie and painter-ceramicist Rebecca Cross—partners in Georgetown’s Cross MacKenzie Gallery and in life—settled near picturesque Hillsboro. “The setting was perfectly suited to what we were looking for—very isolated, so peaceful, a slower pace from our DC lives,” says Cross, who is the gallery’s director.
Among the 10-acre property’s many charms, they admired the simple elegance of a 1787 stone farmhouse, along with the possibilities of its five outbuildings to meet their needs for studio space, storage and possible future rental. A clearing on the grounds created the perfect runway for MacKenzie’s ultra-light, powered-parachute aircraft, which he flies when shooting breathtaking aerial photos.
“We were ready for a new chapter in our lives,” explains Cross of their bold step. “You’re supposed to downsize at our age,” she laughs. “We’re doing the opposite.” The move was not envisioned as country retirement; both continue to work from home, and Cross drives 52 miles to their gallery four days a week.
They had a different dream. “We were imagining our children, grandchildren, families and friends visiting,” she explains. After living for 31 years in DC’s Woodley Park, they were ready for a change. The street where they lived had become increasingly noisy and congested. Their grand, six-bedroom townhouse had served them well, but over a lifetime of making and collecting things, notes MacKenzie, “We were bursting at the seams.”
Five moving trucks and two years later, both are relaxing on their farmhouse patio, seated at a long table with matching benches. The couple designed and beautifully crafted the wooden set with butterfly joints and a grainy, glistening surface in anticipation of large gatherings. It’s an ideal spot for gazing past a reflective pool—which they designed to suggest a simple swimming hole—to rows of corn and open fields sweeping to the hazy mountain ridge. The view is protected from development thanks to a neighbor who donated the adjoining acreage to Virginia’s Land Trust.
MacKenzie recalls the happy times they enjoyed over 30 years at Cross’ parents’ weekend house on the Rappahannock River. He tells how her father, Eason Cross, a distinguished architect who was honored as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, bought the second home “to pull back his children by having this very pretty place in the country,“ MacKenzie recounts. “And we saw that it worked. If you build it, they will come.”
When Cross’ parents and MacKenzie’s mother passed away the same year, “Our lives were disrupted. It made us think about what we wanted,” Cross reflects. MacKenzie’s luminous images—
pictured on these pages—illustrate the place their new country home already occupies in continuing that beloved family tradition. Its warm, welcoming interiors, the serene beauty of its surroundings, the layers of history are an invitation to gather and build memories.
Arranging furnishings inside these solid stone walls presented a delicate challenge for Cross. Unlike at the gallery, where each object is showcased, she allowed the character of the massive fireplaces and richly textured ceiling beams and wood-plank floors to set the stage; artworks are enfolded within. “I wanted to elevate the qualities already here,” she explains, “to respect the age but not any historical moment. Whatever I did, I didn’t want to lose the lovely bones of this old house.”
MacKenzie’s photographs appear throughout, along with other images in their personal collection by photographers Diane Arbus, Joel Sternfeld, Helmut Newton and Eugène Atget. Cross herself has a master’s in painting from London’s Royal College of Art; several of her early paintings and boldly patterned ceramics enliven the kitchen and other rooms. Cross’ festive, colorful plates were bestsellers at Barney’s in New York in the ’80s, her husband proudly points out. And her recent series of pencil drawings depicting ancient weapons hangs in the house and in her studio, where she looks forward to spending more time.
In some ways, the house and its weathered-wood outbuildings and grounds comprise a large-scale art project, as the two direct their creative talents and construction skills toward its renewal. MacKenzie recently turned a deceased boxwood into a rustic patio chair. Cross excavated stepping stones, revived a garden and repainted the exterior of one of the outbuildings, a log cabin. Together, they rebuilt a stone wall, made the patio furniture and, most ambitiously—after watching YouTube videos—replaced wood shingles on the home’s entrance portico. “We’re happy when we’re making and doing things together,” Cross says.
With many projects ahead, they have become converts to country life. Cross takes morning walks before going to the gallery, while MacKenzie enjoys jaunts in his aircraft, often flying nine miles to Harper’s Ferry—part of his research on historic buildings in the area. Friends arrive for days spent hiking, swimming and picnicking in the country.
“We’re feeling gratified because last weekend, our new baby granddaughter came with our son Alex and his wife, who live in Los Angeles. Our younger son, Augustus, a painter, came too. We also had a full house on Thanksgiving and on the Fourth of July,” Cross beams. “Because we have so many bedrooms, everyone can come. It’s really a lot of fun. ”
Interior Design: Rebecca Cross, Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC.