That’s because the owners, Sharon H. Russ and David Rubin, had just expanded their domestic real estate holdings by one adjoining historic row house. With an active family and professional responsibilities—she is a consultant, he is a managing director at Deloitte—they had longed for more space. When the opportunity arose to purchase the property next door, the couple jumped on it.
But as Russ points out, they knew they might move out one day. The task they presented to architect Salo Levinas: Join the two dwellings for now, but preserve future resale value.
“The houses were joined, but with the possibility of separating them,” explains Levinas, principal of Shinberg.Levinas, a multi-disciplinary Washington practice. “The challenge was to create one large unit that you could close tomorrow and have separate units that would work perfectly well.”
Preservation requirements dictated that the historic façades remain unchanged, including the two front doors; the owners use the door to their original end unit. Inside, the architect envisioned a modernized, four-level home encompassing 4,200 square feet and including five bedrooms, four full baths, a study and a family room. Two lower-level rental units were also renovated.
On the main floor, Levinas established an expanded envelope for entertaining. By taking down party walls and moving one staircase, he created wide open spaces defined by off-white gallery walls. Calibrated shafts of daylight from repositioned skylights and existing clerestory windows bounce off polished European white oak flooring. Behind those walls, double the wiring and plumbing was installed, in case the units need to be walled off again and another kitchen is required.
The floor plan and architectural features subtly respect the former division between spaces. The doubled living room now boasts two handcrafted steel fireplaces—one for each downsized unit. It took even more finesse to accommodate two complete staircases. Levinas gave each its own strong sense of individuality; one, newly fashioned in the owners’ original row house, winds up from the kitchen in a coil of steel. The architect calls this his “statement” staircase; its counterpart in the acquired home was demolished in favor of a straight flight with open risers, separated from the adjacent dining area by a suspended partition. Levinas found room for a nifty “wine wall” beneath the stairs.
For furnishings, Russ turned to Sandy Despres Stevens, a New York-based French designer then working under the name Decopostale. “Our goal was to bring a contemporary but warm feeling to the home,” says Despres Stevens, now CEO of the New York office of Jean-Philippe Nuel, a Paris designer of hospitality and residential interiors. “As it is a narrow space with a lot of circulation, we needed to find the right balance in furniture proportions and materials to achieve a clean design that is comfortable and livable.”
Deborah Kalkstein of Contemporaria designed the sparkling kitchen, where Italian Cesar cabinetry hides every possible appliance. “The kitchen is open to the entrance so it becomes a very important part of the two houses,” she remarks.
The upper floors are enlivened by floor-to-ceiling windows across the backs of both houses, where there are no preservation requirements. The boys sleep on the second floor, encompassing two rooms and a bath on either side of the former party wall. The third floor houses a sleek owners’ suite on one side and an office, guest room and bath on the other; natural wood paneling lines the walls, closets and hallway, which culminates in a glamorous owners’ bath. The ceiling was lifted to 13 feet by borrowing space from the attic.
The family moved out during construction. When the dust settled just before the pandemic, Russ, Rubin and their two teenage boys returned to a transformed home. On the serene main floor, walls provide space for displaying bold art. In the dining room, for example, a slanted wall creates a niche that frames a Renée Rendine sculpture made of crocheted fishing line. Says Levinas, “We don’t treat these rooms like boxes, but as sculpture.”
You gutted one townhouse and retrofitted another. How tricky is that?
Salo Levinas: In remodeling an old house, you don’t know what is hidden; the floors are not straight, the bricks are not completely aligned. With craftsmanship, you are able to do it. The partnership is crucial. Fortunately, we chose a contractor with craftsmen who know our expectations and were able to meet them. This kind of job requires people who have pride in the construction.
How important is budgeting?
As a design firm, we are very conscious of budgets. The architect has the responsibility to manage the budget, not to communicate false expectations to the client. If they spend so much money on planning, you can’t build. You have to start with an honest relationship.
Is designing a home a bonding experience?
Everything is designed by our firm. We treat the house as a whole. To go into detail, to engage with the client in a tight, tight relationship—that I really enjoy.
Renovation Architecture: Salo Levinas, AIA, principal, and Paola Lugli, project architect, Shinberg.Levinas, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Sandy Despres Stevens, Decopostale, New York, New York. Kitchen Design: Deborah Kalkstein, Contemporaria, Potomac, Maryland. Contractor: Czecher Construction, Woodbridge, Virginia.
Half a lifetime ago, Ajaipal “Jay” Virdy anticipated the serene home that he and his wife, Shalu, now enjoy. Back then, Virdy’s fledgling tech company occupied space next to a builder whose work he admired.
Two decades later, the dream came true. With two grown children and an enviable career complete, Virdy and Shalu were moving from Leesburg to a classic, two-story abode in McLean. The property was endowed with an ideal setting and recently added guest quarters perfect for Virdy’s aging mother. But the 9,422-square-foot house, built in 2001, came with awkward and dated interiors.
Virdy called on his former neighbor, design-build company BOWA, which in turn enlisted architect Sarah Armstrong of Studio 360 and Betsy Delisi of Lotus Interior Design. The team quickly sized up the home’s quirks: The owners’ suite was an unwieldy labyrinth, the kitchen lacked warmth—and something about the entry hall didn’t work. What followed was a two-year, top-to-bottom reimagining that converted the home’s nine bedrooms to five with three sitting rooms, and revamped the rest of the existing spaces.
“It’s heaven,” says Shalu Virdy. “It’s our forever house.”
Armstrong imparted drama and functionality without expanding the footprint. “We started with the architecture, creating a really great space,” she notes. Walls were moved, ceilings raised, windows expanded, paneling gutted, the attic reclaimed, the owners’ suite redesigned, the kitchen enhanced, and the lower level personalized with a golf simulator and sufficient room for musical equipment to sustain multi-generational family gatherings. (Jay plays guitar while Shalu sings.)
First came the entry—a low, narrow space where any sense of arrival had been cut short by a blank wall straight ahead. That barrier hid a sun-filled family room at the back of the house. By raising the ceiling, widening the space and replacing the wall with black-framed, sliding-glass doors, Armstrong established a fresh dynamic and compelling vista from the front door. “My goal was to have a straight shot through to the garden view,” she explains.
Next, partial walls and classically styled columns between the family and breakfast rooms were removed, effectively adding 11 feet of living space. The outside wall of the breakfast area was replaced with matching black-framed sliders opening to the patio. The expanse of glass marries the interior to a 1.16-acre landscape, where a pool and putting green blend in amid flowering trees. Says designer Delisi, “The house didn’t present as interesting until Sarah got hold of it.”
To establish a uniform envelope, Delisi had the walls and ceilings throughout painted Benjamin Moore’s China White. Furnishings were added in soft blues and greige. The interior scheme honors Armstrong’s black-framed doors by treating the existing window frames to a thin outline of gray paint; draperies soften windows only in the dining room and owners’ bedroom. With 10-foot ceilings, Delisi chose dramatic lighting for size and presence.
The move to a new house enabled the owners to shift to a more contemporary style. That choice led to the decommissioning of a collection of Indian carpets and richly carved wood furniture. “We sold almost everything,” declares Shalu Virdy, adding, “I have no regrets.”
However, the couple has not abandoned natural wood or fine craftsmanship. The breakfast table showcases a live-edge slab of Claro walnut 15 feet long, which Delisi sourced in Oregon and had finished in Wisconsin. The remodeled kitchen, a collaboration with kitchen designer Eric Lieberknecht, boasts a paneled ceiling, striaed-veneer cabinet fronts and a hand-rubbed, stainless-steel range hood. A white oak display cabinet provides a focal point from the stair hall. “Wood is back,” Delisi avers.
Upstairs, Armstrong reconfigured the owners’ suite. The bedroom awaits a Maya Romanoff wall covering, but the master bath is ready for its star turn. The couple asked to replace his-and-her spaces with a single bath, centered on an extravagant porcelain-and-glass shower and floating tub. At Jay Virdy’s suggestion, a spiral stair was added in the owners’ closet; it accesses a storage loft, carved from unfinished space in the attic, where a glass-fronted cabinet showcases Shalu Virdy’s colorful collection of Indian saris.
Today, sunlight streams through the bare, crisply painted windows in the living room, where plush seating designed by Betsy Delisi and fabricated by Stewart Furniture accompanies the family’s baby grand piano, one of the few keepsakes that transitioned to McLean. Throughout the house, Delisi commissioned wall panels, carpets and lighting with subtle musical motifs as well as a keyboard painting above the mantel to reflect her clients’ love of music. She also incorporated contemporary patterning suggestive of their Indian heritage; in the foyer, for instance, a mosaic niche spotlights a precious sitar.
The lower level came last—but not for lack of importance. A nifty wall of acoustical white oak slats forms the backdrop for a wet bar with a backlit onyx countertop. A hidden door in the slats reveals a movie theater. Essential music equipment occupies half a wall. Nearby, a door leads to a golf simulator enlivened with an image of the course at Pebble Beach. A delighted Jay Virdy says, “I live in the golf room.”
On cue, Shalu responds, “And I have the rest of the house.”
Renovation Architecture: Sarah Armstrong, AIA, Studio 360, Clifton, Virginia. Interior Design: Betsy Delisi, Lotus Interior Design, LLC, Ashburn, Virginia. Kitchen & Bath Design: Eric Lieberknecht, Eric Lieberknecht Design, Washington, DC. Contractor: BOWA, McLean, Virginia.
Rug: tamarian.com through galleriacarpets.com. Chandelier: visualcomfortlightinglights.com through dominionlighting.com. Sofas: stewartfurniture.com through americaneyewdc.net. Sofa & Pillow Fabric: kravet.com. Painting over Fireplace: through kevin.mcpherrin.com. Console Table: hollyhunt.com. Paint Color: benjaminmoore.com.
Desk: blackwolfdesign.com. Chair: David Edward through Kimball.com. Rug: kravet.com. Chandelier: visualcomfortlightinglights.com. Paint Color: Mega Greige through benjaminmoore.com. Cabinetry: custom by lieberknechtdesign.com.
Rug: tamarian.com through galleriacarpets.com. Chandelier: corbettlighting.hvlgroup.com through dominionlighting.com. Sideboard: lorts.com. Mirror: uttermost.com. Drapery Fabric: kravet.com. Table: bermanrosetti.com. Chairs: stewartfurniture.com through americaneyewdc.net. Chair Fabric (Front): romo.com. Chair Fabric (Back): arc-com.com. Wallpaper: mayaromanoff.com through kravet.com.
Cabinetry: custom by lieberknechtdesign.com. Countertops: silestoneusa.com through cosentino.com. Backsplash Tile: marblesystems.com. Hood: Custom by akmetalfab.com. Range: viking.com. Refrigerator: subzero-wolf.com. Fixtures: waterstoneco.com through fergusonshowrooms.com. Stools: swaim-inc.com. Pendants: visualcomfortlightinglights.com.
Sconces near Door: visualcomfortlightinglights.com. Rug: tamarian.com through galleriacarpets.com. Sectional & Aqua Stools: stewartfurniture.com through americaneyewdc.net. Sectional Fabric & Pillow Fabric: kravet.com. Chair: americanleather.com through americaneyewdc.net. Chair Fabric: romo.com. Lamps & Coffee Table: americaneyewdc.net. Sofa Table: lorts.com.
Light Fixtures: visualcomfortlightinglights.com. Table: Custom by blackwolfdesign.com. Chairs: RJones & Associates, Inc., through chairish.com. Chair Fabrics: arc-com.com
Vanity: Custom by lieberknechtdesign.com. Countertop: glbtileandmarble.com. Tub/Source: bainultra.com through tsomerville.com. Shower Enclosure: riverglassdesigns.com. Shower Stone: Fabbrica Marmi e Granniti porcelain slabs through marblesystems.com. Shower Stone Fabrication: glbtileandmarble.com. Floor & Wall Tile: Linea Porcelain through marblesystems.com. Plumbing Fixtures: fortisfaucet.com through fergusonshowrooms.com. Sinks: mtibaths.com.
Cabinetry & Closet Fabrication: tailoredliving.com. Chandeliers: techlighting.com, hudsonvalleylighting.hvlgroup.com through dominionlighting.com.
It takes labor-intensive pruning, clipping, clearing and clean-up to ensure that the finest shrubbery and perennials achieve their natural form and lend the seasoned garden a grace and depth uncommon in the new.
A Bethesda family has overseen just such a garden for more than three decades, tended most recently by McHale Landscape Design, which won a 2020 Decade award for maintenance. A specimen wisteria has conquered a porch, while ivy and espaliered pyracantha completely hide stone walls.
“It’s a reserved garden,” says Matt Morris of McHale, who has been steward of the property for close to 15 years, working with the owners’ gardener. Morris defines the secret of maintenance as “advising what to do and more likely what not to do.”
The front yard is a classic: dogwood, azalea, rhododendron and boxwood framing a turf lawn. “Mind you, we have some deer issues that curtail what can be done,” Morris admits.
In back, the terrain is terraced, with a swimming pool slipped into a long, narrow slot at the bottom of the yard, beneath a willow. A koi pond lush with aquatic plants burbles beside a patio. Designed by McHale’s Phil Kelly, it was renovated by Morris and crew a few years ago.
“There’s not a lot of air flow,” Morris notes. “The main challenge is always water. Mother Nature just won’t stop raining on you.”
The client had mandated a pool on a level side lot, but Dunlevy saw opportunities in the slope: With courageous use of cut-and-fill excavation, he addressed runoff—and was able to add an understated pool and plantings worthy of a Heritage award. “Now the client has an asset rather than a liability,” he observes.
The slope dipped 30 inches to the property line. By constructing a 36-inch-tall retaining wall at the boundary and filling it tightly with excavated soil, Dunlevy gained the right elevation for the rectangular pool with space for a spa that spills into it and a circular stone fire pit. Arborvitae and cryptomeria provide privacy. A historic wood-frame garage at one end of the pool dictated the design of an attached outdoor changing area while providing space for equipment.
The pool is bounded by a thermal Pennsylvania flagstone terrace to match an existing upper patio. A meandering path is enlivened with camellia and a Japanese maple. Out of sight but not out of mind is a large dry well topped with a bed of river stones, which manages runoff to adjacent properties. Says Dunlevy, “I always try to be as neighborly as possible. It costs a little more, but it will pay off in the end.” And that flat side lot? It became a baseball diamond.
Dozens of truckloads of dirt were hauled away to transform a barren slope into a landscape designed for outdoor living and recreation.
The finished property, which won a Distinction award, is now terraced to fit a mountain of boulders; they rise six feet from the edge of a pool and serve as a retaining wall supporting holly and arborvitae. The pile of Tennessee stone doubles as a waterfall and jumping-off point for three kids. A 12-foot-wide spillway stone weighs in at three tons.
“It was pretty easy to install. The rest of the rock was in place,” says Cohen, adding that when the monster stone arrived, “the crane just lifted it up there.”
Cohen designed the pool 10 feet deep to ensure safety for adventurous water nymphs. (A lifeguard’s chair is stationed nearby.) Occupying the lower yard, a synthetic turf sports court hosts basketball and soccer games; when school facilities weren’t available during coronavirus restrictions, the team practiced on the home field.
Surrounds enhanced the existing patio, outdoor kitchen and fire pit with new lighting. Plantings include Arkansas blue star, St. John’s Wort and a mix of ornamental grasses. Pennsylvania bluestone steps lead to the sports court, which is screened from the pool by native grasses. Hanover Appian random pavers around the pool nicely complement those great big boulders from Tennessee.
With an acre and mature trees already framing the property, a landscape designer can easily fashion distinct garden rooms. And if the owners happen to be collectors, those “rooms” may showcase art amid ornamental trees, flowering shrubs, grasses and perennials—all of which make maintenance essential.
On a Zen-calm Bethesda property, owners first created an Asian-inspired garden. Years later, they commissioned architect Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, to add a pool pavilion. Landscape architect Thomas Rainer, then with Rhodeside & Harwell, unified the landscape using ebullient masses of hydrangea anchored by globes of boxwood, with windblown grasses, ferns and perennials to soften the hardscape—and to set off garden sculptures such as a lettered figure by Jaume Plensa.
“There’s a matrix of reliable plants,” Rainer explains. “Most of the plant palette is ‘blowsy;’ the big thing is the looseness. Plants grow to their full height and volume.”
The task of pruning this paradise has fallen to Shorb Landscaping, a winner of this year’s Distinction award for residential maintenance. “The complexity can offer its challenges at times,” admits Ted Pleiman of Shorb, who sends a three-person team weekly to tame drifts of astilbe, coral bells, hakone grass, hosta, allium and daylily. That’s what it takes “to keep everything looking natural.”
So it seems incongruous that the clock would all but stop at a contemporary fortress on a mountainside in The Plains. Designed by architect David Jameson for a tech entrepreneur, this house hews to geological time. Locally quarried Carderock stone stacked in walls 11 feet high traces its origin to the collision of continents 200 million years ago that formed the Piedmont’s ridges and valleys, creating the very slope on which the house stands.
To be sure, the structure exudes contemporary glamour, from the shimmering glass and sleek mahogany siding to a 105-foot-long lap pool flowing toward a view of the Blue Ridge. In fact, the expanse of glass and pool were inspired by the owner’s childhood memory of a dream house sketched by his father but never built. The son’s 11,980-square-foot residence carries that vision forward, while the architect has anchored the dwelling to the ages.
“Earth, sky and water,” quips Jameson from his Bethesda office, delighted to have achieved the old-is-new dichotomy of an “authentic modern house.”
The site boasts acres of woodland overlooking a polo field. Jameson, who trained under the modernist Hugh Newell Jacobsen, has arranged four long, glass boxes or volumes pinwheel-style around a 1,600-square-foot atrium, which rises 25 feet to a clerestory, hiding mechanicals in its structure. Stone walls form a framework of corridors. An upper level is glassy, angular and intentionally askew. Exterior stone and glass read through to the interior, creating a seamless stage set.
“Stone walls protect and cradle the intimate human spaces,” Jameson says. “The glazed walls you live in really act as lenses to the landscape. It’s a large house, yet each space, the way it’s situated, has a very intimate feel.”
The largest volume, at 26 by 72 feet, looks out onto the lap pool and polo field below. A formal sitting area furnished with a contemporary Italian sofa is set off from a 33-foot-long kitchen-dining space. A relaxed gathering corner filled with mid-century Scandinavian classics brings up the far end. A custom divider of stainless-steel bars incorporates a fireplace and large-screen TV.
The 21-by-72-foot bedroom suite shared by the owner and his wife, an attorney, includes a lounge with a fireplace. A third volume holds three 16-foot-square guest rooms. The fourth volume contains a garage, powder room and laundry.
The architect-designed interiors are spare and unified. Sapele mahogany lines corridors and frames the perfectly aligned windows and motorized sliding glass doors. Floor-to-ceiling walnut paneling disguises kitchen fixtures as well as the owners’ walk-in closet. Matte-bronze automotive paint was hand-rubbed onto the kitchen island and lends mystery to partition walls in the owners’ suite.
Underfoot, corridors of honed bluestone lead to expanses of sturdy, end-cut blocks of Douglas fir. “Because these volumes are long and thin, I did not want to accentuate with linear flooring,” Jameson explains. “The bleached blocks give the calming sense of a tatami mat. It’s very quiet, minimal, non-directional flooring.”
Concrete flooring upstairs is finished in cruise-ship decking epoxy. Both levels are warmed by geothermal wells, one of the home’s many sustainable features that, along with green roofs, suggest a longer-term perspective. “The cost of building is one thing, the cost of maintaining is another,” Jameson points out. “If you can build with sustainable components, that extends the life of the house. What do you have to do to those stone walls after 100 years? Not a lot.”
At home during the pandemic, the owner reflected on the architecture from a sofa beneath the 30-foot-square clerestory. “This house has a great vibe,” he says. “It’s a center of gravity, a serene place to land when you come home. That makes a huge difference in quality of life.”
As for those walls, they are highly technical—as befits a client in the software business. Stones were cut to three precise heights, then stacked in a fixed pattern decreed by Jameson. “Literally every single wall, every single course is perfectly level, a mirror image,” says Eddie Serra of Serra Stone, who managed the masonry. Every nine courses or so, the sequence repeats.
The cadence is so subtle that the owner likens it to “code with a hidden pattern.”
In the end, a house is a vehicle for living. “I love that this house is clearly designed,” the architect reflects, “but not precious.”
Architecture: David Jameson, FAIA, David Jameson Architect, Inc., Bethesda, Maryland. Contractor: PureForm Builders, Washington, DC. Landscape Contractor: Evergro, Glenn Dale, Maryland. Home Automation: Casaplex, Kensington, Maryland.
Stone walls: Eddie Serra, serrastone.com. Stone Floors & Countertops: Rob Redden, Boatman & Magnani; 301-336-7700. Windows & Doors: David Tausendfreund, tradewoodiindustries.com. Metalwork: Moe Owens, Triton Metals; 301-632-6419. Wood Flooring: Russ Sterner, mastercarefloors.com. Specialty Glass: John Flouhouse, dullesglass.com.
Vernor Panton Cloverleaf Sofa: furniturefromscandinavia.com.
Poul Kjærholm PK9 dining chairs, PK80 daybed & PK54 Marble-Topped Table, Finn Juhl Pelican Shearling Chairs, Baker Sofa & FJ Walnut Low Table: furniturefromscandinavia.com.
Mater Bar Stools: furniturefromscandinavia.com. Kitchen Cabinetry: Julia Walter, boffi.com. Countertops: marblesystems.com. Dining Table: Fritz Hansen Essay Table & Mater Dining Chairs: furniturefromscandinavia.com.
Today, Jennifer Brooks can make that claim from a sparkling retreat directly across the Potomac from the first president’s Virginia farm. Though a storybook view of Washington’s white-columned porch is prominent, her shingled residence on the Maryland shoreline disappears into the pines and cedars. This self-effacing design was the genius of architect Greg Wiedemann, who knew “blending in” would suit his client while ensuring approval by powerful stakeholders controlling development in Mount Vernon’s historic viewshed.
“It was a challenge,” the architect acknowledges. “We wanted to build in a way that really blended in with the landscape.”
Wiedemann’s portfolio includes splashy waterfront homes, but this site was in a class of its own. Situated in Maryland’s Charles County—a 20-mile drive from downtown DC—the plot is one of two in private hands on a point surrounded by 5,000-acre Piscataway Park, land governed for decades through purchases and easements with one goal: To preserve the woodland view that Washington enjoyed in the 18th century. (The park was founded in the 1960s, with acreage acquired by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. The group has led preservation efforts since the 1940s, fending off a natural gas facility as recently as 2018.)
The first time Wiedemann walked the property, a bald eagle flew across his path. “It’s a wonderful natural site,” he enthuses. With due respect for Mount Vernon, Wiedemann recounts, his client made it clear: “We’re not going to build any white house with white columns.” Brooks, a marketing executive, and then-husband, John Agwunobi, who was an assistant secretary of health in the George W. Bush administration, set down roots in the area as students at Howard University. Careers led them to the West Coast, while their three children headed to West Point, Dartmouth and Temple University. Though they reside in California, both parents felt a “really incredible” place was needed to entice their kids to gather on the East Coast.
An old barn at river’s edge inspired the aesthetic for the project. The plan evolved into a farmhouse made from two rectangular boxes forming a two-story, L-shaped structure encompassing 4,000-plus square feet. Its peaked roof is set off by a stone chimney and a screened porch in the treetops. A façade of bark-gray shingles, cedar-toned siding, dark mocha steel-framed windows and non-glare glass merges into the landscape. “We wanted to choose materials that would pick up the tones of the trees and the foliage,” Wiedemann says.
A light-filled wing projects toward the river, giving the open-plan living-dining-kitchen space prime views. The second wing is set back at right angles, providing privacy for a family/media room and guest bedroom. Upstairs are two bedrooms and an owner’s suite with its own screened porch.
Wiedemann chose the wall color, soft White Dove from Benjamin Moore. Interior designer Vivian Braunohler of Braunohler Design Associates specified low seating and neutral upholstery to maximize views. “When you look through the space, nothing interrupts the eye,” she points out. “You’re looking right out to the Potomac River.”
Nature plays out in a barn-beamed ceiling in the dining room, where a live-edge table is hewn from a Maryland black walnut tree. Breakfast is taken on a slab of local elm. Wiedemann designed the kitchen as a stand-alone object, hiding function in spare, walnut-stained cabinetry.
Upstairs, Braunohler admits her “first instinct” was to paint a reclaimed-wood accent wall in the owner’s bedroom. But she resisted, explaining, “It really works well bringing the outside in.”
Layers of history permeate the site, which sits at the end of a mile-long shared gravel drive through woods frequented by osprey, hawks and so many eagles Brooks was inspired to name the retreat Eagles Point. The lone neighbor, visible through trees, is a yellow 1790 manor house known as Branitan, where a war hero-turned-spy settled in the 1940s, planted ornamental trees and entertained under an ancestral portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
The 6.7-acre plot acquired for the Brooks-Agwunobi project was cleaved from that estate, itself part of an 18th-century holding of more than 1,000 acres. A one-story, 1970s-era dwelling to which Branitan’s owners had downsized, was demolished but the barn remains at water’s edge. The day Brooks closed on the property, a letter arrived from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association entreating the new owners to “be respectful of the land.”
Brooks is planning for the future—a daughter’s riverside wedding will take place in May 2021—while she remains keen to honor the past, including the Piscataway tribe, which settled on the riverbank more than 800 years ago. “I want to find artwork of the Indian tribes that were here,” she says. “We want to recognize the people who were here first as well.”
And there were tobacco farmers, who, like George Washington, owned slaves. As an African American with ancestral roots in early Virginia, Brooks was moved when she found an 1844 “Bill of Complaint” documenting runaway slaves who were “never recaptured” by an “irresponsible” landowner. “This gave me a strong feeling of humility and responsibility to honor the history of the property, to respect those who were held there in bondage and denied their freedom,” she says. “It is in their memory that our family will be eternally grateful and devoted stewards of the land.”
Architecture: Greg Wiedemann, AIA; Felix Gonzalez, AIA, Wiedemann Architects, Bethesda, Maryland. Interior Design: Vivian C. Braunohler, ASID, Braunohler Design Associates, LLC, Washington, DC. Builder: Carl Petty Associates, Ltd., Washington, DC.
Wall Color: White Dove by benjaminmoore.com.
Table: oecustom.com. Chairs & Pendant: Owner’s collection.
Custom Cabinetry: stroba.com. Countertops: Granite through usmarbleandgranite.com. Hardware: amerock.com. Appliances: thermador.com, geappliances.com, marvelrefrigeration.com; bestrangehoods.com through kieffers.com. Plumbing Fixtures: grohe.us; franke.com through fergusonshowrooms.com. Bar Stools: bakerfurniture.com.
Marble Surfaces: usmarbleandgranite.com. Glass Enclosure: Tempered glass through chevychaseglass.com. Plumbing Fixtures: grohe.com, totousa.com, us.kohler.com, newportbrass.com, jaclo.com through fergusonshowrooms.com.
Furnishings & Fabrics: palecek.com.
The nostalgic appeal of an old red barn weathering away in a field of tall grass is undeniable. The iconic timber structures colored a brownish-red hue retain all the magic of a nearly lost American architectural heritage. This is especially true in Maryland’s rapidly urbanizing I-83 corridor north of Baltimore, where remaining farmland is a precious relic of an era powered not by digital devices but by life-sustaining agriculture. Which makes the image of an old red barn suggestive of lives lived well, if a bit more slowly.
Such thoughts are unavoidable when confronted by a brand new, barn-red retreat set amid a designed-to-be-rural landscape of grasses and wildflowers hard by a shimmering swimming pool. It’s not a barn—it’s a contemporary pool house in Parkton, Maryland.
The owners—a young family with three small children—enjoyed an 11-acre property with uninterrupted vistas extending across a valley of farm fields and on to the forested ridge of Prettyboy Reservoir’s 7,000-acre protected watershed. When the time came to add a pool, they called on Annapolis landscape architect Kevin Campion to design a master plan. “This is a one-of-a-kind view for Baltimore County,” says Campion, who responded to the magnificent vista to the west. “You really don’t get that topography around here very often, so we wanted to highlight it.”
He oriented the property toward the vista, providing a new entrance and circulation system and selecting the most advantageous site for the pool and pool house. Not only would they provide the best views but, he points out, they would be located far enough from the main residence to be “an event unto themselves.” The site plan also includes a “toy barn” for the owner’s recreational vehicles and a future stable with a riding ring.
Visitors now arrive at the site via a curving passage through an allée of red maple trees. A mix of evergreen holly, arborvitae, cryptomeria and spruce preserves privacy to the north. Campion used plantings to define the rest of the site, establishing a hierarchy of gardens—from ornamental near the Victorian-style residence to meadow-like toward the pool “barn” and mowed grass “paddocks” where the property meets working farmland. Linear paths of stepping stones forge a leisurely trail to the pool. Fountain grass provides the unifying aesthetic in beds, around boxwoods, under trees or simply planted en masse to effect croplands. A row of red maples behind the pool house rises like a classic farmstead windbreak.
“This is not a fancy, formal garden,” the landscape architect reflects. “It’s sort of the vernacular of a farm.” The hard part, he adds, was “keeping it distilled to simple gestures.”
Since the owners’ expansive residence, which they bought unfinished in 2011, is not visible from the road, the new structures were intended to create a public presence like typical outbuildings. Architect Adam McGraw of StudioMB, who was brought in by Campion to design the structures, recalls, “The idea was, if you were to drive by, it would sort of look like an appropriate grouping of farm buildings.”
The pool house, which measures 34 by 26 feet, is rural in spirit, with a board-and-bead exterior, stone accents and a gabled, standing-seam metal roof enhanced by exposed beams the owners had salvaged from a barn that once stood on the property. The 1,146-square-foot interior contains a year-round kitchen, dining and lounging area, plus a sleeping loft accessible via ladder. Bathroom, laundry and changing facilities are boxed below the loft. An outdoor shower enjoys privacy on the back side and a basement holds mechanical systems and pool gear.
“They have little children, so the pool house is not a grown-up man cave,” explains McGraw. “It’s a family gathering space, a place to spend an afternoon or evening.”
Sliding French doors on four sides offer pastoral views, while dormers facing east and west open the loft to light from daybreak to sundown. StudioMB project architect Jenna Bolino, who visited the site often, was struck by the way symmetry and strong axial views contributed to a sense of harmony with the landscape. “This was immediately about symmetry,” she says.
McGraw believes scale contributes to that sense of well-being. “Our clients spend all their time down here,” he reveals. “It’s the human-scale retreat, where things are cozier. That’s part of the charm.”
For Campion, the site’s special appeal comes from the way the garden, pool and pool house blend seamlessly with their agricultural and pastoral context. As he reflects, “Stone, wood, water and fire—nothing seems alien or out of place.”
Architecture: Adam McGraw, AIA, principal; Jenna Bolino, associate, StudioMB, Washington, DC. Landscape Architecture: Kevin Campion, ASLA, principal; Kevin Gaughan, project manager, Campion Hruby Landscape Architects, Annapolis, Maryland. Builder: Greg Vogel, Molior Construction LLC, Stevenson, Maryland. Landscape Contractor: Broadleaf Nurseries, Parkton, Maryland.
At least since Thomas Jefferson built Monticello, American architects have used their own homes as testing grounds for various design philosophies. So it comes as no surprise that Carmel Greer—an architect with an equal passion for interiors—would try out ideas while building a house for her family. Make that plural: A decade out of school, she’s on to her second residence in Washington’s Kent neighborhood.
One day in early May, Greer is home from her studio at District Design, leading a Zoom tour to comply with covid-19 restrictions. She opens sleek, black-painted mahogany doors to an airy white foyer furnished with a Korean chest, a gift from bosses at her first architecture firm. The staircase is understated, even as it floats overhead to a third floor. “I didn’t want the house to be about the staircase,” she says. “The look I wanted was simple—no cantilevers or glass. I didn’t want it to be datable.”
Greer, who passed through the University of Virginia at Charlottesville on her way to an architecture degree at Yale, treads a tempered path between modernism and tradition. The four-level, six-bedroom house demonstrates the clean lines of a contemporary thinker, balanced by honest materials, recognizable forms and touches of inspiration from France. The first residence she designed for herself was defined by its gray-stone façade. This one is clad in pale-ochre stucco, inspired by the simple mas, a quintessential farmhouse in Provençe.
“You don’t know who designed it or when,” she says, describing the essence of this vernacular. “It just seems perfect in its surroundings.”
A spare black-and-white palette clearly dominates, upstairs and down, but Greer can splash color. The showstopper is directly left of the foyer: a salmon-pink living room with green tub chairs. Walls are inset with niches—for a mirrored bar, for a stack of firewood or simply for added dimension in the 310-square-foot parlor. Nine-foot-high windows are left bare.
“It’s a weird architect thing,” Greer reasons. “An architect only covers a window when there’s a real need for privacy.”
To the right of the foyer, she designed a study for her husband, Dan Baum, CEO of the public relations and communications agency Multiply. He is on a video call, but permits a peek. Creative work is surely emboldened by the floor-to-ceiling wall covering replicating Henri Rousseau’s 1909 painting, “The Equatorial Jungle.” (The much smaller original hangs in the National Gallery of Art.) Chocolate-brown cabinetry carries a high-gloss sheen, the better to show off a gilt-framed Joan Miró lithograph hanging behind a carved-wood desk.
Back to the foyer, then two steps down, tradition gives way to modernity as soft north light floods the very contemporary and open dining, kitchen and family zone through “a tremendous amount of glass.” Ceilings jump from 10 and a half feet in the parlor to 12 feet here. Extra-thick walls curve to meet the ceiling, a feat accomplished by a plasterer employing a French technique. “I like the way a really old house feels heavy and solid,” Greer says.
The kitchen glows with black marble and mosaic. Open shelves substitute for upper cabinets so Greer can “make room for art;” a grid of nine pendants lights the way to the adjacent dining room. For a family with four children ranging in age from six to 17, the spacious corner banquette is practical. “With little kids, I can fit 10 in there,” she quips.
In the dining room, a pair of contemporary chandeliers is suspended over a table set for 10. “I loved them immediately because of their scale,” Greer says. “I also liked that they are glamorous without being overly saccharine.”
The mood downshifts in the adjacent family room, where a child-sized Panton chair and dollhouse share space with gray-velvet sofas and a black-and-white patterned rug. Stairs lead to a lower-level gym with yellow light fixtures and words to live by stenciled on the wall: “Never give up.”
Throughout the house, natural-grass rugs are scattered over distressed-oak flooring cut in 10-and-a-half-inch-wide planks. Bare wood extends into the master bath on the second floor. “I think it feels warmer, more part of a living space,” the architect says.
Abstract paintings by Greer enliven many rooms. “Architects often enjoy painting because buildings take so long, and much of the work is out of your control,” she observes.
Being homebound in the light-filled residence has its charms. The 6,500-plus-square-foot abode was built on part of Greer’s former backyard; she and her family occupied the home next door until construction was complete. The subdivided lot proved big enough to accommodate the new home, plus a pool, cabana over the garage and a vegetable garden planted with “every herb you can name.”
Asked whether to expect a third house, the architect demurs. “We’re done.” Like Jefferson at Monticello, she’ll be tending her garden.
Architecture & Interior Design: Carmel Greer, AIA, LEED AP, District Design, Washington, DC. Builder: Quality Carpentry Group, Rockville, Maryland.
Windows: loewen.com through thesanderscompany.com. LIVING ROOM
Paint Color: Peach Blossom; benjaminmoore.com. Art Above Fireplace: Luca Bonfigli. Art Above Sofa: Carmel Greer. Green Chairs & Coffee Table: anthropologie.com. Cowhide Chairs: Corbusier LC1. Mesh Chairs: dotandbo.com. Chandelier: williams-sonoma.com. Stool: Eames. Sofa, Table Lamp: Owners’ collection.
Doors: Custom mahogany. Vintage Korean Chest & Antique Mirror: Owners’ collection. Paint Color: White Dove; benjaminmoore.com.
Chandelier: sunpan.com. Rug, Table & Chairs: Owners’ collection. Paint Color: White Dove; benjaminmoore.com.
Cabinetry: Custom through districtdesign.com. Cabinet Color: French Beret; benjaminmoore.com. Stone/Source: Honed Nero Marquina Marble Countertop & Backsplash: lasermarblegranite.com. Plumbing Fixtures: rohlhome.com. Black Hexagonal Nero Marquina Tile on Island: architecturalceramics.com. Hardware: rejuvenation.com. Range: aga-ranges.com. Refrigerator Brand/Source: true-residential.com. Bar Stools: Owners’ collection.
Light Fixture: scovillebrown.com. Sofas: tovfurniture.com. Coffee Tables: dwr.com. Art: Carmel Greer. Rug, VintageTable Lamp, Vintage Chrome Pedestal & Brass Pedestals: Owners’ collection.
Tub: kohler.com. Faucets: waterworks.com. Honed Nero Marquina Marble Tub Surround: lasermarblegranite.com. Rug & Chandelier: Owners’ collection. Art: Carmel Greer. Carrara Marble Shower Tile: architecturalceramics.com. Paint: White Dove, benjaminmoore.com.
Karl and Diane Kelley’s wish list for their dream house did not include a romantic ruin, though that became the inspiration for the glamorous Goose Creek residence they now enjoy.
The couple cast about for the right style in which to build on a prized plot along this protected Potomac River tributary near Leesburg. When they chanced upon a sparkling rendition of a farmhouse by architect Donald Lococo, Karl Kelley was smitten—but the architect knew better.
“You don’t want this house,” Lococo said. “You want your house.”
And so began a months-long adventure in which desire was distilled from childhood memories of waterways past. Karl Kelley, a Richmond native who runs a strategic research consultancy, and the Canadian-born architect both grew up floating under old railway bridges and by remnants of 19th-century industrial might. Their shared design language evolved from old “farm” to abandoned “mill.” The resulting homage to America’s manufacturing heritage has produced a polished Piranesi for the 21st century.
Form followed the imagined function, and today, the low-slung structure reveals itself as a cluster of buildings linked by walkways and bridges typical of old factory or mill architecture—a natural for Karl Kelley, who descends from a line of industrial suppliers. The two-story dwelling sits back on a rough-mown meadow. Twin stone chimney walls rise 27 feet from its heart, like survivors of some mythical, hard-working past. A standing-seam metal roof adds nostalgia. And yet, expanses of glass amid the board-and-batten façade allow glimpses of an urbane interior.
The 5,250-square-foot residence centers on a double-height “main building” containing a dining area, step-down living room, kitchen, media room and master suite. The architectural dynamic of black steel beams and rough-hewn hemlock timbers salvaged from a 19th-century barn creates drama and forges a backdrop for contemporary art and furnishings. Up a flight of steel stairs, a three-foot-wide, steel-and-glass bridge spans the central space, linking a second-floor office and bedrooms for family and friends. “Things are happening above, over and around you,” says Lococo of the energy he tried to create.
The home was constructed by The Block Builders Group under the direction of Tony Paulos. The interior design evolved in partnership with Sandra Meyer of Ella Scott Design and Diane Kelley, a retired NCIS agent and native of Southern California. Material elements, including white oak and asphalt-look, ceramic-tile floors and an antiqued-brass wall in the master bedroom, were contributed by Lococo.
Meyer unified the whole with inspired choices, including a partition wall clad in leather between dining and sitting areas, and silvered walls in the dressing room. A funky French daybed was acquired online and left in its original fabric. Cushy swivel chairs were spotted at the Washington Design Center. “The clients are very young at heart,” Meyer says. “They love to entertain. I was trying to bridge comfortable with a glam vibe.”
The kitchen grew organically out of the architecture. Lococo employed the exposed stone wall as a backsplash, with a window to an adjacent screened porch. He also designed the spacious island where the Kelleys and their frequent guests like to gather at counter stools covered in cowhide.
Expanses of glass on both levels offer views across a pool terrace to the creek and woodland on the opposite bank. “The views really do speak for themselves,” Meyer says, “so keeping clear lines of sight was necessary. That’s the way Donald designed it. That’s part of the brilliance of the architecture.”
Landscape architect Bob Hruby was brought in early to address the five-acre site, which balances flood plain and septic field. He approached the project with respect both for the existing semi-wild aesthetic and for Lococo’s desire to evoke a modern ruin. “We didn’t want to set this house in a manicured landscape,” Hruby says. “The approach we took was almost like minimal intervention. Plantings were organized in a very natural way, meant to look as if they had just grown there.”
An existing scrum of trees provided a backdrop for a natural meadow on the approach to the house. Hruby describes the planting concept as an “experiment in what happens when you leave parts of the property fallow.” Horsetail makes an artful evergreen statement beside the front door. Sweet box, viburnum, ornamental grasses and river birch and Sweetbay magnolia trees soften the architecture along a gravel drive.
Requirements of the flood plain determined both the construction and planting possibilities between the house and creek. The swimming pool extends right to the buildable edge of the property, supported by a seven-foot-high retaining wall. Hruby edged the pool terrace with rock-walled planters and filled them in a romantic nod to weeds likely to sprout from crevices in an actual ruin. The perennial show includes salvia, bluestar, coneflower, catmint, aster and Russian sage. Small ornamental trees combine with native hydrangea, viburnum and bearberry to define the pool-terrace edge.
“It’s all about understanding the architect’s goals and what the clients want,” Bob Hruby says. “The land can be shaped to marry those ideas.”
Architecture: Donald Lococo, AIA, NCARB, Donald Lococo Architects, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Sandra Meyer, Ella Scott Design, Bethesda, Maryland. Builder: Tony Paulos, The Block Builders Group, Bethesda, Maryland. Landscape Architecture: Bob Hruby, ASLA, Campion Hruby Landscape Architects, Annapolis, Maryland. Photo Styling: Stylish Productions.
Table: calligaris.com. Chairs: deccahome.com/bolier. Rug: loloirugs.com. Chandelier: daikonic.com. Drapery Fabric: pindler.com. Custom Sideboard: definitivecustomfurnitureanddesign.com. Sideboard Hide Covering: romo.com.
Set on the highest point of a Shenandoah estate, the expansive residence presides over its 100-plus acres like a comfortable castle. But construction had left a barren slope in the foreground between the house and its views. To enhance that space for entertaining, the owners called on landscape architect J.R. Peter of Colao & Peter. The family’s wish list began with an infinity-edge pool, which presented a significant challenge. “The hill is composed of solid granite,” recalls Peter. “The entire project had to be designed to be above grade.”
To construct a six-foot-deep pool despite the bedrock, Peter took advantage of the slope. A series of terraces supported by retaining walls extends the ground plane outward. The uppermost level provides a viewing platform on a gently sloping front lawn. Three steps down, a new terrace holds a pavilion with an open-air dining room, and a kitchen and lounge enclosed by pocket doors. Three more steps take visitors down to a 50-by-20-foot pool. Engineered with vanishing edges on two sides, the pool appears to be floating on air.
The designer chose rustic ledgestone for walls and tumbled travertine for terraces in keeping with the natural setting, while a linear pattern of thermal bluestone honors the clients’ contemporary instincts. Today, amid hydrangea and drift roses, two Japanese zelkova trees have been planted at lawn’s edge to frame the incomparable vistas.
Award: Grand, Craftsmanship. Landscape Architecture: J.R. Peter, RLA, Colao & Peter Luxury Outdoor Living, Fairfax. Virginia.