French Dressing

  • Nancy A. Ruhling

When viewed from the pebble drive that leads past stately linden trees to its entryway, the French country–style residence appears as though it has been nestled in this sheltered spot in Washington, D.C.’s Spring Valley neighborhood for a century or more. Its limestone and stucco facade provides a polished old-world accent that distinguishes the house from others in the community, which is populated by foreign ambassadors and members of Congress. The home seems to beckon all visitors—even the deer and the occasional fox that can be seen at the back of the property drinking from the creek. The house’s interior is no less inviting.

The owners—a businessman and his wife, who is active in a number of charitable causes—share the three-story residence with their two daughters and son. The family entertains frequently, hosting events ranging from small birthday parties to formal fund-raisers for hundreds of guests. “We wanted a home that is warm and inviting, not imposing or stuffy,” says the wife. “It needed to feel young.”

The couple, who also have a summer residence—a traditional Cape Cod house—on Maryland’s Kent Island, enlisted designer Marybeth Waterman of Studio Waterman in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and local architect Jerry Harpole to create a residence that had the flavor but not the formality of a European manor. “They wanted a house that looked like it was assembled through the years, like it grew up with their family,” Waterman says. Indeed, the house did come together over time; it required seven years to construct and decorate. A team of masons traveled from France to craft the limestone exterior, and Waterman and the owners made countless shopping trips throughout Europe and the United States to select the furniture and accessories.

“We wanted a house that wouldn’t look new, even though it was,” says the wife, whose initial ideas for her home were informed by a French countryside home that she had read about. To achieve this lived-in effect in the library, the walls were tiled and then covered with hand-tooled leather. In the dining room, five layers of plaster and 12 layers of color were applied to the walls so that portions of them appear as though they have been faded by the sun over time. “The best part of the house is the dining room,” says the wife. “It expands into the conservatory and takes the party with it. It has wonderful light, so it also makes a great space to read the Sunday paper.”

 

The main public areas—dining room, living room, conservatory, husband’s library, wife’s office, kitchen/breakfast room—are housed on the second floor, above the utilitarian rooms (laundry room, gym, and subterranean garage). The third floor is the private section, with bedrooms and a guest suite, along with common spaces for the children and adults.

The couple wanted the children’s bedrooms to be close together, and they wanted the children to have enough space to entertain their friends. The architect therefore placed the three bedrooms in a separate section upstairs with the family room, which has a computer, a selection of books, and a TV. “We do have a lot of kids over,” the wife says. “Our kids love the house; they are always having sleepovers with their friends. And sleepovers. The living room really is a room that can be lived in; the kids used to take their piano lessons there.”

Throughout the house, the rooms are furnished with antiques, family heirlooms, and works from the couple’s extensive art collection, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, contemporary glassworks, and sculpture. “For me, it’s a home, not an art gallery,” the wife says. “We buy things we think are beautiful and that make us feel good. That makes a house a home and not a museum.”

The centerpiece of the husband’s library is a bold, contemporary floor-to-ceiling oil portrait by Aaron Fink that stands out against the hand-tooled leather walls. Antique French book stands, a vintage library table, and a French pendant lamp combine with modern built-in bookshelves, collections of rare books, and pre-Columbian art to complete the sophisticated space.

Like the dining room, the kitchen and office are among the wife’s favorite rooms. “Each piece of cabinetry was designed to be different from the others,” she says of the kitchen. “Even the woods and countertops are different. The cabinetry comes across as furniture, not built-ins, which is the effect I wanted.” She describes how every morning she works out in the gym and then enjoys a cup of coffee in the kitchen. “Then I head up to my office. It is on the opposite end of the main floor, so I can see the driveway and the front of the house. It has light on three sides, and it’s private—the perfect place for me to start my day.”

Although the owners have settled into their home, it continues to amaze and delight them. “You meander through the house and find things,” the wife says. “It was designed so that you don’t see a whole room at once; you see only a vignette. Each room is distinct and has an element of surprise. Each time I walk into a room, I want to discover it for the first time.

 

Harpole Architects, 202.338.3838;
Studio Waterman, 760.773.2700, www.studiowaterman.com

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