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Barnes Vanze Architects restores a 1931 estate overlooking the Potomac River.
Project: Marwood, Potomac, MD
Architect: Barnes Vanze Architects, Inc., Washington, DC; Anthony S. Barnes, AIA, LEED AP, partner in charge; William Wheeler, AIA, project architect
Interior Designer: Drysdale, Inc., Washington, DC; Mary Douglas Drysdale, principal in charge
Landscape Architect: DCA Landscape Architects, Washington, DC
Modeled after the central core of Chateau de Malmaison, Napoleon's Empress Josephine's 18th-century abode just outside Paris, Marwood sits high on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River in Maryland. The Beaux-Arts estate was designed in 1931 for young newlyweds, who traveled extensively throughout Europe seeking artifacts and antiques to furnish their home while it was under construction. Unfortunately, the marriage dissolved shortly after the couple arrived home (the young husband is said to have perished from a broken heart just months after the breakup). The widow remarried and soon moved out and the house became a rental property.
Washington, DC, elite, such as the late ambassador Joseph Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rented the estate. It was then owned for a long period by Grady Gore and was often visited by his family, the late senator Albert Arnold Gore Sr., and his son, former Vice President Al Gore. Nevertheless the formal gardens were never realized and the house fell into disrepair. In the 1980s, all but 13½ acres of the 200-acre parcel was sold off and subdivided. The house changed hands and was lightly renovated at this time, but not finished. For years, the estate had sat all but vacant, an empty shell looming over the Potomac, neglected and unloved.
In 2007, a couple with a great appreciation for the historical building purchased the almost derelict property and hired Barnes Vanze Architects of Washington, DC, to restore it and update the interior for modern lifestyles. The clients looked past the neglect and saw the potential in the structure. "This was really the golden era of housing stock – from the 1920s to the early '30s is when some of the best houses were built," says lead architect Ankie Barnes, commenting on the construction, detailing and craftsmanship of Marwood. Barnes grew up in South Africa, where his passion for Classical architecture was inspired by two buildings – the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Rand Regiments Memorial – designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens. He went on to study at Yale University and joined Hartman-Cox Architects in Washington, DC, in 1983, where he met Stephen Vanze. The two started their own firm in 1989, focusing on traditional architecture – predominately residential.
Although Marwood was an intriguing project, Barnes faced several hurdles before the design could be completed, including zoning and easement issues. The house was listed on both the Maryland Register and the National Register of Historic Places, so any changes or additions made to the house or property would be heavily scrutinized. The previous owner had also placed an easement on the land on the river side of the house, so any changes to the landscape could not affect the protected area. "Because the grounds were never finished, it appeared as if the house was dropped on the site from the sky," says Barnes, noting that the exterior was spalling in places, much of the original interior detailing had been stripped away over the years and the floor plan was also problematic. "The way the house was set up [such as the original kitchen in the basement], it could not function without a large staff."
The goals were to restore the building's façade and interior, create a sense of arrival, introduce formal gardens and reorganize the floor plan for a modern family – the three full floors consist of 4,900 sq.ft. each. After a year of planning and design, the resurrection of Marwood began. Even in its decayed state, the house was majestic. "It has good detailing, a steel core and the craftsmanship of those elements that remain is impeccable," says Barnes. Many architects at the time Marwood was built went to Europe to study at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, learning the Neoclassical language predominant in that architecture, and applied their newfound knowledge to designs stateside. Several examples of Beaux-Arts architecture, a late form of Neoclassicism, can be found throughout Washington, DC, such as the National Gallery and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, which is punctuated with an eclectic mix of Roman, Greek and Art Deco detailing, Barnes explains.
To create the sense of arrival the estate was lacking, Barnes wanted to design a new gate and gatehouse, which would offer a partial view of the mansion. While the traditional zoning laws did not allow for such a structure to be built in the front yard, Barnes was able to persuade the Board of Zoning Adjustment that this move would be an appropriate choice. "We then added a gravel motor court in front, which follows suit with authentic French mansion designs," says Barnes. The court conceals an attached underground 10-car garage. Barnes incorporated a new glass entry canopy, which offers shelter and focuses entry at the front door. The clay barrel-tile roof was replaced to match the original. On the river side, a terrace was added and flanked by two large glass-roofed garden pavilions. These rusticated structures offer a frame for the river views. "One pavilion is an outdoor kitchen with a built-in grill, and the other is an outdoor dining room with a fireplace," says Barnes. "We also redesigned the pool and pool house, which is now more in character with the main house."
Following the Secretary of the Interior's guidelines for historic preservation, Barnes had moldings created to replicate pieces of the original cast stone that had been lost over the years. Though sympathetic to the original detailing, they were not an exact match. And where piers were added to the motor court, masons introduced brick rather than stone, painting the brick the color of the house so one could barely tell the difference between the materials. "The guidelines were set up to protect the historic fabric of the building," says Barnes, explaining that clues need to be left for future generations to help determine what is original and what is not, and that the subtle difference in design or material will distinguish different time periods.
"The interiors were in miserable shape – white shag carpeting and drywall-covered sterile rooms," says Barnes. "We left the original dining and living rooms intact but essentially gutted the rest of the house." With little to no original detailing left and no interior plans to go by, Barnes relied on forensics to create appropriate detailing within the home. Working with Washington, DC-based interior designer Mary Douglas Drysdale, whose own background is steeped in the elements of Classical architecture, Barnes replicated existing paneling found in the living room for the dining room to create balance in these large spaces and anchor each end of the house. Other interior details include two sets of Doric columns in the entry hall – enhancing the symmetry of the house – and both plaster and wood moldings and casings in the Classical language. Barnes raised the original wrought-iron railing by enclosing the stair treads with a curved raised stringer. The original oak stair was resurfaced in marble, creating a sweeping elegant staircase to reinforce the original French detailing of the house. Barnes opened up the first-floor hall by re-detailing the original vestibule. He added a state-of-the-art kitchen on the first floor and a master suite on the second floor. Brought back from near ruin, this Beaux-Arts beauty is a successful example of thoughtful design, ingenuity and craftsmanship in reinterpreting the past for today.
Nancy E. Berry has written extensively about architecture and interior design for a variety of publications. She is also author of Architectural Trim: Adding Wainscoting, Mantels, Built-ins, Baseboards, Cornices, Castings and Columns to Your Home (Rockport Publishers, 2007).
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