When your property overlooks the Moorman’s River, miles of verdant fields and finally the Blue Ridge Mountains, it seems obvious that the view is a primary attraction. Yet when one couple bought a Western Albemarle house in 2000, its siting and design didn’t do as much as they could have to connect occupants to the vista. “It was really close to the edge,” says architect Bob Paxton, referring to the spot where the land drops off sharply toward the river.
The new owners knew they would replace the house, which was a small International-style structure with a flat roof. Having worked with Paxton’s firm Dalgliesh Gilpin Paxton twice before, they also knew that Paxton and partner Roger Birle would be their go-to design team. Landscape architect Rusty Lilly collaborated to create a seamless marriage between inside and out.
“Setting the house back gives you a foreground,” says Lilly, explaining how the siting of the new house, some distance back from where the old one stood, improves on the experience of looking west. Now, a flat expanse of lawn anchors the viewer in a human-scaled outdoor “room,” with the bigger spaces beckoning from beyond.
The house is traditionally styled with an exterior of painted brick and a shake shingle roof. It’s designed along a long horizontal axis to allow many of the rooms to take in the view. “[The clients] liked classical architecture,” says Paxton. “We kept the main block very symmetrical, and then as we moved away from that, we let it meander and get more playful.”
The relationship between house and land is meant to be informal. “They didn’t want a house that appeared grand and imposing,” says Paxton. He and Birle designed the structure so that the second floor is de-emphasized within the façade, and the team made sure that guests would feel a sense of welcome. The parking court sits close to the front door, and guests’ approach up the driveway is softened by the large trees that the design team worked to save. Allowing the house to conform to the existing grade of the site meant that more big trees could remain undisturbed.
Outdoor living spaces include a pool, screened porch and uncovered rear porch. Bluestone ties all these together along with paths through the lawns and the treads of the steps leading up to the screened porch. One advantage of bluestone, Paxton says, is that it can be sourced in large pieces, resulting in fewer joints and a quieter look.
“They really wanted a screened porch,” Paxton says. “We tried to put it to one side so from the main rooms, you’re not looking through the screen.” Similar logic placed the pool to the side as well, considering that in colder months pools are not especially attractive. So a “summer area” developed to one side—screened porch, with dining table, opening onto swimming pool. In season, the owner, an avid gardener, adds many containers of flowers to this area, which is defined by a black metal fence on which clematis and other vines grow.
That allows the lawn adjacent to the main, symmetrical volume of the house to be a separate and somewhat more formal space. “The lawn creates a visual green edge,” says Lilly, pointing out that as one exits the house through the main rear door, the spaces become progressively more open: from interior, to pergola-covered porch, to tree-framed lawn, to the sweeping view beyond.
The pergola is semicircular, its white supporting columns dividing the vista cleanly into segments. Because this porch faces west rather than south, Paxton says, it did not need a solid roof to protect it from the sun.
Two cutleaf Japanese maples flank the porch—they were moved to their present locations from elsewhere on the property, and Lilly can vouch for their age since she remembers them being planted when she herself, coincidentally, lived in a rental cottage on this property for several years in the late 1960s.
They stand within a symmetrical composition of plantings that Lilly designed to complement the balanced architecture of this portion of the house. Crepe myrtles, boxwoods and andromeda set a palette dominated by green and white. Boxwood and slender deutzia define the perimeter of the lawn, while fragrant sumac populates the slope below it. “The way Rusty picks and locates the plant palette, as it comes out of the natural woods and moves into lawn, it’s seamless,” says Paxton. The sumac is low to the ground in winter, its less appealing season, but visible to those strolling the lawn in summer, when it’s more attractive.
A pair of white-blooming spirea bushes signal the entrance to a path around the side of the house, where Kousa dogwoods, hydrangea and more andromeda and spirea await. Lilly prefers a limited group of plants, with species planted in masses for a cleaner, less spotty look. Yet this property is extensive enough to allow room for various islands of ornamentals: forsythia along the driveway, camellia in a protected spot near the house, hellebores and daffodils near the parking court.
The landscape here is primary, both outside and inside. “We’re always trying to bring the landscape indoors,” says Paxton. Inevitably, this landscape must also invite people out.