Time travel

A country landscape spans the centuries

Photo: Bill Mauzy

The weekend home of a Washington, D.C., couple sits not quite in the middle of their 76-acre property north of Charlottesville. They didn’t choose the most lofty site for their cottage, but instead gravitated toward a spot that snuggles into a treeline and offers a broad, rolling view of fields and woods.

“This was our favorite campsite,” says one of the homeowners, remembering the years that she and her husband would bring their two children here for rustic getaways from their primary home. When they decided to build a cottage in 2002, architect Jay Monroe’s task was to maximize the sense of escape.

“It’s a refuge from the city,” says Monroe. His role as both architect and landscape architect allowed him to enhance the home site his clients had chosen. Off one end of the cottage, for example, a flat yard subtly draws people out onto a shady promontory under an umbrella of four honey locust trees, planted in a simple square. A semicircular stone wall gives the yard a clear boundary and echoes the house’s stone chimney.

Photo: Bill Mauzy

“This is the most valuable space in this complex, because it’s a real outdoor room,” says Monroe. He chose honey locust trees for their filtered shade and for the fact that they create little debris on the ground.

Another important move was to place the parking where it would not be seen from the house. A terraced bank planted with daylilies, oakleaf hydrangea and black locust trees hides the cars from anyone standing in the front yard. Serviceberry, Siberian iris and native pachysandra are among the plants that enliven the area immediately around the structure.

Photo: Bill Mauzy
Photo: Bill Mauzy

“It’s the transition, the edge, where all the action happens in nature,” says Monroe. The house site, too, sits at an edge between woods and fields, and plantings help to delineate the different zones—for example, a sugar maple tree that marks the edge of the yard where it begins to “bleed out into the field,” as Monroe says.

Photo: Bill Mauzy

Just visible from the cottage is the property’s newest structure: an infinity pool and poolhouse built in 2008. Here, an interest in formal architecture offers a foil to the vernacular style of the cottage; the poolhouse boasts a classical façade, and from it extends a Tennessee flagstone walkway, covered by a pergola (which is made, in a nod to modernity, from powdercoated steel). At the end of this axis is a covered outdoor dining area with views of two neighboring counties, framed by white columns.

What makes this a pleasant place to eat dinner is the fact that existing trees to the west—basswood, honey locust, persimmon—were left undisturbed. “They serve a wonderful shading purpose,” says Monroe. Fothergilla, dogwood, hydrangeas and ferns fill in the space along the flagstone.

While the buildings represent the clients’ and architect’s most visible interventions into this bucolic landscape, there are many other, less formal, instances of design around the acreage. One of the homeowners is fond of crisscrossing his property on foot, dogs in tow, so one of Monroe’s earliest tasks in their 17-year relationship was to design a network of walking paths.

One of these leads to a faux stream, more than a quarter-mile long, which runs alongside a low, wet wooded area downhill from the cottage. A series of pools is linked by a rock-lined streambed and terminates in a small pond. “It was an opportunity to create a landscape feature,” says Monroe—and to introduce lots of native plants, from Virginiana magnolia to bald cypress. “It’s a really rich habitat” for frogs and other wildlife, he adds.

Heading uphill again, one encounters an intermittent stream that has been transformed by a collection of native plants and something quite unusual—an architectural ruin that was dreamed up by the couple and designed by Monroe. “It’s a reference to childhood fantasy stories,” says Monroe—in this case, a historical settlement that could plausibly have been established, then abandoned, leaving these fragmented stone foundations among the trees.

Photo: Bill Mauzy

The “millrace” to the mill that never existed does have a real function: to channel surface water into the drainage, flanked by plantings of false Solomon’s seal, bluebells and trillium.

Nearby, a thicket of native dogwoods, witch hazel, ironwood and hornbeam provides an inviting place for birds. The whole area is shaded by what Monroe calls “tortured” maple trees—multi-trunked, knobby beasts replete with character—and a pin oak. “You can’t contrive these,” he says.

The couple’s appreciation of native plants sometimes means deliberate planting, as in the wildflower garden that lines a fence on the edge of the hayfield, and sometimes means just letting things be, like the native spicebush that fills in the understory below the maples.

Simple mown paths through the hayfield complete the circuit between cottage, poolhouse and streambed, a journey that spans many environments and landscape concepts. Maybe most importantly, it brings human occupants into contact with the land. As the homeowner says simply, “It gives you a place to walk.”