Above the bend: California meets Virginia at a riverside getaway

Photo: Bill Mauzy Photo: Bill Mauzy

Barbara Stettner grew up in the wine country of northern California, but she’d been in Virginia for 15 years before she found her weekend place in Sperryville. “It’s sort of like the coastal mountains [in California],” she says, looking toward the layered Blue Ridge views. In 2011, when she and her husband, Michael Ewen, bought this 38-acre retreat from their weekday lives in the Washington, D.C., area, she immediately began to envision a pool and guesthouse. And she knew she’d want them to reflect both her West Coast roots and the rural Virginia traditions that surround her at River’s Bend.

A poolhouse designed by Adams Sutphin sits on a hill overlooking the river. Photo: Bill Mauzy

Named after a curve in the Thornton River that flows past one edge of the farm, River’s Bend came with a large building, about a dozen years old, that combines horse barn and living quarters under one roof. Stettner keeps three horses here and exercises them on trails as well as in the ring she installed. The pool and guesthouse occupy a spot of high ground which, says landscape architect Todd Shallenberger of Waterstreet Studio, is more dramatic than it seems from the main house.

“It appears like a knoll, but when you get over here you can hear the river, and when you stand on the edge, you experience it as a bluff,” he says. “It’s a powerful landscape.”

Photo: Bill Mauzy

Waterstreet’s first project for the couple was to restore a third of a mile of riverfront. Along with the creation of an equestrian trail, this project helped stabilize the slope and, through the removal of invasives and the installation of native trees and plants, increased biodiversity in the riparian zone. Redbud, dogwood, hemlock, viburnum and wildflowers like bluebell and wild geranium now line the river.

Meanwhile, architect Adams Sutphin was working on initial plans for the guesthouse. Stettner was keen that it have the indoor/outdoor feel that’s so common in California structures. “I wanted it to be open and connected and to fit with the landscape,” she says. Two sides of the house—one facing the western view, one facing the pool—open completely via folding doors, earning the building the moniker Shallenberger uses for it: pavilion.

Shallenberger designed a Western red cedar pergola that centers on the pool’s long axis. “It acts as a transition and frames the mountain views,” he explains.

Materials were an important aspect of the discussions between Shallenberger and Stettner. She didn’t want to be a “hilltopper”—a local pejorative for city folk who build grand getaways on high ground—and that demanded the design not be too suburban in style. “I didn’t want this to look like it belongs in McLean,” she says. Using local vernacular materials would help ground the project in Rappahannock County tradition.

One lucky break was gaining access to a fallen stone wall on an adjoining property. There was enough stone to face most of the guesthouse and to construct new walls around the pool and pergola. Standing-seam metal roofing recalls barn roofs, as does white oak board-and-batten siding, and reclaimed beams hold up the cathedral ceiling inside.

While bluestone is a common (and local) choice for patios, Stettner preferred something in a tan hue, more reminiscent of California and the Mediterranean, underfoot. “Limestone was too absorptive, but we found this travertine skimmed with grout,” says Shallenberger. Inside the guesthouse, French pillowed limestone floor tiles continue the warm color palette.

Shallenberger specified low stone walls around the pool deck, the right height for seating. Some of them form planters in which pennisetum grasses catch the breezes. Dogwood and serviceberry trees grow at the far end of the pool, and two sugar maples flank the path from the parking area. Stettner also planted a few fruit trees so her grandkids could re-enact another California memory—picking fresh fruit just after swimming.

Large boulders found on-site sit at the pool deck corners, “to help loosen it up,” says Shallenberger.

In the future, the team plans to add a gentle walkway from the pergola down to a deck on the very edge of the bluff. It will feel like being suspended in the treetops, and it’ll give an exciting view of the river below. Stettner also hopes to partner with a local winery to grow about 10 acres of grapes on the slopes between the guesthouse and main house.

Shallenberger says this was one of those sites that signaled the architecture to just stay out of the way. “Everything is minimal, because the view is so incredible,” he says. “You can always hear the river. That’s the hidden element in this whole composition.”

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