High on the hill: A house prizes flow, along with the views

Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

Robin and Mary Felder like to call their place Monte Piccolo, meaning “tiny mountain.” That’s in deference to Thomas Jefferson, whose home was, of course, the “little mountain.” And while it may not be Monticello, there’s nothing small about the view from this elevated site in Ivy; you can see all the way to Wintergreen, 36 miles as the crow flies. At dusk, the lights of the ski slopes are like a sparkling necklace draped over the distant, dark ridge.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

When the Felders bought their 24-acre property in 2002, they chose it not only for the view but for its potential as a place to raise pears for an on-site brandy distillery (which they hope to open, by appointment, this fall). Robin Felder, a pathology professor and a health system consultant by day, also has a keen interest in improving process and flow—in laboratories or, in this case, houses.

With all that in mind, the Felders hired Shank & Gray Architects to design their home. It needed to bring in the views, mesh with the sublime site, and serve a number of very specific functions. And the Felders had a clear vision of the house they wanted. “We’d been cutting pictures out of magazines to find the things we liked,” said Robin. “The architects were amazed at how monothematic our selections were.”

The common threads? “Modern, lots of glass, with flexible spaces,” said Robin. “We didn’t want to be a box on a hill.” The couple were drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright’s pagoda-style houses, where the second floor was much smaller than the first and deep roof overhangs deflect the elements.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

Dick Shank and Bob Gray agreed. “Robin’s study was the only element of the second story and we tried to bury it in the roof,” said Gray.

An essentially horizontal arrangement puts the public and private sections of the house at opposite ends of an elongated bar, with the entryway being a narrow joint in the center. With all the big windows—in entryway, common rooms and master bedroom—facing southwest toward the Blue Ridge views, the house offers a sense of grandeur without itself being grand (though, seen from below when the windows reflect the sunset, the place is spectacular: a flaming gem on the hill).

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

The main living space sits below the second-story office, and maple-clad posts and beams not only support the upper floor but define the room as a box-within-the-box. “We tried to keep the spaces sort of intimate,” said Gray. This living area achieves that feel, with its seating arranged around a fireplace made of rustic gold slate and a travertine hearth. Bamboo floors and blonde maple woodwork lend warmth.

On the other side of the double-sided fireplace, guests can cozy up in chairs lined up along the outer side of one kitchen counter. “We physically separated the cooks from the guests. It’s great—the party’s raging right there, and you can hand hors d’oeuvres over, then move right into the dining room,” explained Robin.

Intelligent motion

That kind of approach—where the flow of living informs the physical arrangement of rooms —is central to this home. “This house was built with a strong overlay of function,” said Robin. Someone arriving home with groceries, for example, drives up a steep lane through the pear orchards and around the back of the house, where most of the utility and service aspects of the house are located. They’ll pass the common wing along the way, but not the master suite—protecting privacy in this heavily fenestrated house.

Public and private areas of the home are arranged at opposite ends of what is essentially an elongated bar, but the spaces have remained intimate, like in the kitchen, where guests can find a seat along the outer side of the wall. Photo: Stephen Barling
Public and private areas of the home are arranged at opposite ends of what is essentially an elongated bar, but the spaces have remained intimate, like in the kitchen, where guests can find a seat along the outer side of the wall. Photo: Stephen Barling

Then they’ll park in the garage and enter directly into the pantry, where there is a full-size refrigerator and freezer, plus ample storage cabinets. From there, it’s on to the kitchen, which has its own “staging fridge,” two dishwashers to avoid back-ups, and a trash masher to minimize trips to the dump.

Without groceries, one could choose to enter the house through a mudroom, with dedicated spaces for sorting mail and storing shoes. And along the north wall of the living area, a huge bank of 75 drawers provides a spot to store almost everything—and provides extra insulation.

Meanwhile, guests have their own dedicated routes: through the main entryway with its stunning view, then on into the living room where a bar area with its own dishwasher is tucked under the stairway for immediate access to drinks. “The party drinks start here and end here, so they don’t get mixed up with the kitchen,” said Robin. On the basement level, guests can flow between their bedrooms, an indoor sauna, changing room and outdoor pool without tracking water across wooden floors.

Maple-clad walls warm up the space, while big windows throughout the house open rooms toward the Blue Ridge views. Photo: Stephen Barling
Maple-clad walls warm up the space, while big windows throughout the house open rooms toward the Blue Ridge views. Photo: Stephen Barling

“If you put process in, unwittingly, you waste a lot less time,” said Robin.” You keep what you need where you’re going to use it.”

Gray said he appreciated working with clients who had such strong ideas. “It was very collaborative,” said Gray. And, of course, there’s the view. “It’s a stunning site, so it was a fairly rare opportunity.”

The breakdown

3,670 square feet

Structural system: Wood and structural steel frame

Exterior material: Combination of stone veneer and hard coat cement stucco

Interior finishes: Hard and soft wood paneling, painted gypsum board

Roof materials: Standing seam copper

Window system: Aluminum clad wood

Mechanical systems: Geo-thermal heat pumps

General contractor: Greer & Associates, Inc.

Prairie to foothills

The Felders named Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style houses as one of their guiding lights in envisioning Monte Piccolo. So what were the key elements of that iconic movement in American architecture?

Stemming as it did from Midwestern roots, the Prairie School—of which Wright was the best-known practitioner—emphasized long, low horizontal lines that were meant to relate to the plains landscape around Chicago. In its time, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the style was quite modern, and distinctly American.

The Felders’ house has the deep overhangs and emphasis on craftsmanship that were typical of the Prairie School. And, though the Felders’ site is anything but flat, the horizontal nature of their house, said architect Bob Gray, is appropriate. “We wanted to take a more horizontal approach to the house so that it didn’t overstate its presence,” he said.—E.H.

To read more from the February issue of Abode, click here.