River of dreams: Designing for flow in a Belmont backyard

Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

Tucked behind a 1920s-era house on a small Belmont lot lies a modern wonder: a water garden oasis featuring ornamental plantings, a raised deck surrounded by a black slate patio, a hand-carved fire pit and a mountainous stone structure from which a waterfall cascades gently into a tiered, purling river.

The landscape plan was dreamed up by homeowner Peter Fenlon, a game designer and publisher of the internationally famed Settlers of Catan series, whose studio is ensconced in a sprawling two-story structure behind the garden. “I was born in Japan,” he says, “and that influences the storytelling here quite a bit.” Starting with the two Japanese maples flanking the front entrance, grown from “seedlings of seedlings” dating back to his birthplace, Fenlon’s penchant for meaningful design is evident.

Regionally sourced limestone, quartz and granite form a “mountain” from which a gently tiered, purling river flows. Photo: Stephen Barling

Acquiring the house in 2001 after it had been gutted by flippers, Fenlon and his wife, Olivia, gradually made it their own, eventually doubling its size. Over the last five years they’ve widened the structure’s footprint on three sides and added a third floor—a high-ceilinged, light-filled space thanks to 13 Tuscan-style windows. The most complex upgrade thus far has been the landscaping, and in 2016 the Fenlons partnered with landscape architect Zoe Edgecomb and Lithic Construction project manager Brian Bristow to lay out their plans.

“We wanted to do a natural garden that focused on native plantings and rock, and was very low-maintenance and sustainable,” says Fenlon. Consistent with that vision, all of the rock is regionally sourced, a mix of limestone, quartz and granite. “The deck is a combination of cedar and Cumaru—a sustainable, tropical teak that is very resilient and extremely dense,” he says. The fire pit comprises three pieces of granite from Red Hill quarry, fitted together like a puzzle and then hand-carved to form a center bowl.

Most challenging were the centerpieces of landscape: the river and mountain constructions. “It took a while to even dawn on me how large the scope of the project was,” says Bristow, an expert in both rock and water features. “It was a lot to integrate.” Installing the deck footings, wires, water pipes, lights, abutting concrete sections and rock structures in the proper order required a careful mix of timing and balance, even as the project continued to evolve.

For the mountain, Bristow used a truck crane to hoist huge rocks one at a time into a pile, spinning them into place and chipping off corners to round the look as it took shape. The black concrete river basin was technically difficult as well. “It had to be strong and waterproof, and both the bottom and sides had to be done in one pour,” says Bristow. “I’ve done a lot of water features, but this one was unique.”

Photo: Stephen Barling

Fenlon’s thoughtful inspirations, from a cocktail/breakfast nook next to the waterfall, to a large, sliding cedar “moon gate” in the tall but neighbor-friendly fence (which looks the same on both sides), have made their back yard a sanctuary within reach of the city, in a location the couple treasures.

“There are no stoplights between me and the Appalachian Trail, and from the third floor I can see all the way to the Blue Ridge,” says Fenlon, “yet I can walk to restaurants in Belmont. What could be better?”