Case Study: Franzen Project by Rill Architects
When a good house in a good location has been around for a long stretch, chances are it will have faced a number of interventions to keep up with modern tastes and lifestyles. Such was the case with this example built in 1962 on Gibson Island, a thousand-acre promontory between the Chesapeake Bay and the Magothy River, linked by causeway to mainland Maryland. Originally conceived as an upscale sailing community, the island was developed in consultation with Frederick Law Olmstead, and much of its acreage was set aside as green space. Its inhabitants are a mix of full-timers and weekenders, and the houses reflect those differing needs and ambitions.
This house was designed by Ulrich Franzen, a German-born architect who studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius and went on to a notable career as a modernist. His own house in Rye, N.Y., was in the first issue of Architectural Record’s Record Houses and, coincidentally, strongly resembles the Double Diamond House by Abraham Geller we’re also featuring in this issue of RD.
The original client was a salesperson for Bethlehem Steel, according to an article in The Washington Post, and the house is purported to have been the first built from the company’s weathering steel. Certainly, its prominence in the design is striking, along with the stone and glass that accompany it.
Although the site is one of the highest points on the island, water views are limited. Instead, the main draw is the woods and the cloak of privacy they provide—it’s the perfect refuge from city life.
Over the intervening years, the house had several remodels. The most recent renovation (before it sold to the current owners) added an elevator to the center of the house and a resistance pool in the lower level, but left many of the finish materials in their original condition. Everything was a little rough around the edges and, worst of all in hot, steamy coastal Maryland, the house had no central air conditioning.
The design-savvy clients called in architect Jim Rill, AIA, of Rill Architects and Horizon HouseWorks to help whip the place into shape and adapt it to their specific tastes and needs. “The previous architect didn’t know these customers,” Jim says graciously. The owners handled the interior furnishings themselves and were very hands-on with finish selections and other details. His role, as he perceived it, was to “re-inspire the house and re-inspire the landscape.”
“The woods had started to take over. And some of the changes to the house impeded the light and views to the outdoors. The elevator had closed the flow,” he recalls. Still, the house had maintained a good deal of its original integrity. “A lot of houses of this period are run down and beat up, but this one was unique. It was a real piece of art to start with, but one that had been caked over.”
The team did not set out to do a word-for-word translation of old into new, but one that recovered the poetry of the original while injecting a refinement and polish missing from the earlier, more earthy aesthetic. “We’re not forensic people,” says Jim. “But we understood what the architect and original owners set out to do.”
Out and In
First order of business was to excise the light-blocking elevator and fill in the lower level swimming pool. “I’m sure we dumped a bunch of construction debris in there,” Jim quips. A new, outdoor swimming pool was installed at the back of the house and a sliding window wall inserted to link it to the rec room. New large-format porcelain tiles replaced the rough-hewn, ashlar tiles on both levels.
Walls were removed and door openings enlarged with barn-door systems to expand light and views within the house and outdoors. A new central air conditioning system was inserted as seamlessly as possible. “It was about redoing all the electrical and mechanical systems while not killing the design,” Jim explains. “And it took real craftspeople to execute. There was almost no place to hide things with the partial walls and flat roof, but air conditioning was essential. It is hot as heck out there.”
Placed atop those stone partial walls, the glass transoms (some of which were relocated) usher light throughout the house and are what make the solid roof and ceiling appear to float. The airy effect is in direct contrast with the heft of the stone on the interiors and exteriors. New, smooth porcelain floors recede appropriately into the background now, allowing the glass and stone to take center stage. The old tile floors had competed for attention with their scrappy texture and busy patterning.
In a nod to the stone walls, the master shower has a pebble floor, but the rest of the master bath is sleek and clean. “We updated the kitchen and did all new bathrooms in a modern tone,” says Jim. “All changes were in service to what today’s lifestyle is all about—cooking, living, and eating.”
Original mahogany ceilings were left largely intact (except for the occasional air return or other unavoidable utility). They are the lovely, glowing payoff for gazing through those glass transoms.
Open and ShutAt just under 3,800 square feet, the house devotes the lion’s share of space to entertaining areas, both on the upper and lower levels. Those new barn doors allow some spaces to either close down for intimate gatherings or open up for larger-scale entertaining.
A commanding central fireplace is original to the house, made of the same stone as the walls, and terminating in steamship-like “smokestacks.” As with the transom windows, the chimneys allow light to flow above the fireplace wall, preserving the floating ceiling effect. The fireplace wall divides formal living from a sitting room and dining area. On the lower level, a new contemporary fireplace wall is faced with porcelain tile and supports a flat screen. Adjacent to the fireplace are the new glass doors to the pool, a pleasant distraction from the television.
Outside, the pool and pool deck are all new. Large raised planters help transition from the stone walls of the house to the pool terrace and then the woods beyond. An existing patio off the combination office/bedroom now links to the pool level. On the hilly site, these are the primary outdoor living areas. The upper level functions more like a tree house, with walls of glass facing the woods and a small balcony accessed from the master bedroom.
Ultimately, these sharpened connections were the primary goal of Rill Architects’ remodel. “The changes allowed the house to expand the vistas, to outreach into the landscape with exterior rooms and exterior courtyards—even if it was just an area of lawn or a couple of benches on the front terrace,” he says. “The house is about living outside even when you’re inside. It’s a really wonderful place to be, whether it’s a nice day or not. Those rainy, misty days in the woods are just as beautiful.”
Plan and Drawings
Gibson Island, Md.
ARCHITECTS: James Rill, AIA, Rill Architects, Bethesda, Md.
BUILDER: Horizon HouseWorks, Crofton, Md.
KITCHEN DESIGNER: Shawna Dillon, Studio Snaidero, Alexandria, Va.
PROJECT SIZE: 3,750 square feet
SITE SIZE: 2 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Eric Taylor Photography
WINDOWS AND SLIDING DOORS: Western Window Systems
GLAZING SYSTEMS: Solar Innovations
KITCHEN APPLIANCES: Miele
KITCHEN VENTILATION: Best
TILE: Mosaic Tile
KITCHEN CABINETRY: Snaidero
DOOR HARDWARE: Artisan Hardware
PAINTS: Benjamin Moore, Farrow and Ball