Founded in 1749, Alexandria, Va., has a rich history that has been preserved in its Old Town neighborhood, the country’s third-oldest historic district. America’s Colonial past comes alive in the area’s cobblestone streets, red-brick sidewalks, and 250-year-old taverns that were frequented by founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Today, the hip, walkable neighborhood hosts some of the city’s best restaurants, arts events, shopping, and historic attractions.
For a new house just south of Old Town, architect Joanna Schmickel, a principal at Washington, D.C.’s Cox Graae + Spack Architects, created a space that pays homage to the area’s roots. The result is a modern-day interpretation of a simple farm residence that marries rustic simplicity and contemporary comforts.
Located on a sloping site along the Potomac River, the Alexandria Residence evokes the traditional farmhouses once found in the area. Touches such as mahogany lap siding that replicates clapboard, a standing-seam metal roof, and four fireplaces provide a nostalgic feel.
The owners wanted a lot of room for entertaining, but didn’t want the house’s size to feel overwhelming, so Schmickel divided the building into two stone volumes—one large and one small—to help keep the massing under control.
Whether for large gatherings or intimate dinners, the house is open wide to outdoor interaction. Large expanses of mahogany-framed glass windows and doors open the house to the natural beauty of the site and provide sweeping views of the lush garden and majestic river. Interior spaces connect to stone terraces, a roof deck, and balconies, each with its own perspective on the tranquil site and a view of the farm on the far bank.
Roof decks atop the one-story portions of the house create quiet outdoor retreats from the second-floor master bedroom. A guest suite on the lower level also opens to a separate patio; the study has its own terrace facing the river.
The juxtaposition of old and new is most obvious in the kitchen, which is anchored by a massive robin’s-egg-blue La Cornue range that contrasts with sleek mesquite wood cabinets and white Walker Zanger glass counters.
For larger social events, the couple uses the catering kitchen in the basement. But when they decide to cook, two mahogany-framed frosted glass doors can close partially or all the way to hide any unsightly views. “It’s a visual shield from the kitchen when they need it,” Schmickel says.
The Alexandria Residence was a departure for Cox Graae + Spack, which typically works on institutional projects such as schools, churches, community centers, and museums. Nevertheless, Schmickel found that designing this home for a client the firm had worked with in the past was not much different from her other jobs because they all center on one crucial step: getting to know the customer. “We don’t do a lot of work for developers,” she says. “We want to work with the people who are going to be using the buildings.”
To that end, Schmickel spends time with each client to understand the way the building will work. For example, she has logged countless hours in school cafeterias and classrooms to determine the needs of students and teachers. Many of her clients are independent charter schools, each with a distinct character.
“You have to get to know who these people are who are going to be using the building, whether it’s a home or something else,” Schmickel says. “Just like a family, you need to find out if they’re formal, casual, a big group, or a small group and what their personality, traditions, and customs are.”—jennifer goodman