For weeks after Richard Arentz bought 85 wooded acres in Fauquier County in 2002, he would visit on weekends and climb trees with a pruning saw to nibble away a branch here, a branch there. The landscape architect was testing views to determine how he might site the retreat he planned to build.
He finally chose a knoll that rises 100 feet above a bend in the Rappahannock River, and carved a flat, two-acre clearing out of the property he would name Running Cedar, for a native ground cover abundant there. Now crowning that ridge are a guesthouse and main house built along a north-to-south axis and joined by a courtyard. At certain times of the day, the light sets the buff-colored stucco structures aglow against the abundant and varied green.
The landscaping nearest the house consists of rectangular planes of lawn to the east and west, edged with clipped boxwood hedges and stone walls. An exuberant perennial double border, full of whites and blues and splashes of gold, traces the length of the western lawn’s edge and gives way to the woodland beyond.
“I love those really crisp lines and tightly pruned hedges,” says Arentz. “In the summertime, when those perennial borders are up and overflowing, it is just such a great juxtaposition—to be up in the house and see a little bit of that border peeking up over top there.”
Juxtapositions are important to Arentz, whether they create contrast or connection. A year ago, Arentz stood looking into the surrounding woods from the edge of the site. At his back was the bright cerulean urn that marks the end of the allée—a path of pale gravel flanked by Winter King hawthorns that connects the house to the border. “I had decided I wanted to reach out into this landscape, extend out the allée,” says Arentz. He remembers looking down to the woodland swale where the land swoops up again. A good-sized American beech tree “was really encroaching on my axial view out” he says. His company had recently craned into place a 40-foot-tall American beech at a client’s house. He hesitated, and then said, "Just chop it down!" before walking away.
He laughs, his eyes still a tiny bit wild even a year later. “It has gone full circle from my wanting to be so quiet about how I was intruding on this land to opening up the view out to the river corridor,” he says. “If you live inside the hole of the donut, you don’t really get to experience what happens outside the donut. I think it’s really important to break out so you understand your regional connection. So I’ve done that in several spaces. And that is a big shift from where I started off, chopping one little branch off a tree.”
For the architecture and interiors of the house, Arentz enlisted two colleagues (and good friends): Richard Williams, of Richard Williams Architects, and interior designer José Solís, of Solís Betancourt. The three had worked together before in various pairings, but never as a trio. “Every designer thinks they can go and design it themselves, and maybe they can,” says Arentz, “but I wanted to be challenged, for them to keep me on my toes as much as possible.”
The seamlessness of their collaboration is apparent in the overall impression of the place—unity without uniformity. One side effect is the fact that Arentz can’t talk about Running Cedar in a straight line. He can’t talk about the house’s interior without talking about the garden, in part because the view to the garden is a central element of the interior. He can’t talk about the garden for long without talking about the architecture because the house itself functions, he says, as “a really grand garden wall.” And he can’t talk about the architecture without talking about the landscape, because the lines of the house are oriented to take full advantage of views and light. The materials used—particularly the abundance of stone, whether formalized cut stone or fieldstone—could have been extracted from the surrounding hills. And the building's design is a contemporary nod to the vernacular architecture of Virginia—a variation on that “regional connection.”
“The layering about this place was that I wanted a house that was very much rooted in the vernacular, so that if you look at these forms and you look at the materials, it very much feels about Virginia,” Arentz says. “But I did not want interiors that were slavishly recreating something. I wanted something that was contemporized and fresh and timeless.”
“Layering” is a useful analogy for explaining the rationale of Running Cedar’s design, and Arentz uses the word often as he talks through the variety of elements present throughout the whole environment. Color, for example. Early on, Arentz and Solís—whom Arentz lauds for “a really great command of color and textures”—established an overall palette to work from: red, sage, celadon, gold, rust, teal, mushroom and cream, in varied hues of each. The front door introduces what Arentz calls “Frank Lloyd Wright” red, which is echoed in the living room rug, in a painting that fills the dining room wall, and again in the upstairs den whose walls are the same warm red but deepened with a textured finish. Where other colors take precedence, there are still notes of that red—in the rug in the sitting area off the kitchen, in a painting in the mudroom and in the outdoor furniture's cushions. “You move from room to room and there’s a calmness—a really great tranquility about the interiors of this house,” says Arentz.
Light is another layer, an important one. “The house is sited to maximize the light into the living room,” he says. “It’s really about the light here.” And everywhere else, too. Arentz wanted morning light at the breakfast nook where he often works, so it faces east, and he wanted to capture evening light in the dining room, so it faces west. A reading space on the upstairs landing has two comfortable chairs facing each other before an easterly window. A screened porch, adjacent to a swimming pool, is attached to the guesthouse so that it doesn’t darken any rooms.
The attention to light is less for light’s own sake than to support function—perhaps the most important layer of all in the spaces that Arentz, Williams and Solís have created: “It’s about how you want to live in your environment, not just your house but your environment,” says Arentz. “What times of day do you want to be in different activities, and then how will you do it?”
Arentz, 46, grew up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in a farming family with a lot of land. This gave him early exposure to a variety of relationships with land, “from anything as simple as walking around with the dog—and really looking and studying the natural environment—to raising animals and understanding a rootedness to the landscape and agrarian culture.” One grandfather was a rose gardener.
“Getting exposed to that kind of got layered up with my ability to draw. I was painting ever since I was a little kid,” he says. When it came time for college, applications went to design as well as art schools—Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt—but he ultimately chose Penn State, which at the time had the best landscape architecture program in the U.S. An internship in Colonial Williamsburg gave him solid hands-on experience and taught him “how to prune the hell out of a hedge.” Another, a highly competitive internship at the international design firm EDAW (now Design + Planning at AECOM), launched him into the field. Within the first few years of his career, first at a southern California firm and then at EDAW, Arentz worked in 14 different countries. Eighteen years ago, after a stint with landscape architect Michael Vergason, Arentz finally struck out on his own.
Given Arentz’s background, art would figure significantly in the design of Running Cedar. “Art has always been an important part of my life, and I think it should be a really important part of everybody’s environment,” he says. So art is quite literally part of his house: Built into an upstairs wall is a permanent installation of D.C.-based artist Ledelle Moe’s sculpture, "Congregation." Arentz also rebuilt another wall to hold a 750-pound bronze sculpture by vaunted interior designer Valerian Rybar (whom the New York Times described in his 1990 obituary as “the world’s most expensive decorator”). Art is everywhere, from ancient Chinese figures on the living room mantel to, in the dining room, an enormous abstract landscape that, naturally, echoes the house’s color palette. The main house feels like a homey gallery.
Arentz’s love for entertaining is another layer of Running Cedar. The living room is the perfect size for 25 people, he says. Gesturing out the southernmost window, he adds, “This room is great 365, but in the wintertime the river takes on a great persona.” In warmer weather, Arentz might hold a seated dinner for 30 under the pergola that attaches house to guesthouse and edges the intimate courtyard, anchored by a simple round fountain and accented with pots overflowing with colorful, changing plantings. Arentz calls it “the urban heart of this place.”
The screened porch is the place to be from late April through the middle of October. “It’s a good-sized room and it entertains with great flexibility,” says Arentz. “When you want to entertain and be out at the pool, that’s on. But then as soon as you start thinking about Halloween, you don’t care about that anymore and it’s time to think about the next thing. And so you can close this all down and you don’t miss a beat.”
Even the landscape is designed as an experience to be shared. Arentz plans summer parties around interesting things going on in the garden—when, for example, the tall, white pompadour lilies start to peek over the hedge from the perennial border: “When they are in bloom, they fill up this entire yard. It is amazing how fragrant they are.” He remembers last year’s cool, wet spring, when the western hillside just beyond the border became covered in lupines. “I’d never seen lupines more prolific here.”
Arentz notes that there is always something in bloom from April through early November: White hellebores line the allée beneath the hawthorns, Virginia bluebells brighten the copse of American hornbeam trees at the south end of the garden, Limelight hydrangeas fade from chartreuse to white to pink against the house, and late-blooming asters close the show in November. In between are Blue Fortune hyssop, iris, phlox, comfrey and more. “This place gets loaded up with butterflies and bees, and it’s just great.” Beyond the border, a wildflower meadow transitions into the surrounding forest.
Further north, Arentz has taken out a few more trees, opening another notch in the donut and allowing the profusion of native dogwoods in the understory the light they need to come into their glory.
Asked how Running Cedar might diverge from his body of work, Arentz states, simply, “I think this is the culmination of all of it. I wanted to make a place that is about my environment. It’s not about making a house, it’s not about making a landscape, it’s not about doing some nice interiors—it’s about making the entire environment, that all of those pieces hinge together.”
He looks around. “And I was involved in every square inch of it.” Starting with one little branch off a tree.