Photography by Tony Giammarino | Styling by Mona Dworkin
Carter’s Creek, in Virginia’s Northern Neck, is perhaps best known as the home of the Tides Inn resort, but in fact its history goes way back. Since the early 18th century when Robert “King” Carter ruled the area, the creek has lapped peacefully in the shadows of stately houses. Most recently, its sloping shorelines and secluded branches have inspired a variety of “river house retreats” along its banks, many of them architectural gems of widely differing styles.
From the water, one of these houses could easily pass for a Mondrian painting, minus the signature primary colors favored by the 20th century cubist painter. Tucked in between a green riot of mountain laurel, azaleas, assorted native vines and mature trees that carpet the bluff that overlooks the wide eastern branch of Carter’s Creek, the house unfolds abruptly as a mass of white lines intersecting at right angles.
The defining elements of the property, located in quiet White Stone, are its windows, which are lavished on virtually every inch of the water-facing sides of the main house and nearby guest house, both of which were reimagined by Richmond architect Lawrence W. Gooss III in a renovation and construction project that has spanned the past five years. The house’s owners, a Richmond couple who had previously hired Gooss for a project at their Richmond home, approached the architect in 2002 about “freshening up” their waterfront home. “They had not spent a lot of time and effort on the house but enjoyed it as a serene place to go by the water,” says Gooss. “When they first approached me, they didn’t know how far they wanted to take things.”
The house’s humble beginnings make clear that they took the makeover very far indeed. It was originally built sometime in the mid-1950s, when many of the waterfront houses constructed along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries were made modestly, with inexpensive materials, and furnished with hand-me-downs from nicer primary residences. When the current owners bought the property in 1978, it included a small, two-story frame house with a one car garage, an old work shed and a boathouse on the creek. Prior to its recent transformation at the hands of Gooss, the house’s only change had been in the 1980s when a designer had been inspired to create a blue oasis for the couple. “It was all blue,” says Gooss of the interior. “Everything was done in tones of the same shade of blue, and it stayed that way for some time.”
While the owners mulled their options for fixing up the house, Gooss came up with a design for the boathouse that was “trying to fall in on itself” at the end of a pier extending out into the creek below the house. “I had a design, and I took the ideas that would be used on the main house and used them in the boathouse,” he recalls.
The old, simple gabled boathouse, with a straightforward rectangular entrance, got an overhaul that most prominently featured a new copper roof, topped by a cupola. Gooss extended the gabled roof soffits to accommodate recessed, down lighting and carved out an arched entryway for the boat from the water. The plywood siding was replaced with sturdy HardiePlank™ fiber cement siding, with a coat of creamy white paint and bright white trim.
“When that got underway, with the new roof and the new materials, [the owners] started to get really excited,” says Gooss. The couple committed to a complete transformation of the main house and garage, which by that time had been gently refitted to accommodate guests. Restrictions on waterfront development, put in place by Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act in 1988, dictated that Gooss stay within the house’s footprint inside a 100-foot setback from the shoreline. That allowed for additions to the back of the house, but not on the front, or creek side. The only allowance on the water side was the construction of a new deck that spans the length of the house and the guest house and is deep enough to accommodate two outdoor dining areas and clusters of seating for outdoor entertaining under three vine-covered trellises.
The main house was gutted. The owners were eager to carve out an expansive kitchen in the renovation that would share space with the main living areas and provide views of the creek. Gooss opened up what had been a first floor bedroom and adjoining bathroom for a large, light-filled kitchen. A two-story addition was constructed on the inland side of the house that includes a double garage and laundry area on the ground level. On the second floor the owners originally planned two guest suites, but have converted one of the guest rooms to an office with an interesting half-moon window that offers a view of the home’s circular cobblestone drive. On the exterior, plywood siding was replaced by the same HardiePlank™ siding that used in the boathouse. It also divides windows that merge creek views with almost every inch of living space inside.
“The mantra was air, water, light with a few punchy colors thrown in,” says Susan W. Winter, the Richmond-based interior designer who was brought in to complete the interiors of the house after construction was complete: “The thrust inside is focused on the outside.” From the bone colored limestone floors punctuated by sea grass-hued medallion inlays to the atmospheric colors that cover the walls throughout the house, the transition between interior and exterior is virtually seamless.
Light streams through the south-facing, two-story foyer that Winter has furnished with an 18th century English gilt wood-carved frame mirror, a distressed sideboard and a crystal-draped Niermann Weeks chandelier. One of a dozen or so antique tribal rugs found throughout the house softens the limestone floor. “The whole house is a mix of unusual, traditional and contemporary components,” says Winter, who chose from the couple’s extensive collections of art and furnishings from travels to Asia and the Middle East.
A pair of white Tuscan columns flanks the passage from the foyer to the main living spaces. A white limestone mantel custom made by Chesneys in London frames a surround of the same sea grass-hued limestone found in the flooring. Two pairs of facing armless chairs covered in a lime and sand colored floral print fabric separated by a mirrored coffee table float on a soft wool and seagrass woven Stark rug to create an intimate fireside setting that offsets the soaring two-story living room expanse.
Two very wide and arched white limestone steps complement the curves of three more Doric columns that connect the upper and lower living areas. A pair of dramatic John Court landscapes book-end the sunken living space, which has been divided into two distinct seating areas awash in white, sand and pale blue with splashes of bright lime and orange thrown in “to remind you that you are inside now,” says Winter with a smile. Light from the two-story high windows floods the space and seeps into the second floor rooms that lie just beyond the balcony over the living areas.
Tucked under the second-floor balcony and adjoining the kitchen is the formal dining area. A large round teak dining room table with floral inlays commands the space. The owners found the table on a 1980 trip to Pakistan where they saw tables being carved outside a shop in Karachi. They worked with the craftsman to design the table on the spot, ordered it and received it about two years later. Moss-colored leather embossed in a reptilian pattern covers contemporary dining room chairs with chrome accents. A dome ceiling light with a mosaic detail plays off the room’s Eastern décor. “We had two separate plans just for lighting,” says Gooss. “There are literally hundreds of low-voltage recessed down lights throughout the house and guest house.”
Where natural light during the day leaves off, strategically and artfully placed lighting picks up to create a soft glow throughout the house. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the kitchen, situated on the other side of a glass-topped counter from the dining room. Grigio Argento stone covers the countertops, while a backsplash of sand-colored glass tiles complements the stone counters and cabinetry of Birdseye Maple. A 16-foot island stretches the length of the kitchen. Windows across the back of the kitchen bring in morning light and overlook a back deck shaded by a large oak tree and furnished for outdoor dining. The deck also leads to a large round outdoor shower.
“Opening up the kitchen to creek views was vitally important to the owners,” says Gooss. A narrow hallway from the kitchen leads to a well-provisioned bar. “As a couple, their spaces tend to be distinctly his and hers,” Gooss explains of the owners. The bar falls into the “his” category. Black mirror tiles cover the wall expanse between Black Galaxy stone counters and Birdseye Maple cabinetry. A commercial, reach-in cooler, ice chest, glasses-only dishwasher and wine storage complete the social setup.
The other “his” space is a porch that can be fitted with screens or insulated glass panels, depending on the season. Situated on the northwest corner of the house, the porch is furnished with a stainless steel Wolf outdoor grill. Unfinished decking is topped by what Winter calls a “fuzzy-wuzzy” white rug. An oversized, white frame McKinnon and Harris sofa and chairs with aqua and white cushions all contribute to the comfort of the room.
In the master bedroom, guest bedroom and offices on the second floor of the addition, there is evidence of the owners’ exotic and interesting collections of fine and decorative art. A silver-plated wood desk, benches and mirrors from India, antique rugs from Turkey and Morocco, and art that includes a number of paintings from the Moscow School of Russian Realism infuse the intimate areas of the house with rich memories of travel abroad.
Outside, there are sculptures with a distinctly Eastern motif, starting with a smiling Buddha tucked in a corner flower bed. A pair of stone-carved elephants from Burma flank the deck walkway from the main house to the guest house, and another pair of carved white elephants from India stand guard just inside the main gate leading to the circular driveway at the entrance.
Terra cotta urns and flower boxes filled with flowering perennials, boxwood, ivy and dipladenia soften the stark lines of the white railing that wraps the deck overlooking the creek. Narrow turned balustrades accentuate the undulating nature of the deck and railing, Gooss explains. Two sections of the railing in front of the guest house are cable wire to allow a better view of the creek from the bedroom. Soft earth tones pulled from terra cotta tiles that cover the guest-house floor in the guest house are counterpoints to the tumult of green outside.
“The boathouse, the guesthouse, the main house…it all started out as a sort of watercolor sketch,” says Gooss. “The owners have loved the site for so long that the concepts for a new style were all around them in the water and the light.” Gooss’s interpretation of the Carter’s Creek retreat and its atmospheric, eclectic décor creates a happy gestalt—the owner’s treasured memories of adventures merged in a place of utter harmony and sophistication.