Novelist Katherine Neville revives Teruo Hara’s storied Japanese-style house

January 3

Old farmhouses or country mansions may come to mind when thinking about “historic” real estate in the Washington region, but Teruo Hara’s former home and studio defies easy stereotypes. The largely handmade structure is not quite a half-century old, but what it lacks in antiquity it makes up for in back story.

The internationally renowned Japanese ceramic artist built it on the weekends in the mid-1960s with a volunteer crew of art students, friends and international visitors. Hara taught for decades at Washington’s Corcoran School of Art, but those who knew him say this Fauquier County, Va., homestead was at the center of the artistic community he cultivated and presided over for two decades before his death in 1986.

“It felt like an ongoing party,” recalls his eldest daughter, Louise Hara.

Now, more than a quarter century after Hara’s death, a local novelist is gradually restoring the place and plans to turn it into a retreat for artists and writers.

For the past 13 years, the international best-selling adventure novelist Katherine Neville (“The Eight,” “The Fire” and “The Magic Circle”) and her husband, neuroscientist Karl H. Pribram, have lived a few blocks away from Hara’s former home. During much of that time, Neville says, the property was tied up in a legal battle over plans to put up townhouses on the 1.3-acre lot. When those plans fell through, Neville purchased the place in 2009 and recruited Gaithersburg green architect John Spears, president of the Sustainable Design Group.

By then, the house was in rough shape. It hadn’t been lived in for several years, and the previous owners had subdivided the interior into several rooms and cut a stairwell through a structural beam just off the front entranceway, among other changes to the original floor plan.

The handmade windows and sliding doors were falling apart as well. So Spears took them apart, made patterns and had all 166 of them repaired or rebuilt, fitted with double-paned glass and weather-stripping.

Spears also added insulation and a geothermal heat pump, as well as radiant heat coils under the new concrete floor on the ground level. The energy-efficiency improvements worked so well, Neville says, that it costs less $30 a month to run the geothermal heating and air-conditioning system in the nearly 50-year-old structure.

Although the house has its share of cutting edge “green bling,” perhaps more striking is the way the restoration pays homage to history — not just Hara’s storied past, but the Asian tradition of feng shui and other concepts such as “sacred architecture” and the “gold proportion” that turn up in Japanese design, as well as ancient Egyptian, Hindu, Western and other traditions.

Spears and Neville say they stayed true to Hara’s artistic intent and traditional Japanese elements without attempting an exact restoration. That approach seems fitting, because Hara built the house in the Japanese style but with lots of local influences, starting with the Virginia timber used in its framing, Louise Hara recalls.

Some of the most striking elements are new but blend so well that you wouldn’t know it. The stairway, for instance, is made with wooden pegs instead of nails, just like the original woodwork throughout the house. Spears also replaced undersized structural beams with new cedar trunks stripped of their branches and bark, in the Japanese style, and mounted atop creek-smoothed stones set into the new concrete floor.

“We changed things but made them better,” says Spears, referring not only to the windows and woodwork, but also to the house’s most dramatic new feature: a two-story cylinder of stone masonry. The cylinder, which dominates the center of the building, looks ornamental but is functional as well, housing bathrooms on both floors and a mechanical closet.

Hara’s original tea ceremony platform remains in the same place, on the southeastern corner of the top floor. The smell of charcoal from the traditional Japanese hibachi lingers in the air, though the hibachi no longer works, after the local fire department raised concerns.

That was just one of the elements of Hara’s original home that didn’t pass muster with housing-code inspectors, says Spears, who also encountered “serious structural issues that wouldn’t fly today,” given current building codes.

But Hara’s original design aided him in several ways, Spears says. For starters, the rectangular building has a long south-facing wall of windows that take passive-solar advantage of the warming winter sunshine. But during the summer, when the sun passes higher in the sky, Hara’s original decklike porches shade the interior from the sun’s rays, reducing the need for air conditioning.

Spears says the building is almost a perfect “golden rectangle,” a Western concept of measuring and dividing space that is widely used in art and architecture. But several things also suggest Hara was guided more by feng shui principles for harnessing good energy flow.

“They were good environmental designers and engineers,” Spears says of the originators of the ancient Chinese principles used in architecture and interior design that eventually took root in Japan and other Asian cultures as well.

The house’s rectangular shape is considered “auspicious,” while its location is shielded from the street by a screen of bamboo foliage. Bucolic views from windows that wrap around much of the house also conform to feng shui’s precepts, as does the way the building “hugs” a hillside with both levels exiting directly to the outside.

Hara used the traditional tatami mat method for determining the dimensions of the building and subsequent additions, recalls the potter Malcolm Wright, who worked for Hara and taught with him at Corcoran in the mid-1960s.

A tatami mat is a rectangle of woven straw used both as a floor covering and a standard for measuring a Japanese room. Although these mats can differ in size, their dimensions always have the same proportion: roughly twice as long as they are wide. A Japanese room may be as big as four or six tatami mats, but the mat’s standard proportions allow the space to be easily subdivided with precision. Each tatami mat can be divided into two squares or a square and two more rectangles, each of the same tatami mat dimensions, and so on infinitely.

Hara, his artist wife, Tomoko, and three daughters lived in the building’s upper floor, while the lower level housed a studio, including welding and metalworking stations, a library and Japanese carpentry equipment, Louise Hara recalls.

To the right of the house, the ruins of two pottery kilns overlook a verdant back lawn, partly shaded by cherry, Japanese maple and ginkgo trees, many of which Hara presumably planted. A path mimics a stream, meandering its way to the tearoom, a separate building constructed after the main house.

Hara emigrated from Japan in 1958, at the age of 30, after winning the grand ceramics prize at the World’s Fair in Brussels, according to the catalogue of his late-1960s solo exhibition at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, where he also taught for several years.

He’s best known for ceramic pieces that both rebel against and pay homage to Japan’s millennia-old pottery tradition. He also created murals, worked in calligraphy, and built a few other Japanese-style buildings, including a Martha’s Vineyard summer home with a swimming pool in the living room that was profiled in the May 1985 issue of Architectural Digest.

“He was interested in working on the form of things; the scale didn’t matter,” Louise Hara says of her father’s interests in both art and architecture.

Neville says she got the idea for turning the property into a retreat from friends who are writers. For now, she is using the place as a studio while she writes a novel.

She’s a former painter and corporate executive, who has lived in several interesting homes over the years — including a “tree house” in Sausalito, Calif., and a seaside Algerian abode she describes as straight out of the tales of “Arabian Nights.” Her current residence nearby is an 1856 Gothic Revival with a ghost named Esme and rooms filled with artwork, sculptures, wall hangings, books and mementos from nearly a dozen countries where Neville and Pribram have lived or visited.

She has set up her work space on the upper level of the building and tucked a double bed into the northeast corner, where the rising sun comes in each morning through a circular window built into the wall as part of the overhaul. The sleeping area is partially hidden by a screen made of twisted vines by the Sequoia Lifestyle Gallery in Santa Fe, NM. The same company custom-made the countertop in the upstairs bathroom using a single slab of exotic wood inlaid with pebbles.

She says she really wasn’t in the market for real estate when she received a “cryptic e-mail” asking whether she wanted to purchase the house in 2009.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” says Neville, who closed the deal late that same year.

Spears came onboard the following spring. By mid-2011, Neville had shot through her budget, but the place was improved enough to get an occupancy permit. As soon as it was habitable, she says she moved in her office — along with hundreds of books, and some furniture and artwork from the couple’s townhouse in Santa Fe, sold about that time with some of the proceeds going into the Hara house overhaul. Spears has continued working on the house.

Neville declined to disclose how much she has spent to date, but she acknowledges that restoring instead of simply remodeling wasn’t cheap. Rebuilding Hara’s original handmade windows, for instance, was a much bigger investment than replacing them with the off-the-shelf variety. Other pricey elements include the new handcrafted staircase and the decision to reinstall the handmade ceiling panels after adding insulation under the roof.

“It was a labor of love, which is why it cost so much more,” says Neville, who eventually plans to add solar panels and more fully explore a creative future for the house.

“There are two ways of doing this,” she recalls saying early on, “the right way, or no way at all.”

Christine MacDonald is a freelance writer.

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