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Hugh Gallagher's study overlooks the woods of Cabin John.
Photographs by Beatriz da Costa


Sitting in his crowded living room, Hugh Gallagher paraphrases the poet Edgar Guest: "It takes a heap of living to make a house a home." Gallagher ought to know: He was stricken with polio almost 50 years ago and has used a wheelchair ever since. In 1974, at the peak of his career as a lobbyist for an oil company, he suffered a bout of clinical depression. As Gallagher describes it now, "All my energy was being used to maintain the appearance of an able-bodied person."

He retreated to his small house in the woods of Cabin John to write books, including a psychological study of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and to work as a civil rights advocate for the disabled. "My house saved me," he says. "It is a haven."

Gallagher built his modern cabin in 1968 as a sanctuary from professional life, and now uses it as both home and office. Designed by Washington architect Don Hawkins, the boxy, one-story structure is sleekly wrapped in cedar and has large glass doors opening onto a wooden deck. "I wanted a house that was completely accessible," Gallagher explains. "I can't lift sash windows." Inside, concessions to his disability are hardly noticeable, other than the gently sloping ramp to the living room and low counter tops in the kitchen designed to accommodate his wheelchair.

Over the past three decades, Gallagher has done little to change the house, except to add a small solarium off the living room where he eats breakfast and bird-watches. "It's my French orangerie," he says, pointing to a potted orange tree in a corner of the glassy nook. Living Room

Although the house is contemporary, few of its furnishings are. "I would love to be a minimalist and lead a simple, clutter-free existence," Gallagher says. "But I'm not that kind of person. I like to be surrounded by things that I care about."

An eclectic array of family heirlooms attests to his roots in the West. Dominating the living room is a Mission-style settle draped with Indian blankets, including a worn rug his grandmother gave him in his teens. A Stickley-style Morris chair from his great-grandfather's ranch provides a comfortable perch. A toy boat made from walrus hide was another gift from his grandmother. Navajo weavings line the walls, and a row of Native American baskets tops the bookcase. In the study, a Colorado landscape painted by his grandmother is paired with an 1880s photograph of the same view.

Gallagher has reserved his most formal furniture for the dining room, which is separated from the living room by low walls. Stately walnut chairs from the 1770s, a drop-leaf mahogany table and a writing desk—all purchased during his lobbying days—happily coexist with a walnut sideboard designed by contemporary furniture maker Dennis Mahoney. Above the cabinet are some antique Chinese blue-and-white plates that came to this country on clipper ships. And tucked away in a cabinet is the delicate Haviland china that his great-grandmother carted in a covered wagon across the plains.

Other furnishings represent places from Gallagher's own past. Blond wooden stools designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto are stacked in a corner of the living room, reminding him of his college years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose Baker Hall was also designed by Aalto. An Eskimo stone sculpture and driftwood box were purchased when he was a staffer for Sen. E.L. "Bob" Bartlett of Alaska. For Gallagher, a home is not a deliberate design, but an evolving environment that reflects personal change. "I haven't set out to collect things," he says of his possessions. "They are part of my growth and who I am."
—Deborah K. Dietsch

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