A Home Made for the Holidays

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007; 11:47 AM

If all goes according to Paul Zielenski's plan, Christmas Day will begin with opening gifts by the tree around 2:30 a.m. and end with sledding by flashlight on the hill out by the barn. When you're 13 years old and you live in the country, snow is always high on your Christmas list.

Christmas in the country is exactly what Paul's parents, Jonelle St. John and Steve Zielenski, envisioned seven years ago when they bought Stonyhurst, a farm with an 1830 stone house sitting on a handsome rise in Middleburg: holiday snowball fights and runs outside with their dogs, followed by warming up around a roaring fire.

The days leading up to Christmas find the family decorating doors, stone mantels and rock walls outdoors with natural fragrant greens -- pine, juniper, holly and magnolia leaves -- many from local farms. Jonelle hangs lush wreaths on the mirrors in the living room and dining room, where reflection doubles their effect. Steve brings in an eight-foot tree and sets up the lights before the three of them hang other decorations. This year Jonelle mail-ordered amaryllis bulbs and pine-cone wall baskets filled with greens from White Flower Farm.

The rural setting of the old stone house, especially after a winter storm, is far from the family's previous holidays at home in London, which although rich with seasonal charm were full of urban bustle and, usually, rain. "It's very peaceful here," says St. John, who grew up in Florida, where a white Christmas definitely was not part of the package. "That's what you enjoy about it the most."

Zielenski, a telecom consultant, and St. John, a business consultant, bought the 94-acre property from a developer who had planned to build 17 houses on it. The main house had five fireplaces and 16-inch walls, plus a family room with original cedar beams. But the home, uninhabited for several years, was in shambles, with floors damaged by termites, a leaky roof and flapping doors. They hired Washington architect Donald Lococo to make the house livable and beautiful. "Part of the beauty of a ruin is that it looks old," Lococo says. "We wanted to keep all the age and wisdom this house brought along with it."

Lococo's design kept the basic footprint of the house, adding a screened porch in the front and a covered porch in the back, so the family can catch sunrises and sunsets from all angles. Stone from the property was gathered for the additions to match the original. The work also included a mudroom, a guest bedroom upstairs, an office and a new staircase in the back. The work took 2 1/2 years.

Lococo says he always imagined the property in snow. "When I was designing the house, I could not help but wonder what it would look like on a winter day. There's nothing better for a holiday than to have a house that has this wonderful old feeling. The house anchors you, and the family times you spend in it become very special."

He worked with Washington interior designer Rosemarie Howe to craft the new farmhouse kitchen with dark green soapstone counters, rustic hardware and a light fixture over the center island made from an antique scale.

St. John and Zielenski wanted a comfortable, laid-back look to accommodate children, two dogs and a Bengal cat. "My goal was to make these rooms simply elegant and welcoming to the whole family -- including pets -- without being too fussy or too casual," Howe says. "I wanted to accentuate and complement the incredible beauty of the setting . . . so that no room or view would be ignored."

During the renovation, Zielenski and St. John came frequently to the site and did their own restoration of the barn, which has a stone foundation dating back to 1790. They knocked out walls, put in new flooring and painted the exterior black. They just hung a five-foot wreath on it for the holidays.

The couple usually hosts a Christmas Eve dinner for three families who have been friends for a long time. Brightly colored British Christmas crackers decorate the table, a custom brought back from London.

On Christmas, the family normally stays close to home. They open presents and relax, then cook up a soup or stew and eat by the fire. In the afternoon, Paul runs out to find neighborhood friends and check out Christmas gifts.

"It would be hard to move back to the city," says St. John, looking out a window to a view of grazing horses sporting plaid blankets. "The serenity here is something you wouldn't want to live without."

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