If you build an exquisite house in the Virginia hunt country, as Richard Arentz has done, you might be tempted to employ a few visual tricks to elevate its grandeur: Place it on a hill at the end of a long, straight avenue of trees, and leave no doubt that your guests aren’t the only ones to have arrived.
Instead, Arentz orchestrates a more intriguing experience for the property he has named Running Cedar: Guests drive for what seems like miles along a narrow track through the woods. Once you are on foot, though, the spirit of the house takes over, even if its facade is half hidden by a boxwood hedge. The front walk guides you past the large flat lawn that is a pedestal for the structure, then you turn right and behold the front door. A wall of stone directs the journey, the sound of water becomes stronger. This seamless passage between landscape and house is no accident.
From its site selection to the relationship of its indoor rooms to outdoor spaces, the property represents a remarkable totality of design that can happen only when the house and garden are conceived together. Arentz, a landscape architect, spent months — years — designing Running Cedar with architect Richard Williams and interior designer Jose Solis Betancourt before a single stone was laid. The three Washington-based designers, all with national reputations in their fields, knew that this was one of the few golden opportunities in their careers to take the raw elements of a house, a garden and a broader natural setting and forge them into a harmonious whole. Solis Betancourt called the project “a beautiful, unique collaboration.”
The aesthetic is obvious and winsome: The house pays homage to fine, large farmhouses of the region — but within a clean, contemporary, almost minimal matrix. A raised seam roof of copper sits atop a stuccoed box, classic enough. But there is little ornamentation, the windows are large, and if you look for gutters, you won’t find them.
The front door is a rectangle of orange-red, splashy against the muted palette of the facade, and amplified visually by a stone landing below and a cantilevered canopy above. The sound of water comes from a fountain incorporated into the end of the wall, a salutation to both visitor and the winding Rappahannock River 100 feet below.
If that was all Running Cedar were — a clever synthesis of modern and traditional — that might be enough in a countryside where new houses are expected to mimic the old. But Arentz’s property is much more than a fetching contemporary take on the vernacular.
Named after a native woodland plant that grows on the site, Running Cedar was completed in 2006 after a four-year period of deliberation, planning and construction. Created as a weekend retreat for entertaining, it is used by Arentz, 48, as a venue for personal and professional gatherings and for events for charitable causes.
Today, the house and guest cottage seem naturally planted in the landscape, but their construction at that site was anything but preordained.
Arentz, who is single, has offices in Washington and at Running Cedar. He was on the verge of buying an existing historic manor house in nearby Orlean, Va., for his country place when he came across this more private location nearby: a heavily wooded 80-acre tract overlooking the distant Blue Ridge and the river gorge. The river separates Fauquier County, where Arentz lives, from Rappahannock County.
“It was still a totally raw site when we were traipsing around looking for potential locations,” Williams said. “We climbed some trees, we rambled through this whole large property.”
An initial idea was to set the house on the highest ground, but trees masked the desired view of the mountains. Another notion was to build a guesthouse first and add the main abode later.
In rethinking the property, Williams and Arentz came up with this plan: a house paired with a scaled-back guest cottage and set near the edge of the river ravine. To the north, the property would be enclosed by the rising woodland of poplars, oaks and beeches. The river gorge, itself heavily wooded, would frame the southern view.
“It was pretty clear this spot near the river offered a lot of benefits,” Williams said.
At Running Cedar, the organizing principle was a north-south spine, extending about 200 feet and incorporating the guesthouse, the main house and a courtyard separating them. From this axis, all the disparate elements of both the indoors and outdoors relate, varied in character, unified in their common source.
On the northern end, for example, the 1,250-square-foot guesthouse sits east of the spine, opposite the swimming pool terrace and the adjoining screened porch, which projects into the main, west lawn.
The spine then traverses the main house, which has three levels, totaling 6,500 square feet, and four bedrooms. The axis defines a mudroom and, next, the dining room, whose users feel wholly connected to the west lawn and its adjoining allee of hawthorn trees. Finally, the organizing axis generates a sunken living room that opens to a patio, spaces that are in a direct dialogue with the river.
The courtyard between the houses is emblematic of the intricate weaving of interior and exterior spaces. As a void, it separates the mass of the buildings, and its cross axis provides the only opening between the west and east lawns. Those rectangular, hedged lawns are the dominant landscape features. The east lawn is 3,000 square feet, its counterpart to the west a truly grand 6,000 square feet.
The courtyard’s formal fountain and lavishly planted containers double as a view garden from the sitting room of the main house. The adjacent pergola and its walk are broad enough to allow outdoor dining, and Arentz likes to use that space for large, alfresco dinner parties for up to 30.
The courtyard, though, is not the most important intersection of the east-west axis with the north-south spine. That is placed nearer the river and begins with the front walk, a seemingly simple path that is actually supported by a large but mostly unseen hand-crafted stone retaining wall, rising to nine feet. Visitors enter the front door to find the house just one room deep. The pull of the garden on the other side is immediate and strong, reinforced by the allee of hawthorns.
“I wanted this feeling where you moved through the house, almost like the house is a garden wall,” Arentz said. He was inspired to make the house one room deep by the idea of the converted stable block in the garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England, the celebrated and preserved horticultural jewel of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.
The hawthorn allee is a lovely touch, not just because the tree is a perfect size for its space, but because the plant itself is little used and is a thoughtful alternative to the more obvious cherry trees, crab apples, Japanese maples or dogwoods. Arentz has chosen Winter King hawthorn, a variety with white blossoms in April, few thorns and orange-red fruit that remains decorative through the winter. The 10 trees, 20 feet high in maturity, grow out of a ground cover of lenten rose, an evergreen perennial that forms clumps festooned with dozens of nodding blossoms in late winter and spring. Extravagantly, Arentz planted 1,500 of the variety White Lady, matching the color of the hawthorns.
The allee leads to a sunken, almost hidden double perennial border that forms the splashiest horticultural display at Running Cedar, changing as the seasons progress. Arentz uses long-flowering blue perennials such as the hyssop variety Blue Fortune; catmint; and, in fall, the aster Jindai as an azure foil for more fleeting displays of perennials and annuals in whites, yellows, oranges and salmons.
The living room, two steps down and in mood separated from the rest of the house, is full of windows out to the patio overlooking the gorge. Here, the spaces are more enclosed and intimate, more blended into the natural setting with native hollies and hornbeams as a transitional screen. In summer, the tree canopy veils the then slow-running river, but the spirit of the Rappahannock seems to bubble up. Every month, the full moon casts a magical glow over the little gorge.
Solis Betancourt, of Solis Betancourt & Sherrill, worked with Arentz and Williams from the start to help decide the layout and scale of the interior rooms, and then set about designing them in a way that didn’t distract from the garden views. The interior textures, forms and colors of the walls, stonework and furniture are in pale earth tones; and the walls’ designer paint contains sand, for texture. The effect is modern but warm.
Solis Betancourt used a mixture of furnishings and art that Arentz already owned along with pieces acquired for the house. The key, the designer said, was not to use too many objects, to leave the windows generally free of draperies and to employ neutral colors and subdued fabrics. The “punch” was provided by echoes of Arentz’s favored terra cotta orange featured on the front door, the oriental rug in the living room, on a wall in the dining room, in throw pillows and even poolside chaises.
“I would push Jose to buy furniture and get interiors done, and he would push back,” Arentz said. “He said we should really get the gardens built, and then we can start developing the interiors. I think we looked at 30 different rugs and ultimately had one made, which took nearly a year. The process was a very important part of this.”
Arentz is coy about the cost of his paradise, though he says that by reserving the most highly crafted elements to key areas, it appears more lavish than it is. For example, the stone entry wall, chimney piece and pergola wall lead many to think Running Cedar is a stone house.
Williams said the lesson of Running Cedar is that the best design emerges from abstract thought: Find the optimum site, fit the client’s needs around an organizing principle, and let the form follow function. “Its strength as a house is that it’s not about fussy details; the strength is the weave between the landscape and interior spaces,” he said.
“It was really about fitting all the pieces together,” Arentz said, “but I also wanted you to know that, as a landscape architect’s house, it was also about a garden.”
Adrian Higgins is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.