Joe Bruno and his wife, Cynthia Marini Bruno, have never been known to do something on a small scale.
The grand entrance to their Potomac estate starts when custom-designed, wrought-iron gates tipped in gold slowly glide open and reveal a spectacular fountain and stone steps reminiscent of Villa D’Este near Rome.
Inside, guests are welcomed into a breathtaking foyer with an ivory marble floor set with diamonds of multi-hewed marble and, overhead, a colorful two-story crystal chandelier hand-carried home from Venice.
“We’ve had some great parties in this house while our daughters were growing up and with our friends from the charter school world and from the Italian American groups we belong to,” says Joe Bruno, a Ferrari-driving entrepreneur who since 2004 has served as president of Building Hope, a nonprofit that provides business, technical and financial assistance to public charter schools. “There’s a story behind every painting, every collection and every piece of furniture.”
The Brunos worked with David Herchik and Richard Looman of JDS Designs in the District to design and decorate their Potomac estate. The Brunos previously co-owned Hunters and Gatherers, a now-closed antique store in Kensington, Md., with Herchik and Looman.
The four spent seven years sourcing Italian treasures, designing opulent curtains and furniture and hiring expert craftsmen and painters to create this nearly 20,000-square-foot estate. Clearly this was a labor of love for all four, who still regale one another with stories about their trips to Italy and to antique stores to find the art, furniture and accessories that fill the house.
“There isn’t one white ceiling in this entire house,” Cynthia Bruno says. “Every ceiling either has a mural painted on it, wallpaper that extends from the walls onto the ceiling or is painted a shade that matches the walls but is 50 percent lighter to make the ceiling seem even higher.”
The home has 11 fireplaces, all but one wood-burning; four kitchens; and so many crystal chandeliers that the Brunos have lost count. Gathering the sculptures, sconces and swag for the dozens of rooms in the Bruno home generated years of happy memories and laughter.
“Joe and I would travel to small villages in the countryside in Italy, and it was expected that we would negotiate over cups of espresso and cigarettes,” Herchik says. “Unfortunately, I was the only one of our little group who would drink espresso or smoke, so I don’t think I slept a minute for 10 days because I was so wired from caffeine and nicotine.”
As the four slowly decorated the home, Looman joked that the only thing missing was a grotto. Joe Bruno took that idea to heart, and soon a grotto, accessible only from a hidden door in the media room, was dug underneath the house. Stone stairs with bronze gargoyles and rope handrails lead down to the dim space, which has a splashing stone fountain, beaded glass lanterns that resemble wine grapes and a hand-wrought iron garden gate leading to a bathroom with a mosaic floor.
Adjacent to the fountain is a game room with a massive stone fireplace with a mantel based on a design from an Italian palazzo. When the fire is lighted, the flames appear to be in the center of a roaring giant’s mouth. The game room is furnished with a 16th-century liturgical cabinet from an Italian cathedral and the hand-painted back of a Sicilian horse-drawn cart from the 1800s.
“That cart is one of my favorite pieces in the house, because I remember seeing decorated carts like that from festivals in Sicily when I lived there as a child,” Joe Bruno says. “They just slip these painted panels onto the back of regular old wood carts.”
The adjacent wine cellar and tasting room holds the oldest object in the house, a bread box from the 1600s that he bought when he lived in Rome, long before his Potomac Italian home was built.
The Brunos’ home has been designed for entertaining in intimate spaces such as the wine tasting room and in grander spaces such as the living room, the dining room, the family room and the pub.
“Every room in the house is cozy, that’s how David interpreted our tastes and incorporated out wishes everywhere,” says Cynthia Bruno. “This may be a big house, but it’s not a cold house.”
Guests are welcomed in the foyer, where a marble table with one of a pair of French bisque sculptures rests below a Fortuny chandelier. To the left of the foyer is the formal dining room inspired by the Florian, the oldest and most famous cafe on the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The walls are covered with panels of silver tea paper painted by artists from The Valley Craftsmen, the dining chairs were purchased in Italy, and dramatically painted and gilded urns from a funeral parlor stand in front of the windows. A matching pair of silver gondoliers sit atop mirrored chests.
Across the hall, a signed Steinway piano rests in the living room, which was inspired by photos of palaces of Venice and features faux-painted walls, a crucifix and a glass cabinet from Italy, paintings from local antique shops and luxurious upholstered couches and curtains from Herchik’s workshop.
“The first room we did was the living room, and after David and Richard and I gathered everything we had purchased, we kept the doors closed until the painting was complete and every object was in place,” Cynthia Bruno says. “When Joe came home from work we flung the doors open so he could see it complete with the candles lit, a fire in the fireplace and everything perfect.”
The family gathers for meals in the breakfast room, which has a Swedish grandfather clock from 1823 and a bell that was once used in a Franciscan monastery to call the monks to dinner. The pale blue and white kitchen features classic Fortuny chandeliers and offers a view of the multilevel terraces and patios that include several fountains, a swimming pool, trellises, gardens and an outdoor kitchen.
Nearby in the family room, which has a mural above the fireplace of the rooftops of Florence, the mantel is a dramatic bronze and marble antique that once stood in the headquarters of the Bromo Seltzer company in Baltimore, the iconic tower modeled on Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Overhead is a mural with cupids and animals painted by two artists, and on one wall is one of the many family portraits, this one an Andy Warhol-style painting of Cynthia Bruno.
Next door in the pub, which has lanterns created from 1800s London streetlamps, is a portrait of Joe Bruno as “The Godfather” complete with a rose in his lapel and a cat on his lap, a gift from Cynthia Bruno for his 50th birthday. Outside the pub, along a hall connected with multiple arches overhead, are treasures such as a Sicilian wedding chest from the late 15th century. The nearby powder room brings on a fit of mirth from the Brunos, who describe an evening when they were enjoying dinner outside and discovered that the full-size window in the powder room didn’t provide much privacy for their guests. Now a mirror fills part of the window, which has etched glass for extra protection. Overhead is another glittery chandelier, this one hand-carried by the Brunos from Rome.
“The murals of carnival scenes in Venice on the walls of the powder room were painted for Beverly Hills clients of mine who decided they didn’t want them, and when I realized the Brunos’ home was the perfect place for them we had them peeled off and shipped to Potomac,” says Herchik.
Along the hallway are portraits of some of Joe Bruno’s heroes, including Dante, Leonardo, Verdi and Garibaldi. Nearby are a bust of Dante and maps of Italy from the 1700s.
“One of my favorite places to sit is in the library, especially in the winter when I can have a fire going,” Joe Bruno says. “I’m surrounded by paintings of Italy.”
The library walls, originally plain white, have been faux-painted to resemble wood paneling. Often, when Joe Bruno relaxes in his library, his thoughts are focused on resolving problems faced by charter schools in the city and elsewhere with their finances or finding a school facility, but sometimes he’s thinking about enjoying a brisk game of basketball or driving one of his two Ferraris.
Near the library are an office and a media room, which has an antique map on the ceiling surrounded by old European crests and coats of arms, an antique Venetian lamppost, built-in seating and a hidden screen that drops down from the ceiling.
The Brunos, who have two daughters, now age 22 and 23, have owned the home, built by renowned builder Patrick Cullinane, since 1989. It has been expanded several times and includes a guesthouse by the swimming pool with a bedroom, a living area, a bathroom and a full kitchen; two garages, each with space for three cars; and the “barn,” primarily Joe Bruno’s domain. The barn includes a professional-quality indoor basketball court with a balcony above for spectators, a fully equipped gym, a spa-like bathroom with a serpentine-shaped steam shower and, upstairs, a massive office/conference room wrapped in windows, a bedroom, a full bath and an open kitchen, living and dining area. The barn also includes a storage room enclosed by stable doors.
“Cynthia and David will show you all the fancy stuff, but I like the practical side of this house, too,” Joe Bruno says. “It’s got great storage space everywhere, and even the lower level has 14-foot-high ceilings so that it feels like a great apartment, not a basement.”
In addition to the guesthouse, the barn and the main level, this home has an extensive finished lower level with complete living quarters and an upper level with multiple bedrooms. The main staircase to the upper level starts in the foyer where a crystal newel post from Venice glitters. Paintings and sculptures line the upper hall, which also features a distinctive colorful glass door that hides the laundry room.
“We were inspired by the glass-blown doors to the Tower of Sienna, but we couldn’t find someone to do the circles of blown glass in the same way,” Herchik said. “We cut off the bottoms of about 60 wine glasses for the same effect and then added stained glass in between in red, blue and yellow.”
The Brunos’ bedroom, clearly Cynthia Bruno’s domain, is lush with pale blue and white floral patterned furniture, chandeliers, luxurious curtains and a gold coronet above the bed.
“We bought the bedroom set in Italy on our honeymoon, and then David helped us transform this room into a fairytale space with things like the curtains, which are edged with hand-sewn flowers with seed pearls in the center of each one,” Cynthia Bruno says. “Our bedroom was featured years ago on HGTV’s ‘10 Most Romantic Bedrooms’ program.”
The Brunos have his-and-hers bathrooms and walk-in closets, a private office for Cynthia Bruno and another entire suite of rooms, including a bedroom or exercise room with a balcony and another full bath with an adjacent sauna and steam room.
In spite of their obvious love of their home, the Brunos plan to sell it to downsize. Besides, they have a near-replica of the property, although about half the size, in a condominium in Florida.
Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.