Baltimore County home adapts Frank Lloyd Wright influence to needs of an active family


March 03, 1991|By Lynn Williams

The house definitely has the Wright stuff. The materials -- stone, stucco and shingle -- the low-slung, overlapping roof lines, the expanses of glass and the almost Japanese purity of the design bespeak the influence of the nation's premier architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

But the house, nestled at the edge of several acres of Baltimore County woods, also has the right stuff. Elegant architecture is all very well, but a house has to serve the needs of those who will live in it. And this house was developed with the collaboration of the clients, a pair of articulate professionals with a young son, who had very specific ideas about what they wanted and needed in a residence.

"It's the architect's job to work with the clients' concrete set of needs, in terms of space and how they are going to use it," says Laura Melville Thomas, one of the two architects who collaborated on the project. "Then you synthesize all this stuff into a solution that works not only aesthetically but practically."

The clients, Chris and Susan (who didn't want their last name used here), once lived in a circa-1800 house they had renovated themselves. They thought they were securely tucked away in the country, but when it became clear that their home was smack in the path of Owings Mills Town Center development, a move was imminent.

"My husband was the one who wanted to build," Susan says. "He is from Denver, and we had lived out West, and we knew we wanted something Southwestern -- if we couldn't live there, we wanted to bring a little of that here. Had we wanted something Colonial or Georgian we wouldn't have had to have an architect. Around here we could have bought one of a zillion homes. But we wanted something pretty unique."

They hired an architect, but none of his designs seemed to jibe with the couple's vision. So they approached Basil Acey, who had designed an innovative addition for a friend's Ruxton house, to take over the project. As Mr. Acey didn't have the time to tackle it single-handedly, he asked Ms. Thomas, a 32-year-old, self-employed architect who specializes in residences, to join him as co-architect. Mr. Acey would be responsible for "siting" the house on the land and administering the landscaping and construction; Ms. Thomas would do the initial conceptual design and the construction drawings.

At the first meeting, Susan relates, "Laura opened her sketchbook and said, 'I've spoken with Basil, and I have a sense that this is what you're talking about.' I just about levitated out of my seat. I said, 'This is it!' "

Ms. Thomas' design was cued by the couple's choice of materials, including stucco and stone. They wanted California casualness and Southwestern flair, but styled in a manner that wouldn't look out of place in the woods of Maryland. They also wanted a big house, but not something that looked boxy or pretentious on the outside, or had outsized rooms.

The architect's solution: a house in the tradition of the prairie school founded by Frank Lloyd Wright. She even brought a book of Wright's designs to show her clients. While there were certain aspects of his work that the couple didn't care for -- notably the low ceilings, as Chris is over 6 feet tall -- Wright's multilevel contemporary style, which emphasized harmony with the environment and used plenty of glass to bring the outside in, was immensely appealing.

With the basic design mode chosen, Ms. Thomas set to work translating the family's needs into specific plans.

"We had a very weird set of requirements, I think," Susan admits. "We knew what we wanted; we gave her dimensions and everything. Architecturally, I think it's even harder when there's so much constraint, when I say, 'This is the way I want it. Now go create it!' "

Some requirements were fairly major, such as separate wings for formal entertaining and family activities. Others -- such as a special entrance for the dogs, with a built-in shower for rinsing off muddy paws -- were more frivolous. But the architects found a way to incorporate them all.

The slope of the land creates an unusual layout; the formal wing of the house, as well as the garage section, are only one story high, but the central section is a full three stories.

The formal section, which includes living and dining areas, is connected to the family wing by a hallway which serves as a gallery for the couple's collection of Western and American Indian art. A door off the gallery leads into the lower level

of a two-story library, with a spiral staircase and handsome walnut shelves.

In the family wing is the kitchen (and utility room) with the family room behind it, an informal dining area to one side, and a guest bedroom and bath.

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