A grand vision home

Design: Ellen and Jim Rogers' award-winning cottage on the West River has been renovated to fit in the present as well as recall the past.

March 11, 2001|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

From its bird's-nest tower to its livable living room, from its swimming pool to its dock extending into the West River, Ellen and Jim Rogers' prize-winning renovated cottage does more than welcome and embrace its family - it entertains them.

When they first bought the house in 1986, both worked in Washington, and it was simply a weekend getaway. Jim Rogers is a sailor - he took his 1981 Swan 47 across the Atlantic last summer - and the cottage was a good place to keep his boat.

But when they decided in 1998 to move to the house full time, they knew it would mean a major renovation.

"In the '20s, this was a one-story bungalow," he says. "They lifted the roof in the '30s to make it two stories, with sleeping porches on either side."

The couple's daughters - Alison is 11 and Emily is 9 - chime in that for a while the house was a restaurant called the Sail Inn. It was a condition of moving to the house full time that Jim Rogers, a lawyer, wasn't going to commute. So he does consulting and pro bono work from the library, and looks after the girls, who in turn look after Yogi, the Welsh terrier. Ellen Rogers does the commuting, getting up at 4:45 every morning to get to her job as assistant general counsel and corporate secretary for Pepco in D.C.

Working with Joan Fabry and Dana Short, of Joan Fabry Associates Architects in Washington, the couple decided what kind of space they wanted.

"The house was small and not as comfortable as it could have been," Fabry says, "but the site is so fabulous. I was very excited by that and the nearness to the water."

Ellen Rogers says, "We didn't want something formal." Nor did they want to alter the character of the place. "It's history. We wanted to keep that."

That's why there's a trace of the former sleeping porches in the sloping ceilings of both the living room and kitchen. But she did ask the architects for storage space. "They put big closets everywhere," she says.

They also made the house thoroughly cozy with a geothermal heating and cooling system. The system is unusual because of its installation: Instead of being buried underground, or being placed in a pond, the water-circulating coils run out into the river, under the dock - in salt water, in the tides. "The theory is you get better heat and cooling transfer if you're in water," Jim Rogers says. Installing the system required getting permission from every level of government from local and state to federal.

Like many older houses, the cottage had been added onto and renovated before. The new work required removing some of the old. The day the bulldozer arrived to start ripping off an old porch, Jim Rogers says, "was a scary moment."

But when it was all over, Fabry submitted it to Southern Living magazine's annual home award contest, in the addition/renovation category. "And out of 200 entries, we won," the architect says. One of the panel members voting on the entries, quoted in last month's magazine where all the winning homes appear, called the work "an appropriate remodeling. The house has the feel of an older home that's adjusted to contemporary living."

From the bulldozer to the award, however, the path was strewn with obstacles.

First there was the design: The Rogerses wanted some kind of structure from which to view the water. And they wanted to move the '60s-style open-riser staircase that was, as Fabry says, "smack in the middle of the living room."

The original idea, an addition on the road side of the house that would combine entryway, stairs and views in a lighthouse-like tower, got to be unwieldy. Building the stairs to code made the tower too wide, and the stairs were too far from the rest of the house. "As romantic as it was," Fabry says, "it wasn't really practical."

So she came up with a plan that would keep the staircase in the main part of the house, and use part of the attic for the tower. The couple approved, and work began.

Immediately, however, problems arose. Removing some walls to open up the interior space revealed structural flaws. To fix them, contractors had to rip up the floor to pour new concrete footings and tear down the ceiling to install a high-tech laminated beam to support the upper floors. Beams in the attic also had to be reinforced.

At this point, the carpenters told them it would be easier to tear down the house and start over. They never considered it. But in the end, the dining room was the only place that remained more or less untouched.

One of the walls removed was between the kitchen and the dining room. The couple extended the kitchen's beautiful maple Shaker-style cabinets, made by a local cabinetmaker, to create more storage and work space. The back of the house is largely new - from the foyer, a hall connects the library, a powder room and the stairs to the family room, which in turn connects to the kitchen. Upstairs, a fourth bedroom was added, and the other spaces were rearranged.

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