Perched on a mountain ridge, the house is an aerie located 1,600 feet up a steep, winding road aptly named Eagle’s Nest Lane, midway between Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, W.Va.
On the day that Silver Spring architect Julia Caswell Daitch and her husband, Bill, first saw the 10-acre site in the fall of 1999, it was raining. The panoramic view was shrouded in mist, and they could only assume it was as spectacular as the setting suggested.
The land had been cleared but never built upon. It was the fourth plot they’d looked at in their search for a place to build a second home, and the mist had a romantic quality, Julia recalls. They saw banks of rhododendrons, mountain laurels and huge boulders.
They also saw what in retrospect would seem an ominous sight: the jagged remains of a Capital Airlines DC-4 that had crashed into the mountain during bad weather in 1947, killing all 50 passengers and crew. The landing gear, some of the fuselage and metal seat parts lay scattered on the hillside, readily visible from the homesite.
Two years later, and less than six months after their house was built, another crash would have a devastating effect on Julia’s life: On Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon with her brother on board. In the months that followed, Julia’s mountain aerie proved to be both her sanctuary and her salvation.
It was Julia who had decided that the couple and their two young daughters, Caitlin and Allison, needed a vacation home.
Julia and Bill’s first concern was distance; they needed a place that would be easily accessible on weekends. So they drew a circle of destinations on a map within a 1½- to two-hour drive of their Silver Spring home. The mountains of West Virginia fell within the circle and offered the prospect of less expensive land than Maryland or Virginia.
Their second concern was cost. But “architects have to build their dream home,” says Bill, who is 50 now and director of the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center for the Department of Homeland Security.
A day after seeing the Eagle’s Nest site, the Daitches returned with their daughters and Jean Caswell, Julia’s mother. Caswell reminded her daughter of childhood car trips she and her five siblings had taken along Virginia’s famed Skyline Drive, and told her that this place was just as scenic. “That was it for me,” Julia says. “There was no going back after that.”
The next day, they made an offer on the land. “Looking back on it, it was really crazy,” Julia says. “But we were very excited.”
Their offer of $85,000 was accepted, and they established a tight $275,000 construction budget, with the first step being the drilling of a well. Construction began in the spring of 2000.
Julia had read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun (Broadway Books, 1997), and was inspired by the author’s lyrical prose as she set about her project. “A lot of the book focuses on food and the Italian sense of life—she wanted the view over the little towns below, to have wine and cheese with friends in front of that view, and live a sweet life. I thought, ‘I can do that,’ ” says Julia, who at 52 has run her eponymous firm in Silver Spring for 19 years, specializing in single-family homes and additions.
“I knew [the house] had to be very simple—we didn’t have the money to do all the fancy things,” Julia says. That meant applying one of the guiding principles of her work: While most people cannot afford a palace or mansion, they can make one really great room and fit everything else around it.
The great room, with its breathtaking view of the valley below, became the primary focus of the 2,400-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath home, which was completed in the spring of 2001. Julia commuted nearly 150 miles every other day between Silver Spring and West Virginia during construction, leaving as soon as she dropped off her children at school, and returning just in time to pick them up.
Working within their budget meant creative compromises. Julia wanted a stone farmhouse, but couldn’t afford the stone. So she opted for architectural blocks made of colored concrete, with a rough-hewn texture much like stone.
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