Great things can happen when you’re willing to keep an open mind and explore new places and possibilities. Diane and Paul Hemmersbaugh always dreamed of having a home on the water. He grew up going to lakes in Minnesota, and she spent summers at the Maryland seashore. Over the years, the pair, who have two daughters and live in Potomac, had visited many of the popular vacation spots in the region, including Lake Anna, Deep Creek Lake, the Delaware beaches and the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
When they got serious about searching for a second home of their own, their top priorities were being near a small town with easy access to shops and restaurants, and being on a sheltered inlet or creek so they could have a pier and a boat. They were unfamiliar with the Western Shore of the Chesapeake, but Paul had some colleagues with homes there, so they decided to consider it. With help from a local real estate agent, they explored several towns and picked Solomons Island in Maryland. “We were drawn to its charm, as well as the proximity to our primary residence, which is just an hour and a half drive door to door,” Diane says.
When they first toured the house that would eventually become their weekend retreat, they were not impressed. “We were in and out within about five minutes,” Diane says. The 1970s split-level was in its original state, with old carpeting and dark paneling, very few windows and little natural light. On the drive home, they talked about what a shame it was that the place was in bad shape, because the site was great, a quarter-acre lot overlooking Mill Creek with a beautiful water view from a covered rear porch.
They started to brainstorm about changes and improvements they could make to the 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-bath house, and got excited about the prospect of making it their own. After all, their home in Potomac had been a fixer-upper, and Diane learned a lot about the process by overseeing the room-by-room renovation. They brought a trusted contractor down to see the waterfront house, and he agreed that their ideas were doable and affordable. They made an offer, bought the place, and the contractor got to work.
The first and most important order of business was making the most of the water view. They removed two walls on the main floor, opening the small kitchen to the living and dining spaces. Then they installed two sets of sliding doors that lead to the rear deck, essentially creating a wall of glass overlooking the water. “We truly spend most of the day out there,” Diane says. “It’s beautiful to watch the local wildlife and the changing light on the water.”
Diane served as the general contractor on the project and the interior designer. She’d always had a passion for design, and several years ago, when the decorator she’d been working with on her Potomac house moved away, she finished the project herself. Family and friends were impressed, and she started to take on jobs, eventually becoming certified through the New York Institute of Art and Design. She transitioned from a career in public policy and launched her own company, Theo & Co. Design, in 2019.
Her design goal for the vacation home was a warm, casual elegance with a light, cottagey feel. Whitewashing the house inside and out provided an instant refresh, and she used hints of blue in textiles and accessories throughout as a nod to the waterside location. She invested in engineered hardwood flooring for the kitchen and main living areas, and upgraded to quartz countertops. “After purchasing the house, we had a limited budget for the renovation, so we saved some money by doing things like painting the existing kitchen cabinets and bedroom floors white, rather than replacing them,” Diane says.
When the work was finished, the Hemmersbaughs had a comfortable place to spend relaxing weekends alone or with their college-age daughters. On a typical Friday evening, they’ll wait for the Beltway traffic to subside, then hop into the car and head down Route 4 toward Solomons. They spend afternoons cruising around Mill Creek or the Patuxent River in their 18-foot Sea Ray bowrider, sometimes docking at a nearby restaurant for drinks and dinner or heading back to grill and watch the sun set from their dock. “It’s a very low-key, laid-back lifestyle there,” Diane says. “It’s only 80 miles away from Washington, D.C., but worlds away from the busy pace.”
When Joan and Barry Rosenthal found the perfect site for a vacation home, their first call was to their three grown children, and the second was to their architect. The Rosenthals have a long history with Stephen Muse. The couple first met the Bethesda-based architect when they won an hour of his time at a school fundraiser more than 30 years ago. They used the prize to have him redesign a small powder room in their 1930s house in Upper Northwest D.C. They liked it so much that they went on to do two more, much larger, renovations to the house under Muse’s direction. “We trust him,” Joan says. “He gets us, and we get him.”
So when a house on a canal in their preferred neighborhood of Henlopen Acres, a cozy enclave near Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach, came on the market, the Rosenthals invited Muse to visit and help them evaluate the site and discuss the possibilities. They all agreed that the house was a tear-down, and the site was worthy of a new custom home. After the Rosenthals purchased it, Muse and a colleague spent a few days there in an intensive work session, observing the conditions and the area, and devising an approach to the project.
The Rosenthals were very clear about the purpose of this house. They wanted a place for their close-knit family to gather for years to come. To accommodate the growing brood, it needed to be large. It also needed to respect the historic character and scale of the neighborhood, so Muse designed the 4,700-square-foot home in two sections—a small structure on the street side and a larger wing behind it, overlooking the canal. The two parts are connected by a narrow two-story section with floor-to-ceiling windows that contains the staircase. Muse refers to this section as a “glassy hyphen.”
In the interest of togetherness, the kitchen, dining and living spaces are in one big room. The primary bedroom suite is on the same floor, so the homeowners have one-level living when they are there alone. The second floor is for guests, with four bedrooms—each with an en suite bathroom—plus a fun bunk room for the grandchildren. “In this house, you are either with the family, in your bedroom, or outside,” Muse says.
In order to make the 875-square-foot great room feel comfortable, Muse divided it visually with architectural details. The ceiling beams are laid out in a three-part grid pattern overhead. Warm-toned, locally milled hickory wood covers practically every surface—the walls, ceiling, window trim and custom cabinetry. “It gave the space a warm feeling and color without painting the walls,” Muse says. The ceiling is equipped with small cable lighting, so there was no need to drill holes into the wood for recessed cans. “With the big expanse of windows, the look of that room is very open and contemporary,” Joan Rosenthal says.
With lots of people coming and going, a low-maintenance house was another top priority for the Rosenthals. In the main room, Muse chose a durable floor made of concrete and exposed aggregate stone in a color that coordinates with the hickory. It stands up to heavy foot traffic, is easy to clean and stays cool underfoot in the summer. It’s equipped with hydronic radiant heating for comfort in the winter.
Summers are especially memorable here for the Rosenthals, their children and six grandchildren, with the cousins convening for vacations filled with long sunny days biking to the beach and crabbing off the dock in the back. “The house just works really well for us,” Joan says. Muse is also pleased with the result. “It’s a good feeling when you’ve finished a project,” he says, “and what you wanted to have happen, happens.”
Like many local families, spending summers at the Delaware shore is a tradition for Rich and Janet LaFleur. “We’ve been going to Bethany Beach since the early 1980s, even before we were married,” Janet says. In the years that followed, the Potomac couple and their two young daughters would spend a few weeks each summer in rented condominiums at Sea Colony. “Then 9/11 happened, and it seemed like a good time to look for a house,” Rich says.
They eventually found and purchased a 30-year-old, recently renovated, one-story cottage in Middlesex Beach, on the border of Bethany and South Bethany. The location was perfect, a five-minute walk to the beach and just a mile from the stores and restaurants of downtown.
Fast-forward 20 years and the children are grown and married, the beach house is now 50 years old, and the LaFleurs were spending plenty of money every year on maintenance and upgrades. “We considered renovating it, as well as razing it and starting over,” Rich says. To help them decide, the couple scheduled a consultation with local builder Marnie Oursler of Marnie Custom Homes in Bethany Beach.
She schooled them on changes to building restrictions in a flood zone after Hurricane Sandy. For instance, they could only renovate up to half the value of the structure without raising the house. “That seemed like we’d be putting a Band-Aid on it,” Rich says. “With a new build, we wouldn’t be hamstrung by the old footprint.”
The cost of a major renovation and getting an old house up to code could be almost as much as a new one, according to Oursler. “Most of these houses weren’t built for year-round living,” she says. “A 50-year-old house at the beach is not the same as a 50-year-old house in the D.C. area. There’s a different standard of construction.”
With the decision made to start from scratch, they got to work on the design. Armed with lots of photos for inspiration, the LaFleurs collaborated with Oursler and Aga Sokolow of Bernardon, an integrated design firm in Wilmington, Delaware. The couple wanted a two-story house, outdoor living spaces and plenty of room for their children and their families. “We went from zero to three grandchildren all of a sudden during COVID,” Janet says. “It’s given us new purpose and gotten us thinking about a new generation.”
At 4,300 square feet, the new home takes advantage of the nearly half-acre lot. “We don’t get a lot of opportunities to build on a big wooded lot,” says Oursler, who typically works on the beach side. An inverted floor plan features the main living spaces on the top floor, along with the owners’ suite, an office, a screened porch, a grill deck, and an exterior staircase leading to a rooftop deck. “It’s up in the trees, and very peaceful,” Oursler says.
The bright and airy great room is the heart of the home. The ceiling soars to 17 feet in the center, thanks to a “light monitor,” which is a raised portion of the roofline with clerestory windows that flood the kitchen, living and dining rooms with light.
The four guest suites are on the first floor. “Making sure everyone had some privacy was a big part of the design,” Janet says. With three grandchildren under 2 years old, the house needed one of Oursler’s signature bunk rooms, outfitted with a pair of built-in bunk beds with an integrated staircase. “The kids are too small for it now, but it will be a perfect place for them to romp around in a few years,” Rich says. There is also a den/TV room on that level, so guests have an additional place to hang out. “It’s good for people who are awake at odd hours, with babies or little kids,” Oursler says.
On the exterior, Janet wanted clean lines and simple shapes. A large round window and horizontal cable railings on the decks are nods to a nautical style. The windows have crisp white trim instead of traditional shutters, and Oursler specified a synthetic shingle product called NuCedar for the cladding. “It looks like natural cedar, but is easier to maintain,” she says.
Low maintenance means the LaFleurs can spend more time relaxing, entertaining or building sandcastles with the grandkids. They spend as much time as they can at the new house, once a month in the offseason and every weekend in the summer. In the coming years, they envision a home filled with friends and family. “We’ve put a lot of heart into the planning and building process,” Janet says, “and it was worth it.”
Carolyn Weber lives in Silver Spring and frequently writes about architecture and home design.
This story appears in the July/August 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.