When landscape architect Howard Cohen first stepped into the Great Falls backyard of his new landscape design client, what he encountered was a mash up of pathways, hardscaping and structures that didn’t add up. It begged to be made right. “What I want from you, said the client, is a grand vision.”
Cohen responded to that request with an ambitious and meticulous landscape design under-pinned by a strong thematic logic. At the center of his design (again by client request) is a show stopping screened porch and loggia anchored by a massive stone fireplace.
The place we spend the most time is inside the screened porch. My wife and I will often have coffee there. Sometimes we will have a fire and sit in our bedroom because our bedroom has French doors that exactly frame the fireplace. We like the peace of it.
The Back Story
The clients chose their house somewhat quickly following an unexpected move to Virginia about ten years ago. Initially, there wasn’t a sense of long-term commitment to the place.
Although they renovated the entire house without hesitation, they held off on making any large-scale improvements to the landscaping. It just didn’t make sense to them at the time. As the client tells it, during their first year in the neighborhood one of the families invited them over for a back yard party. Surrounds had done the landscaping there:
We were sitting there talking with neighbors and just could not believe what a back yard could look like. They showed us a picture of their yard that was in a magazine. It was all very impressive. But, we said, who would spend this kind of money? We would NEVER spend money on something like this. Well, time goes by….
What changed their disposition was the arrival, ten years later, of a new chapter in their lives. They had begun planning for retirement:
We were looking for a destination property where we would have our retirement home and people would want to come and visit. The grand kids that aren’t even born yet would want to come and all that. But after looking around we realized that we had that destination property right here. It just needed a bit more something.”
As it turns out Cohen’s landscape designs, combined with the clients’ ambition, gave the place a LOT more something. They made a commitment to stay in their house for many more years to come. And they wanted to make it special.
The Heart of the Project: Porch Design With Fireplace
The client made clear that adding a screened porch was top of the list of features he most desired in the new landscape design. And the most important feature of that porch design would be a stone fireplace. It was a challenge to determine how best to position this massive element. The client thought it should be on a side of the porch away from the yard for fear it would block views. The landscape architect convinced him to place it on the back side. He was right.
One side of the porch frames a broad view to the deep part of the yard. The other side reveals the swimming pool and pergola beyond. The back wall, where the fireplace is, partially screens out the noise and activity at the swimming pool.
The porch sits on a raised terrace that steps easily out to the grill area, then on to the pool deck. The chimney is a major focal point on the porch structure and plays well from different viewpoints around the yard. It was so integral to the design that the fireplace, chimney and all the stonework was completed before carpenters began building the porch.
Creating An Experience
The intent of the new design was to “tidy up” a few existing features, create new ones and to superimpose thematic direction, shaping and definition overall.
The first thing Cohen did was create “an arrival experience” at the end of the driveway. He started with an iron entry gate set between stone columns. Upon entering the yard, the walkway leads to a circle where you turn and are led down to another circle and walkway that brings you around to the rear terrace. The circles provide inviting little areas to sit for a moment if you feel like it. Myrtles border the walkways.
Before implementation of the new landscape plan, the walkways throughout the yard were “uneventful” in that they didn’t create an experience of deliberately leading you from one point of interest to another.
Now the paths through the back yard take you on a journey. You step into a different world once you pass through that stunning garden gate. The redesigned walkways make sense of the landscape and how you move through it.
A Dash of Whimsy
One of the architect’s favorite features is something called a “folly.” The folly is a contrivance employed by landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted—who designed Central Park in New York among other accomplishments. Follies were little buildings set out in a landscape that had no function. They were purely decorative. They were meant simply to be something to look at to create whimsy.
The client likes to tinker, and he asked us to build a work shed. So I said let’s put something out there that people will look at and be intrigued… When you walk through the arrival gate into the yard, it’s the first thing you see. It’s awesome. Howard Cohen, Landscape Architect
Cohen’s folly is set near the perimeter of the property. A large lawn area introduces some negative space to offset tree groupings, planting beds—and the folly.
There was a good-sized swimming pool on the existing site. But the pool deck was small. There was almost no room for furniture.
Cohen created a lounging area adjacent to the pool deck. The spot is prescribed by low retaining walls backed by a raised bed of tall grasses and wild flowers. The walls provide hard definition and the planting beds add a softening effect. The retaining walls also refer back to the porch chimney because of the matching stone used. This new area helps bridge the space between porch and pool bringing them into logical relationship with each other.
On the side of the pool opposite the lounge area, a poorly constructed (and rather lackluster) pergola was replaced by a new airy, graceful design that arcs over a poolside dining area
It’s absolutely a joy and it improves with age. Our favorite time of year is spring. We look forward to all the things blooming, the perennials coming back. There is a real level of excitement….
It is interesting that a central feature of this landscape design was purely architectural. The implementation of the loggia and porch design improves the way the main house relates to the yard. The porch and loggia have become a vantage point for viewing and enjoying the scene. Relationships between the house and various areas of the yard are now distinct and logically connect one space to the next.
Also interesting is that this scale of project was unimaginable to the homeowners initially. But time and a change in perspective made it exactly the right course for them to take. It is loaded with meaning for them. It is their permanent home, a welcoming place to be shared with children and grandchildren and good friends in the years ahead.
We at Surrounds are grateful for opportunities to participate in making meaningful places for our clients to live. That’s the point really. Otherwise, all this creativity would simply be…. an impressive extravagance. Contact one of our landscape architects if you’d like to talk about making the place where you live into a special place to stay.