Design & Home

This DC Couple Thought They Were Going to Rehab a Waterfront Colonial. It Made More Sense to Tear It Down and Go VERY Modern.

Renovating is famously stressful. You have to stay on schedule, which is tough. You have to stay on budget, which is tougher. And you have to do it while adhering to persnickety local rules and construction regulations. That’s complicated enough, but what about when your remodel unexpectedly turns into a total tear-down?

This is what happened in St. Michaels, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, when Charlie Dale and Kay King were planning their dream house with prominent Washington architect Robert M. Gurney.

The original 1980s Dutch Colonial before it was transformed into an ultra-modern home. Photograph of Dutch Colonial courtesy of Robert M. Gurney; photograph of new home design by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.

After narrowing their search to four sites, the couple—with Gurney’s counsel—settled on a 1989 Dutch Colonial, perfect for its five acres of land and 400 feet of waterfront along Solitude Creek, an estuary that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. They bought the house in 2012, anticipating an extensive renovation.

DC Home Redesign: Gurney relied on light and space–not fussy finishes–to create drama. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.
Gurney relied on light and space–not fussy finishes–to create drama. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.
DC Home Redesign: This black paneling around the entrance to the kitchen is made of stained oak. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.
This black paneling around the entrance to the kitchen is made of stained oak. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.

But Talbot County had recently rolled out a new floodplain ordinance with much more restrictive building requirements. “Most stringent [among the updates] was we had to elevate the house two feet above the floodplain,” says Gurney. With its lower joists rotted, he and the general-contracting firm Think Make Build realized it would make the most sense to tear the structure down to its foundation and start over, adding more concrete block underneath to raise it up.

This created another major challenge: When rebuilding, they wouldn’t be allowed to deviate from the original house’s footprint. If they did, they’d have to comply with another rule that mandates building totally new structures much farther back from the river’s edge—undercutting the whole point of having a waterfront home. “They would’ve been in the woods and barely had water views,” says Gurney. Thus, his design would have to fit within the same rectangle of the 1980s tear-down.

DC Home Redesign: Most of the owners' art collection, including the pieces in the bedroom, is by Washington artists. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.
Most of the owners’ art collection, including the pieces in the bedroom, is by Washington artists. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.
DC Home Redesign: Gurney almost always paints his interiors white. Bright accessories add color. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.
Gurney almost always paints his interiors white. Bright accessories add color. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.

Even with the challenging codes, Dale, a partner at a consulting firm, says he would choose the same property and “do it again in a heartbeat.” King, who manages study-abroad programs at Washington College, agrees. Looking at the final product—a modern, light-filled sanctuary, oriented to offer the best possible views of the surrounding scenery—it’s easy to understand why.

With the couple’s relatively modest budget, Gurney says he relied “on space and light to make the interior beautiful and interesting, as opposed to lots of exotic finishes.” Though he favors abundant glass, he had to leave enough solid wall space to accommodate his clients’ art collection, including original paintings by Dale. Outside, the structure was crafted for maximum durability and minimal maintenance, with materials such as fiber-cement-panel siding and aluminum-clad windows.

When the house was finished last year, Dale and King relocated from DC to St. Michaels. They intend never to move again. “It has a good name—Solitude Creek,” says Dale. “It’s a nice, quiet place.”

DC Home Redesign: Gurney included exterior ramps and a lower-level master bedroom in the new design to allow the owners to age in place. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.
Gurney included exterior ramps and a lower-level master bedroom in the new design to allow the owners to age in place. Photograph by Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography.

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She was previously a reporter for Legal Times and the National Law Journal. She has recently written about the Marriott family’s civil war and the 50-year rebirth of 14th Street, and reported the definitive oral history of the Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt case. She lives in Northeast DC with her husband, two dogs, and two cats.