“Where We Live”
Bethesda Enclave Built for Gardeners, Social Butterflies
By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 26, 2008
In 2001, Paul and Laurie Wilner left what they described as a “typical Colonial on three-quarters of an acre near Great Falls” for a community of 104 contemporary houses without lawns or basements two miles from downtown Bethesda.
Drumaldry, one of several spellings for the Scots-Gaelic expression meaning “elder’s ridge,” was built in the 1970s. The three- and four-bedroom houses have stained cedar siding and cedar shake shingles. Each is surrounded by six-foot-high brick walls. Individual gates lead to cozy outdoor courtyards. Doorways open to bright, angular multilevel interiors.
“It reminded me of something you’d find in Florida or California,” Laurie Wilner said. “It’s not a gated community, but it has that enclave feeling.”
Leni Preston, a five-year resident who serves on the community’s architectural committee, said Drumaldry’s designer, Nicholas A. Pappas, was a contemporary of her father, Grosvenor Chapman, a local architect and historic preservationist.
Preston said Pappas, who later served as an architect for Colonial Williamsburg before retiring to Florida, told her he was inspired by an inner sense, not by California modern.
Each house has a two-car garage, with the space in one model so large that it was described in the community’s original brochure as big enough for five Volkswagens. Some houses have two-story fireplaces. Some have sunken courtyards. Most have several vaulted ceilings; usually one is redwood.
A subdued color palette of natural hues has developed over time. “One of the original exterior colors included purple,” Wilner said, “but no longer.”
The homeowners association is wrestling with the challenge of preserving architectural integrity while allowing for current technologies that would be less costly and demand less maintenance, she said.
The courtyards within showcase the creativity of residents who enhance these small private spaces. Japanese gardens, fishponds, fountains, hammocks and swimming pools are tucked away, out of sight.
Behind the solid gate at Doni and Phil Schambra’s house, there is a plethora of greenery and seasonal color hugging a meandering brick garden walkway. A wall of Leyland cypress softens the brick backdrop to the pool and patio. Japanese maples and weeping cherries dot other courtyards.
A dainty decorative iron gate gives a glimpse into the terraced garden Jacqueline Milne is fine-tuning. She and her husband, both scientists at the National Institutes of Health, bought their Drumaldry house sight unseen in 2000 while they were living overseas, largely because it was within walking distance of their labs.
To Milne, the walls create a setting much like the classic English gardens back home. “From every window, you can look out on a garden,” she said. She recalled a favorite book, “The Jewel Box Garden,” by Thomas Hobbs.
“It looks like that — a little jewel box. The brick walls make beautiful backdrops.”
Milne’s family entertains often, finding that the space inside and out allows for an efficient flow, even with 50 or 60 guests.
Jay Schneider, an avid gardener and a resident for eight years, said: “Gardening is not about mowing lawns. It’s about planting different flowering shrubs and vegetables. . . . We liked having a confined space. When houses are this close together, if you didn’t have walls, you’d be looking in each other’s windows.”
Actually, Drumaldry’s houses are situated so that it takes some effort to look into neighbors’ windows or even their enclosed yards. Many residents eschew curtains, preferring instead to let light and greenery show through.
Schneider said he doesn’t see the walls as limiting interaction with neighbors. Each street ends in a cul-de-sac, so “kids are outside skating and riding bikes,” he said. And he noted, “Most places in the suburbs, even if they have front porches, are not really front-porch communities.”
Carrie Mann, a real estate agent who lives in the community, said, “If you want to be social, there’s plenty of opportunity.”
Dogs and children are the catalysts that often get neighbors meeting neighbors, said Wilner, a former Drumaldry association president who now leads the social committee.
“It’s an incredible walking community,” she said. Paths within Drumaldry provide access to Wyngate Elementary and North Bethesda Middle School, so children can avoid walking on any main streets.
Wilner describes Drumaldry’s age mix as “a cadre of original owners and families with little kids — people in their 80s and those with infants.” She said, “We don’t split upon those lines, though.” She noted that more than half of the folks who show up at Drumaldry events do not have young children.
Drumaldry’s original floor plans have been altered considerably over the years. The most popular renovations involve opening the interior more than originally designed.
Stuart Miller and Helen Hopkins moved in last July after removing walls to combine a family room, dining room and kitchen. They now have a 22-foot-long, granite-topped center island. The house is smaller than their previous one but makes “better use of space,” he said.
For Phil Schambra, the best use of space is in the proximity of a first-floor master bedroom suite to his backyard pool, only steps away, out of the neighbors’ view. Roll out of bed in the morning, swim a few laps, then enjoy a cup of coffee on the patio, all before setting foot in the rest of the house.
Wilner said, “Drumaldry is so strikingly different, and the difference is kind of fun.”