Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Volcano Runs Through It

By Beth Herman

With a strong affinity for the Chesapeake Bay, father/daughter broadcast journalists and Washington fixtures Patrick and Megan McGrath also share a profound sense of family and community.

Steeped in Wisconsin roots and Midwestern values, when the time came to renovate a 1,336-s.f. post-war rambler on Broadwater Point in Deale, Md., recently retired Fox White House correspondent Patrick and wife Mary Ellen, a retired teacher, factored in fellow Midwesterner Frank Lloyd Wright's sensibilities to their design agenda. And though she embraced her parents’ Midwestern ideals, Washington’s NBC 4 reporter Megan McGrath, first on the scene at the Pentagon disaster on 9/11, revealed more of a penchant for drama and modernism when her own post-war Broadwater Point residence warranted design defibrillation.

In both cases, a relationship with Principal Greg Uekman of Uekman/Architects was one of historical proportion, so to speak, with roots going back more than two decades to a small church project.

“I was designing a nice church in Prince George’s County in 1988,” Uekman said of his days as a young architect. “There were two people on the building committee, the pastor and a gentleman named Tom Melton. After a presentation to the church, Tom pulled me aside to tell me about a little shack he’d bought on the water in Deale and asked me to look at it.” While executing that project, the architect was approached by yet another Deale resident, none other than Patrick McGrath, who’d observed the construction process from across the street.

Nothing for Something

Having paid $80,000 in November, 1978 (they moved in the following April), the McGrath’s had purchased an asbestos-shingled rambler on a ¾ -acre peninsula with views of the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore. According to Mary Ellen, her husband had made a decision to purchase the property site unseen interior-wise, based solely on the view from the yard, having been locked out at the first showing. With the land valued at $50,000 and the house at only $30,000, the condition of the latter was almost indescribable. “They put up a million of them in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” McGrath explained. “It was before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and air conditioning, and this was where Washingtonians went to beat the heat–they were second homes people just threw up.”

Deformities withstanding, the two-bedroom, one bath structure with jalousie porch (“…in the winter, it was mighty cold,” said Mary Ellen) had an ill-sited southeastern exposure laundry room that completely obstructed the occupants’ view of the water from the inside. Raising a young family that included Megan and brother Michael, and battling a protracted WMAR Channel 2 strike in Baltimore (McGrath worked for the station’s Annapolis bureau) that eventually catapulted him from WMAR to Fox’s predecessor in Washington, the young reporter and his wife undertook a moderate, initial renovation – before they met Uekman – one that did not yet involve relocating the laundry room or opening up the structure.
“We knocked off the jalousie porch that ran the length of the house and put in a living room and a kitchen/dining area,” McGrath recalled, with the original kitchen too small to accommodate even a table. With two bedrooms and a bathroom added via an upper half story, or “simply going up with the roofline,” McGrath said, it was completely unappealing aesthetically. “If you looked at the house from the street side, it looked like a waterski ramp,” he quipped.

Where’s the Party?

In the early 1990s, with Patrick McGrath firmly established in D.C.’s rarefied national news culture and his daughter’s wedding reception somewhere on the horizon, a Uekman-directed, two-phased renovation took place. The results, which opened up the home to light and view, included a large master suite on the first floor, a renovated living room which was renamed the family room and the long-awaited relocation of the laundry room to the home’s northwest corner. A 342 s.f. addition, to be called the new living room, in conjunction with a proper entry porch measuring 112 s.f., were designed, in part, with a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright.

“In these pre-‘60s houses, the designs were all about rooms: a room in a room in a room,” Uekman said of the structure, one of about 12 in the close-knit Broadwater Point community he also identified as originally “style-less.” Adding that if these homes weren’t summer escapes, many of Deale’s early residents had been “watermen,” making their living from the water, and the homes were sparse and utilitarian at best. For the McGrath’s, consummate hosts renowned for their annual Preakness party, as well as for facilitating the tight community’s Fourth of July celebrations, annual oyster roasts and other affairs, a prominent space with spectacular views was at the top of their dance card.

“Basically, I wanted to keep the integrity of the house,” Mary Ellen said, noting the original woodwork was pine and most of the floors were oak. “I wanted to make sure there was a blend because it all had to look like it belonged,” she affirmed. “I’m not sure Greg (Uekman) was terribly happy about it, but I wanted pine moldings and trim inside,” she continued, recalling that at one time she’d personally stripped three coats of paint from the former living room’s (now family room’s) pine walls, which Uekman had affectionately monikered the “museum room.” Incorporating beautiful pine moldings and accent pieces, oak floors were refinished and stained, and any new construction in the brand new addition used the same type of oak and stain.

Boasting a 280-degree water view and maximum light achieved by strategic use of glass and a 6-by-5-ft. skylight, the McGrath’s addition has inspired numerous parties, special events and wedding receptions, including Uekman’s own local celebration for friends and colleagues following his Arkansas nuptials. “We thought if Greg needed a special place, this was a very personal one for him,” Mary Ellen said of her offer at the time.

Hey, It’s the Bay!

When daughter Megan married aspiring attorney (and web designer/electric guitarist) Dennis Guard in 1994, the decision to purchase a home on the circle in her parents’ Broadwater Point neighborhood was not in the cards.

“We were living in Crofton, and we’d bought one of the brand new pre-fab kind of townhouses,” Megan said, adding her husband was working full time and attending law school at night. “We were hunkered down, just trying to get through,” she recalled. “We were not looking for a house, needless to say.”
When a charmless, chopped up, otherwise nondescript 1,300 s.f. Broadwater Point creek side home became available in 1998, possibly in worse condition than Megan’s childhood home when originally purchased, the couple nevertheless jumped at the chance to rejoin the nurturing community. “We loved the neighborhood. People really care about one another. Dennis and I courted at my parents’ house (which was down the street). Having grown up on Chesapeake Bay, it was a wonderful experience, something I wanted for my kids,” Megan explained, anticipating the family yet to come. Following a bidding war with another couple and buoyed by the wild discovery of a ramshackle yet fully electrified Tiki bar at water’s edge, built by the previous homeowners, the young couple purchased the home, temporarily subordinating renovation time and costs to a priority investment in their careers.

In 2003, with firstborn Olivia on the way and an eye toward creating their proverbial castle, Uekman was called (“I’ve known him for half my life,” Megan said), noting unlike her parents’ more traditional sense of style, the Guards wanted an ultramodern, open floor plan.

“We want you to push the envelope on the modern,” Megan charged the architect, noting they’d all gotten to know how each other lived and entertained over the years (both the McGrath’s and Guards were known to host up to 75 guests at a time). “He’d definitely had the vision of what (my parents’ house) could become, because it’d been a disaster when they bought it,” Megan recollected. “There was literally a truck up on cinderblocks in the backyard. I thought my parents were ruining my life, moving me from Montgomery County with a community swimming pool to the middle of nowhere.”

Of Sheds and Shindigs

With the “middle of nowhere” soon the only venue on earth for Megan, creating an environment that would embrace and inspire a young family was paramount at that point. To that end, and adhering to the codes and requisites of waterfront building in an environmentally sensitive area with no city services, Uekman said restrictions included “building up an existing house only to half its current size” to eliminate the mini-mansion syndrome. On a good note, according to Uekman, because the county code sanctioned a freestanding accessory building with size not an object, the decision to incorporate a 240 s.f. freestanding home office was made.

Overall, the home’s redesign is based on two sheds, one being the accessory building and the other the original building with a soaring 14-ft. addition. A goal to essentially camouflage the plain fa├žade of the original structure was achieved by closing off its main wall with glass, and a glass door that brings one into the house. Three skylights, glass sheets and mitered, glazed corner glass bring light, vistas and the tenor of the estuary inside (Uekman talked about ospreys and blue herons roaming the property), as well as achieving passive solar gain in winter. In summer, a five-foot overhang on the deck side helps diffuse some of the sun’s light and heat. Natural, clear-stained maple floors permeate the house and decking, with the addition accommodating a necessary master suite when son William, now 5, was born.

“It’s not too fussy, in fact it’s bold and casual,” Uekman said of the design, which he added actually describes Megan herself. “She has great design instincts. She loves color,” he affirmed, noting a yellow fireplace wall and surprise purple partition in the master suite.

Speaking to bold decisions, and with Tiki parties – a result of the discovered Tiki bar – a concrete summer ritual, one annual Guard household event was seemingly doomed by the effects of construction. With the backyard largely eviscerated to accommodate the installation of an upgraded septic system, more than 100 people (including the architect) were scheduled to honor Tiki at the quintessential summer shindig. “You couldn’t move the pile of dirt. You couldn’t hide it. There was absolutely nothing to do with it,” Megan said. As such, a crater was dug at the top to conceal a smoke machine that was set to erupt every 10 minutes. “It was a terrific centerpiece for the party!” she quipped.
Here Today, Here Tomorrow

Dismissing her daily Deale, Md. to D.C. commute, for which she rises at 2:15 a.m., and her husband’s routine commute from Deale to Arlington, Va. as an assistant general counsel with Verizon, Megan explained the couple is wholeheartedly committed to remaining in the storied Broadwater Point community. “The joke is you’re going to have to bury me in the backyard. I’m not going anywhere. It’s definitely our forever house,” she said.

“They like their friends and make sure everybody stays in touch with everybody,” Uekman said of both generations, simultaneously expressing the privilege of being counted among them. “A long time ago they trusted me enough to take a shot at a young architect.”

Photos courtesy Paul Burke and Greg Uekman


Valerie Ormond on May 1, 2011, 4:36:00 PM said...

I truly enjoyed reading this story, knowing both McGrath families, Greg, and Broadwater Point. Thank you for taking the time to cover this good news story and honoring close families and a hard-working local architect. -Valerie

tom kerns said...

Tom Kerns said....

This is a terrific article. As a practicing architect I am keenly aware of the importance of TRUST that develops over time between an architect and their client. Magic happens when talent is given the opportunity to flex. Greg's ability to capture views and light in seemingly "frameless' openings is extraordinary... May the parties go on forever.....

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