Friday, July 3, 2009

Dressed-Up Structures Can Revitalize Your Back Yard

Garden designer Jane MacLeish once installed a 400-square-foot tent at the home of a Syrian oil magnate and his wife in the District's Kalorama neighborhood.

It was set beside the pool on a pink granite terrace, surrounded by pale pink tulips, peonies and roses to match the wife's jewelry.

"They used it for lounging," MacLeish said. "Isn't that a wonderful word, lounging? Something we don't do enough of."

Most backyard buildings are utilitarian, housing tools or cars. But some homeowners don't stop there, renovating existing structures or creating new ones to make spots to lounge, party, write or put up extra guests. They have found inspiration in tents, sheds and even boats. While simple tents and drapes can start at less than $100, more imaginative structures can run into the thousands.

A British transplant, MacLeish imported an antique stone temple, about eight feet across, from London to sit in her small Cleveland Park garden. Tangled branches of a fig tree lace the iron filigree of the roof, and clematis and scarlet honeysuckle scramble up the pillars. "Old estates in England are littered with these things," she said. "They're so attractive and make a very nice focal point and destination point in the garden."

MacLeish's neighbor took the simple step of adding white net curtains on tracks around the covered back terrace, tied back with ribbons for day and drawn at dusk, effectively tenting the space. "She was having trouble with mosquitoes," MacLeish said. "At night it's like you're on safari; the curtains are drawn, but you can still see the garden."

Washington real estate broker Suzanne Winter never seems to stop adding on to her 28-acre weekend retreat near Culpeper.

Years ago, when she and her husband Jack Rose put in the pool, they masked the unsightly mechanics with a rose-covered pergola, then added a pool house, open on two sides, with a roof supported in part by a Doric column.

Though it is now considerably larger, the main house used to be less than 300 square feet. The only other building on the property was a tool shed, crammed to the rafters with building supplies. To add sleeping space for visitors, Winter and Rose installed a double bed on the pool house platform and a bath with an open-air shower out back, then added unbleached muslin curtains to ward off the bugs.

When guests untied the curtains at night, "we wanted to run right out and be guests ourselves," Winter said.

When her husband passed away, Winter decided to rent the place out for occasional weeks and weekends and started to think about adding more space for guests.

Inspired by an article about landscape architect James van Sweden's Eastern Shore property and its collection of creative buildings, she started transforming the tool shed.

She and her handywoman, Laurie Hannabass, retooled it to include a gas fireplace, a bath, a kitchenette, and a little front porch with Adirondack chairs for flopping and contemplating the mountains.

Then a boat docked in her yard.

For years, a vintage turquoise and white, 25-foot cabin cruiser had been sitting in the side yard of a house on Route 29. Winter kept passing it thinking, "I can put it on the pond, and wouldn't people find it fun to sleep on the boat?"

The boat isn't functional, but there's no pond yet, so Winter figured, "What difference does it make?"

She bought the boat and took a week off work. With Hannabass's help, she buffed and polished and hooked up water for the head and the sink -- then stocked it with cocktails. Indeed, "the cocktail boat," is what she calls it. If you care to bunk in it, "you open the windows and the windshield is a skylight over your face that the stars fill at night," she said.

Now she's eyeing a vintage Air Stream trailer to park in the woods.

Van Sweden had a more literal role in transforming the Georgetown garden of John and Beverly Sullivan into a tropical retreat.

Their modestly sized home was built in 1890 as servants' quarters for the far grander house behind it on P Street, Beverly Sullivan said. When the couple bought the home in 1999, there was no garden, just concrete. The centerpiece was a three-car garage that was once a carriage house.

"And I thought: We've never had a car, so why start now?" Sullivan said.

What she needed then was a gallery, a place to exhibit the Haitian art she had collected over the years.

From the back of the house, at the end of a rambling path that wends past a koi pond, the carriage house is nearly hidden from view. She told van Sweden to think New Orleans to get the feel of a Haitian setting.

Three sets of French doors topped with fanlights replaced the car bays. At the entrance, a stone veranda is capped with a pergola, twined with clematis that explodes each autumn in a frothy white canopy.

Within, oriental rugs adorn flagstone floors and a fan twirls lazily from the beamed ceiling. Though she's stopped selling art, the walls and tabletops still bear brilliantly colored Haitian art and crafts dazzle atop iron tables and against lemon-colored walls. To one side is a bath, on the other a wine closet, cool and dim.

The garden outside is tropical, too, though Sullivan is clueless about what's planted beyond a patch of coral bells. "The names are long and my Latin is lousy," she said.

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