Getting there is never really half the fun, especially if the Blue Route on a Friday evening is involved. But for the Johnson family of Bryn Mawr, the drive to their second home, in the Endless Mountains of Northeast Pennsylvania, is an integral part of the weekend retreat.
Especially the leg that kicks in after the Lehigh Tunnel. That’s where, as Meg Johnson (mom, Interschool Council president, Vassar show-house organizer) tells it, things start clicking into country time. As you emerge on the tunnel’s far side, Philadelphia radio stations grind out, the grid of suburbia falls away, and “the hills and valleys send out their own signal.” Sure as shooting, you hear it, right about the time your cell phone reception fades, the air bares teeth, and your car starts straining up the more than 2,000-foot climb to the Johnsons’ mountaintop abode.
But if the rustic beauty of the surroundings seems to call a halt to workaday worries, the family’s cozy “cabin” completes the surrender. Located on a private lake that was once part of a hunting and fishing association (and, before that, the estate of a Civil War colonel), the house emerges from the forest like a natural offshoot, with siding of flitched hemlock and, on the lake side, natural cedar planks. Only its burgundy-colored metal roof departs, slightly if stylishly, from the “quiet house” architect Andrew Blanda, of Sandvold Blanda Architects in Philadelphia, designed for the couple and their two children. “There’s something about this place that allows us to disengage,” says Meg, who describes herself and her husband, Craig, a management consultant (and her high-school sweetheart), as “intense” about their various projects.
The lake, a mere 125 feet from the house, informed its design. There are views of the water from every corner of the large living areas that form two sections of the U-shaped home. (The third section is the sleeping wing.) A series of glass French doors lines the inside of the shape, each opening onto a platform that feels like a Japanese-inspired veranda, or “engawa,” further linking the inside with the outside. But for all the glass and openness, the home is cozy, too. Its warmth hits you, literally, from the moment you step onto the blue slate tiles in the foyer and hear the crackle emanating from the two-sided fieldstone fireplace. “We’re always building a fire,” says Craig, busy this Sunday morning piling on logs and cooking eggs for Daly, 10, and Connor, 13.
The picture of domestic bliss — kids still in their PJs, could-be-J. Crew-model mom digging out the flannel sheets and winter duvets — is the happy result of some heavy-duty construction. The project began in 2000, when the Johnsons, who knew of the private area from close friends who have a house there, locked in on a petite and problematic A-frame. “Not only was the house way too small for them,” architect Blanda recalls, “but it had terrible structural problems.” Despite the termite-ridden floor joists and support beams that didn’t touch the ground, the architect and his clients were determined to “save the A,” if not the adjoining sleeping area (what Blanda calls the “rabbit warren”), which had seven-foot-six-inch popcorn ceilings. Blanda, who had previously designed an addition to the Johnsons’ Bryn Mawr home, got to work crafting a plan that would take the exterior beams of the structure inside. (They’re now painted a mellow gray-green.) His plan also eliminated the A-frame’s sleeping loft to open up the ceiling, and, by tearing down the low-slung bunk, created a new two-story, four-bedroom sleeping wing, with a second living room area as a connector between this and the A-frame.
Making the design come to life took a full year longer than the family had anticipated. There were the little things, like the two pieces of interior pine trim that builder David Brown spent a week getting just right, faced with the myriad angles of the house’s cutouts, cubbyholes and geometric ceilings. Or the tree (pictured at left) that had to be cut down the moment it starting sapping to insure its bark would stay on once it was brought inside and incorporated into the living room design. And then there were the big things: the foundation dug in the fall that had to be scrapped after it froze and split apart during the winter. The workers who took a hiatus for deer-hunting season. The rainy April weeks when the natural springs were percolating. But with patience, the Johnsons finally turned key on a truly unique home (see: giant tree in living room) with year-round appeal.
The largest gathering space, within the original A, provides a living area with optimal flexibility for hanging out as a family or with guests or lake friends. The open kitchen, with its outward-facing island sink (so the cook can appreciate the vista) and breakfast bar, adds to the convivial feel. A separate, walled walk-in pantry — a “room within a room,” as Blanda calls it — not only creates a wealth of storage, but frees the chef from having to keep every area pristine and neat.
The bedrooms, too, were designed to encourage togetherness — by being kept small enough to discourage too much alone time. Grouped in a wing that also features an office nook sealed by a sliding barn door and side-by-side kids’ and adults’ bathrooms, they’re furnished simply, each with a bed and dresser. The children’s rooms upstairs are joined by a small play area with toy chests for storage, a touch intended to keep clutter to a minimum. Even the fireplaces were planned, per Blanda, as gathering places as well as focal points, with wide, raised hearths that offer crawl-right-in seating beside the fire.
Dressing the warm and woodsy space proceeded according to Meg’s need for ease and her desire to leave room to add the family’s signature over time. “I wanted materials that offered a lot of flexibility and were not at all fussy,” she says. She selected a maple floor over pine, “in case someone decided to walk over it with their skates on”; she picked slate for the entryway, not only because it was a local material, but because it’s hard and impervious; similarly, she opted for rugs from Material Culture that would be easy to clean and hide dirt.
As for furnishings, the lady of the house steadily steered her designer, Jeffrey Soulges of Jeffrey Dean, Ltd., in Wyndmoor, away from anything over-the-top. “It’s the lake house,” she told him when he raised an eyebrow at her notion of shopping at Crate & Barrel for the couches. “He’d never been there,” she jokes. With the two couches as the anchor in the second living room, Soulges helped create a symmetrical arrangement that forms an intimate conversation or movie-watching area amid the high ceilings and spacious dimensions. Four rattan chairs seal the corners and sport plush cushions in the room’s color theme of blue, red and gold. Chinese stools take the place of a coffee table; one can be pulled toward the couch to hold a mug of tea, or all four can be grouped in a square to lay out a game of Scrabble. Overhead, two chandeliers, which Blanda had made from shades Soulges found at Neiman Marcus Last Call, further define the space and, as the layering of lighting does throughout the house, add to the inviting feel.
In terms of decor, the larger living area in the original A-frame is still something of a work in progress. Once the old-growth cherrywood cut down from the property finishes drying in the garage, the Johnsons plan to have it made into a large dining table and two gatefold tables, which will be recruited as additional dining space for large parties. For now, a picnic table fits well with the rustic vibe, and two banquettes (built at table height, with multiple purposes in mind) form the seating around the original fireplace.
Having enjoyed the house through summer swims and winter bonfires, Meg is making the final touches personal ones. She’s hung her grandmother’s cookie molds under the kitchen shelves (and yes, she uses them), and propped a “Johnson’s” blackberry filling can on the shelf above. She recently found just the right quirky thing to decorate the wall between living areas: a Pennsylvania Dutch distelfink, a symbol of prosperity and good harvests. When it comes to her weekend treasure-hunting, Meg says she’s in no rush: “I never want to just buy. I want to find the great thing.” The real focus now is the hours spent reading, or walking, or skating on the lake, and — a departure from what can be very supervised life in the suburbs — “trusting the kids to go out and find their own adventure.” Which, on these cold days, often means trudging across the lake to visit friends, sleds dragging at their heels, the row of lanterns across the veranda ready to light their way back to the comforts of home.