A French Fantasy in Cumberland

For the Washington Post's At Home magazine
By Stephanie Cavanaugh

“I would rather have a smaller house with really beautiful beams than a 10,000 square foot McMansion in Potomac.” Kelly Moran announces, blond curls bobbling. “They’re big empty boxes and they’re boring.”

Utterly unlike the weekend home that Kelly built, wit-filled and charming. As if Marie Antoinette had uplifted one of her quirky little farmhouses outside of Trianon and dropped it on the edge of a golf course in Cumberland, Maryland.


On a foggy weekday it has that mirage air. Birds chirp. Gravel crunches underfoot. The terrace alongside the limestone cottage overlooks a bank of lavender to a pond and waterfall. Not a golfer in sight. Just green rising up to the mountains of West Virginia in the distance.

National parkland, she says. It will never be built on. “It will always have this amazing, phenomenal view.”

Her husband, Steve Wade, chose the golf course location. A transplanted Brit, “When he was in England he thought that was like, ‘You’ve arrived,’” she said.

She chose the style. Enchanted by homes she’d seen in England, France and Holland, Moran wanted it to seem as if she’d been skipping through the fields and discovered an ancient stone barn, restored it, and added on a handful of rooms: a sleeping loft above the great room for son Liam, a library that steps up to a master bedroom, one full bath and a powder room.

She also decided to build it. “I’m not a Barbie doll.” she laughed. “I’m a tom boy.” (A tom boy with a fair resemblance to Kyra Sedgewick, a degree in fine art, training in landscape architecture, and a book on China tea cups under her tool belt).

Besides the challenge, serving as her own general contractor “would save twenty to thirty percent of the total cost,” she said. Not a negligible sum, since it cost twice as much and took more than twice as long as she expected, just as everyone had warned.

“I thought,” she said with an amused shrug, “$200-$250,000 for a little cottage and I could do it in a year.” It took three years to build the 1800 square foot house, and she’s not saying how much over her original cost guesstimate.

She started with a sketch, then built a scale model in balsa wood. “It was like wow! Now I can really get into it,” she laughed. “Maybe the loft should be larger…or the kitchen smaller. I could see how every change affects everything else.”

Her husband suggested the great room’s post and beam construction, which at first gave her pause. “I don’t want a moose on the wall. I’m not doing Aspen,” she said, “It had to look European.”

But they discovered a company in Canada that did elegant work with reclaimed timber. Massive beams from a school house and a bridge were cut to size then aged with dings and gauges. “I paid extra for that,” she laughed. They were numbered and shipped south for assembly.

The ceiling soars twenty three feet to the ridge beam.

The windows are also from Canada, designed to keep frigid cold at bay. Under the stone floors, run tubes for hydronic radiant heat that the couple laid themselves. “Its great,” she giggles, “And right by the toilet? Ahhh!”

Highly energy efficient, the heating bills are astounding. Keeping the house at around 74 degrees costs, she said, “Like thirty bucks a month.”

Much of the construction work was done by Moran and her husband. He built the library bookcases with the secret door in the center that swings open to reveal the laundry. Together they laid the slate floor, though later she spent many lonely hours grouting with a pastry bag to keep the muck off the tiles.

Supplementary labor was mainly local. The latte colored Venetian plaster on the walls was applied by a woman who’d created the artful finishes at the ice cream parlor. The wrought iron railings were installed by a craftsman she found assembling an antique staircase in the coffee shop.

Another local company, Breighner, designed the wall cabinets in the drop dead kitchen. Painted a near matte ebony, with a pie crust sink and faucet set imported from England, the copper hardware matches the fabulously intimidating copper counter. It’s quite practical, Moran insists. Made by a company that normally manufactures air conditioning ductwork, it is treated with an automotive clear coat sealant to retard tarnish.

For an unfitted, Euro look, the wine colored island with the green soapstone surface is a deliberate mismatch. Standing behind it and gazing out over the room is like having your own cooking show. Don’t drop the turkey.

Stashed in the island is the pair of under-counter commercial refrigerators that yield the same storage as a standard unit, cost a fraction of residential models, and have the added benefit of being unobtrusive.

Throughout the house, architectural salvage that she’s collected for years is put to delightful reuse. An antique firebox grill hides the air conditioning return, “it doesn’t have to be ugly, and it still functions,” she said. In the bathroom, an antique mantel frames another firebox for a bit of English cheer.

Moran is not the least averse to a bit of cheap chic decorating, like the G Street Remnant sheers tacked to the master bedroom dormer with clear plastic thumbtacks (Oh, who would notice but us?) that tents the bed most romantically.

It’s a weekend house, after all. No closets (though she’s looking for an armoire), and no bedroom doors, “We don’t seem to miss them,” she said.

At home in Gaithersburg, the family scatters. “My son will go up into his room and play on the computer,” she said. “My husband will go to the basement—the man cave—with the surround sound and the soccer. And I’m in the kitchen or the bedroom. We’re like all over.”

Then there’s the cleaning, the heating, and the cooling. “I think more and more people want to be in a smaller house and spend the money on good materials,” she said. And here, in this intimate space, the family is connected. “It’s really good,” she said with a satisfied smile.

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