The House on Hooper’s Island is about land, sea, sky.
By Beth Broome
A couple hours drive from Washington, D.C., Hooper’s Island, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the Chesapeake Bay, seems to exist in a time warp. One of the state’s oldest settled areas, the island was originally agrarian. Today, many of the 400-odd residents of the sleepy community—with simple, saltbox houses dotting the flat, waterfront expanses—are watermen: crabbers, oyster tongers, and seafood packers. For some 300 years, it is said, the population could be traced to 10 families. So when a Modernist, metal-clad weekend compound designed by Alexandria, Virginia-based architect David Jameson, FAIA, started to rise along its shores, one can only imagine the chattering rattling the walls of The Island Pride, the local gas station-cum-hardware store and grocery-cum-restaurant.
Some years earlier, a professional from D.C. and his partner had purchased the isolated, 6-acre property and its white clapboard cottage, situated alongside the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, between a salt meadow marsh, the Honga River, and a pine forest. Not long afterward, however, in 2003, Hurricane Isabel destroyed the cottage. Rather than trying to reconstruct the past, the owners saw this wiping-clean of the slate as an opportunity to build something that would connect them to the awe-inspiring environment. “This house is about the land, the sea, the sky, and bringing that all together,” says Jameson. “The idea is to get you out of the house, to be a part of the landscape.” Beyond this, the clients modestly requested that the house have places to sleep, cook, and sit.
Because the house’s function changes with the seasons and the frequency of visitors, Jameson envisioned a “camp” composed of separate cabins that can be opened or closed as needed, and broke the program into a number of components: lodge, master cabin, guest cabin, and “art studio.” The components are unified by their lead-coated-copper cladding and coplanar roofs, and the three main structures are literally linked by a large screened porch. To move between the parts of the 2,200-square-foot house, which also include a swimming pool, fire pit, and a beaconlike outdoor shower, the owners and their visitors must move outside and engage with nature.
Following Hurricane Isabel, the Dorchester County Zoning Department instituted an ordinance requiring new housing to be built at least 3 feet above the base flood elevation. In response, the steel- and wood-framed house cantilevers off a series of raised, black ground-face concrete-block plinths. Given setback and footprint restrictions, the architect used the cantilevers to increase the square footage while minimizing the impact on the environment.
Jameson, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, calls the house a “coming home” project. Responding to its context, he drew on the local vernacular of silos, chicken coops, and fishing shacks with their metal shed roofs. As with the in-between spaces animating grain elevators and other structures on rural compounds, the voids in this project are just as important as the buildings themselves, says Jameson. The low-tech material choices, while nodding to the fabric of the regional architecture, also respond to the house’s natural environment: The heaviness of the concrete secures the house to the earth while the metal has “a lighter materiality, like that of water,” says Jameson. Not coincidentally, these choices took into account the capabilities of the island’s “yesteryear contractors,” as Jameson calls them (KieranTimberlake’s Loblolly House, also on the Chesapeake Bay, greatly circumvented this issue by incorporating a prefab system), and also render the house low-maintenance.
Interiors, as well, are shaped by what lies beyond the house’s confines. Glass walls, or “view portals,” frame undulating waves of salt-meadow grasses and expansive water vistas, and the concrete floors continue outside onto covelike porches protected by deep overhangs and extended exterior walls. Reclaimed Douglas fir cladding provides a warm counterpoint to the metal surfaces outside and, while creating durable surfaces, makes reference to the hunting cabins that populate the area. In the kitchen, glass doors slide open to an ipé-wood runway, which leads to the pool, partly elevated above ground because of the water table.
Beyond the house’s ample accommodations, the catwalk, and the built-in ice bucket in the kitchen counter, it is the acid-etched-glass-and-stainless-steel outdoor shower—which by night becomes a gigantic, habitable light fixture animated by the obscured figures of the bathers within—that proclaims that this is a party house. At the same time, though, it is a meditative place—with the sky for a roof and the endless landscape as wallpaper—that has a humbling effect, most certainly underscoring for its inhabitants their small place in the world.