ABOUT JOHN A. D’EPAGNIER, A.I.A.
From 1913 into the 1920’s, while being raised on a Far Hills, New Jersey estate as the son of caretakers, John A. d’Epagnier, A.I.A., dreamt big as he tended to manual chores; namely, to someday design and build his own unique home. With a high school teacher’s encouragement and financial support from his two siblings, he studied architecture in New York City, Washington, DC, and the U.S. Navy during World War II. A few years later, Mr. d’Epagnier and his native Capitol Hill bride, Rita Walsh d’Epagnier, purchased 5 acres in Colesville’s Drumeldra section of Silver Spring, MD. The land sold for $5K in 1945 and was accessible via a dirt road that became Notley Road. On the rolling hillside, a 50+ tree apple orchard, 10 peach trees, and a 1-acre garden plus a small cinder block structure that remains at the back of the property, was adjacent to a neighbor’s 2-bedroom colonial and farmland on the 3 other sides. The property became the actual drawing board on which Mr. d’Epagnier’s dream, but now one envisioned with experienced imagination, became a reality.
During studies at Pratt Institute, department of Architectural Construction, Brooklyn, NY, and in the School of Architecture at the Catholic University of America (CUA, 1936) and Cornell University, Mr. d’Epagnier became intrigued by modem architecture, which incorporated open floor plans, walls of windows to coexist visibly with nature, strong horizontal lines that hugged the ground, and fluidity of movement throughout the home. Mr. d’Epagnier also worked for several years in the office of John Russell Pope on the development of the National Archives Building, the National Art Gallery, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial following work in the Navy Department at the Bureau of Yards and Docks in the early and mid 1940’s.
The works of Frank Lloyd Wright were inspirational, and Mr. d’Epagnier included all of the above-mentioned elements at the Notley Road site as well as a low-lined roof with broad overhanging eaves, prominent central hearth and chimney and a brick fireplace, ribbons of windows, built-in planters, the use of Cherokee Red, Wright’s signature color, exposed beams, many built-in closets, seating, cupboards, and bookcases, and the use of natural materials, mostly stone and wood, modeled after elements from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Period and his Usonian designs. Elegant simplicity was intended and achieved in the design.
A Usonian home was typically a small, single-story dwelling without a garage or much storage. They are often L-shaped to fit around a garden area on unusual and inexpensive sites. They are characterized by native materials, flat roofs, and large cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling (air conditioning was not used in the home until the 21st century because there was “always a breeze on the hill”; natural lighting with clerestory windows. Another distinctive feature is that they typically have little exposure to the front or “public” side (at the Notley Road site, the front doorway was originally in the living room and later moved to a less “public” side), while the rear, private sides are completely open to the outside. A strong visual connection between the interior and exterior spaces is an important characteristic. The word carport was coined by Frank Lloyd Wright to describe an overhang for sheltering a parked vehicle. (The current porch at Notley was originally a carport.) The Usonian design is considered among the aesthetic origins of the ranch-style home popular in the American west of the 1950’s.
Outside of the mainstream colonial revival styles in the Washington metropolitan area, Mr. d’Epagnier’s vision of home brought together his belief that architecture, landscape, and community were intertwined. The creation of a beautiful house, the reverence for family life, the open spatial plan found in the works of Wright and Bauhaus/ International era-inspired social philosophies and duplicated at the Notley Road site, intermingled design, nature, and an invitation to a more communal lifestyle.
At the same time that Mr. and Mrs. d’Epagnier were purchasing the land, several other architects from the CUA Architectural School bought acreage nearby. Examples include the Richard Collins, A.I.A., residence on Randolph Rd., the Dr. Paul Goettelman, A.I.A, (former Dean of the CUA Architecture School) residence on Vierling Dr., and the William O’Neil residence on Homecrest Dr. Each was located in the Colesville area and incorporated similar design elements of individuality alongside the freedom of truly modem living. A sense of community was built as the rural area became home to these designers who espoused Frank Lloyd Wright’s belief that community living or suburbia could include unique, clean design. These architects sought community and shared materials, such as crops, trees, gardening expertise, and building supplies, tractors, and certainly, consultation with each other and interactions among the family members.
After a brief partnership with Fred E. Taylor, who sold his firm to Mr. d’Epagnier, In the mid-1950’s, Mr. d’Epagnier opened his own architecture firm in Silver Spring, MD, employing 4 draftsmen. Some of his major projects included post World War II suburban developments in Silver Spring, Kensington (Garret Park Estates, Parkwood Homes), Wheaton (Connecticut Ave. Park, Inc., Housing Corp. of America), and Beltsville, MD (Montpelier Village Apts.); Transfiguration Episcopal Church, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, rectory, and school, both in Colesville; Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah Congregation Synagogue in NW, D.C., Holy Family Catholic Church in Prince George’s County, MD, St. Brigid’s School in Peapack, NJ, and St. Mary of the Lake rectory in Lakewood, NJ, and Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Alexandria, VA. With knowledge of design and construction technique, the architect’s job broadened to the extent that designing a good-looking building was but one phase of the work, as witnessed in some commercial design work by Mr. d’Epagnier, which included the former Health and Human Services headquarters in Rockville, MD, Buzzard’s Point’s government-leased buildings, the Gramax and Wilste Buildings in Silver Spring, the D.C. Medical Association building upgrade, Westwood Shopping Center, nursing home, garden-style and high-rise apartments and condominiums; the Springbrook Nursing and Rehabilitation home in Colesville, Chevy Chase Nursing Home, Silver Spring, MD, and several bowling alleys in the Metropolitan area for Bowl America. The L. Tauber residence in Potomac, MD and numerous other private homes were other projects. It has been noted by other architects and builders, namely the deceased N. Brisker, A. Campitelli, Laszlo Tauber, M.D., that although many of these commercial works have been renovated in more recent years, Mr. d’Epagnier’s original structures and overall designs have been untouched in these facilities due to the structural integrity and elegance of design. Examples include the newly renovated commercial Westwood area in Bethesda, MD. A list of Mr. d’Epagnier’s projects from the early 1950’s through 1977 is available for reference, many of which were built in Montgomery County and the greater Washington Metropolitan area.
Mr. d’Epagnier’s Notley, as the home came to be called, was built in three main sections. The family moved into the first phase of the house in January of 1948. In the mid-1950’s, Notley, was bustling with five children. Now, versed in not only the aesthetic and the functional, Mr. d’Epagnier pursued a cost-conscious approach to building the second and third wings. Much of the first section was built by Mr. d’Epagnier himself with the help of friends; for the later sections, construction firms were hired.
Wood panels were used to effect design in simple ways. A semi-circular main entryway gives access either to the communal living/dining area or to the bedroom area. In the living room and dining area that form one uninterrupted space, a large Maryland bluestone fireplace brings together a peaceful setting for conversation, play, and family life, a gathering place. An entire front wall of glass allows for nature and the inhabitants of the home to interact with one another. The living area incorporates a dining area where conversation and meal-taking were combined. A built-in planter with plumbing runs halfway across the front interior of the house. A small kitchen, later redesigned with an eat-in area, includes a large pantry, built-in cupboards, a closet, and commercial-sized freezer and refrigerator with built-in oven and stove top.
On the other side of the front door, a long hallway extends the length of two bedrooms, ending in a master bedroom with a fireplace, closet, and bathroom.
The long hallway takes a tum to a third wing that consists of two large bedrooms with built-in bookcases, lighting, and desks, large closets, and a bathroom with a laundry area and storage closets.
There is a partial walk-in basement and crawlspace.
Additionally, the property includes a tennis court, a pump house, a greenhouse, a studio or shop, and a large, two-level, storage barn beyond the copse to house supplies, possibly animals, a tractor, or other large equipment.
At the back of the property on the northeast comer, a small area is designated wetlands.
Following Wright’s belief in harmony with nature rather than a domination of nature, Mr. and Mrs. d’Epagnier planted and grew numerous trees and shrubbery around the house and property, including some specimen trees, such as the Brewster spruce and an expansively canopied dogwood at the northeast comer of the tennis court, Deadora cedar, Siberian elms, a Willow Oak near the porch, White Oaks in the copse, several Sugar maples, American elms, yews and junipers. A gardening enthusiast, Mr. d’Epagnier planted an extensive vegetable garden yearly, which extended from the greenhouse east to the copse on the hill and north to the studio/shop, along the slope to the tennis court. Melons, com, tomatoes, squash, berries, and more were tended to as he watched his children and others enjoy the tennis court.
Last fall (2019), in the Book World section of the Washington Post, a book titled, The Yellow House, by S. M. Broom was reviewed. In the review, Washington Post writer, Nneka McGuire explored various meanings of home; namely, intangible aspects, such as sounds and scents, or the very tangible aspects, such as the concrete in the Yellow House’s construction, or the wood used in Notley’s construction.
For Mr. and Mrs. d’Epagnier’s eight children, the Notley home is nostalgic. Individually and collectively, the memories and histories of Notley “gave witness to our lives,” as Broom recalls about her own house. Notley tells a story of a dream that evolved and was shared among its ten immediate family members, with numerous collies, boxers, dalmatians, mixed-breed dogs and pet cats over the years. Most importantly, however, this very contemporary home in the D.C. metropolitan area built in the mid-20th century was, by its natural, open design, a gathering place for many casual and formal gatherings, from impromptu weekend parties to weddings and other tented celebrations. It was intended that way. Its design was most successful in that way.
The family held onto the home for 10 years after Mrs. d’Epagnier passed. The home tells the story of the family, the three generations that followed, and their many gatherings at Notley. Mr. d’Epagnier’s dream became what Broom referred to as a “tethered place,” a home, for so many new and old family members, friends, and cousins. Notley was home. Its design that blended nature and openness was about that kinship, which evolved into a true community, about which F.L. Wright philosophized in the early 1900’s.
The hope is that the design of Notley, the beautiful land it hugs, and the communal space it affords will also provide for its new owners a multi decade history.