Castles of Glass

Think of a custom conservatory as a sunroom on steroids.

Who can forget the images of last winter's double-whammy record snowstorms? Now imagine watching a phenomenon like that from inside an all-glass conservatory.

"When it starts to snow, it's magical," says Janet Plum. "All the environment is out there, and you're snug in here."

The Plums—she's a retired school teacher and her husband Jeff is an attorney who practices in Bel Air—had their conservatory built in 2007 adjacent to their Kingsville home. It's not large—about 18 by 20 feet. But during the day, it's full of light and has a soaring peaked ceiling topped by glass with louvers that can be automatically raised and lowered like glass wings from a control pad on the wall. At night, it's a dramatic vantage point for stargazing.

"When we first talked about building a conservatory, I thought we'd have to import something from England," says Jeff. But then the couple heard about an Eastern Shore-based firm called Tanglewood that specializes in exactly what they envisioned. "We were surprised to see that they are located right here in Maryland," he adds.

The Denton-based company was started in 1993 by Alan Stein, an architect trained at the University of Maryland who has created a niche for himself making custom, ornate, Victorian-style conservatories for clients all over the world.

"We've built hundreds of conservatories," says Stein. Tanglewood is currently working on projects in China, Europe, and all over the U.S., including Hawaii.

Conservatories—known variously as orangeries, sunrooms, or even greenhouses (though definitely not the sort used to start tomato plants)—are an indulgence, but one that many homeowners embrace.

For the Plums—their glass addition has stained-glass images of their namesake purple fruit embedded in many of the panes—it's strictly an investment in creature comfort. "We'll never get it back," Jeff says of the money the couple laid out (think in multiples of six figures). "But we plan to stay in this house for a long, long time."

Conservatories can be traced back to the food-storage facilities in ancient Rome. Built with walls of mica, a silicate mineral, the name may be derived from the word for preserved, conservato. Beginning in the 1700s, "orangeries" were seen in the homes of the very wealthy as places for fragile warm-weather plants, like citrus trees, often acquired on travels abroad. The structures were most commonly seen in grand homes and palaces, including the chateau at Versailles, and, locally, at the historic, 18th century Hampton Mansion in Towson.

But the idea began to take hold among the middle class, says Stein, at the time of the industrial revolution, when glass could be produced in larger pieces and steel became a common construction material. And while steel is a critical structural element in Tanglewood's conservatories, it's often concealed beneath the warm luster of wood. The Plums' structure, for example, is paneled in mahogany. Today's conservatories also employ another innovation: insulated glass, which was developed around the 1970s, when the structures saw another surge in popularity. But in those times, says Stein, the glass rooms were dull by comparison. "People were interested in passive solar, and the styles were more modern," he says.

In the past decade or two, Stein says, more traditional, Victorian-style conservatories have returned. And he was fortunate to be at the crest of that trend, having left his job at an architecture firm because he wanted to both design and build projects.

 

"A client showed me a picture of an English conservatory and asked, 'Can you do that?' And with the confidence of youth, I said, 'Sure,'" Stein recalls. "By the time I finished, I was completely in love with these things." The next call he got was from another client who asked for the same thing. "It was a complete coincidence, but it was definitely a sign."

He and his wife Nancy, a music lover who also works for the company, decided to call the business Tanglewood after the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a name that is meaningful on several levels. The other meaning of the word conservatory—a school of classical music—is apropos.

"We once built a conservatory for a professional violinist and went to a concert there. The sound was magical," says Stein. "I'm not sure if it was the shape of the room or the materials, but the music tends to resonate."

 

Michael and Molly Metzler have a detached conservatory they built in a wooded area on their 15 acres along the Nanticoke River in Delaware, about 15 miles east of Cambridge.

"We have bald eagles, otters, beaver, and turkeys, you name it," says Molly, a nurse in a nearby physician's practice. The couple wanted the structure "to look like it's always been there," and even though it's only a few hundred feet from the house, it feels as if it exists in its own 100-acre wood.

The conservatory was built to surround Molly's idea for an in-ground spa, but evolved into more than that. There's also a fireplace and a seating area. The roof is a glass cupola, surrounded by copper sheeting.

"I initially wanted to build some kind of greenhouse, but when we found Tanglewood, our ideas changed," Molly Metzler says. "At first, my husband was skeptical." But when they visited the shop and husband Michael, a veterinarian,  saw all the exquisite mahogany, he said, "I want one of those," she recalls with a laugh.

A visit to the conservatory spa requires a short trek through the woods, and the Metzlers visit it mostly in winter. They installed a flat-screen TV and like to hang out in the whirlpool to watch rock videos and concert films by The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and Simon and Garfunkle. Their college-age son is not allowed, she says. "That building is our little retreat. We let people see it, but it is our private space."

The Metzlers so enjoy their conservatory that they recently commissioned Tanglewood to build a glass addition off their bedroom. "It will be a glass jewelbox," says Molly. The plan is to have a glass dome atop a curved copper roof. "We'll probably have a crystal chandelier," she says.

 

"I think conservatories are magical," says Sondra Wells of Owings Mills. "I'm surprised more people don't have them." She and her husband Peter, a "basically retired" investment manager, had a Pennsylvania-based company called Renaissance Conservatories design a round room that connects to an addition they were building adjacent to the kitchen. Sandra says they call the space, with its couches and fireplace, their "winter living room," where they "like to snuggle up near the fireplace." It's also a favorite spot in the summer with its enormous amounts of light. "It's a room that gives you a lot of happiness and good feelings," says Sondra.

To avoid the heat of direct sunlight, the Wellses decided to forgo a glass roof, choosing copper instead, she says. But the plants in the room thrive from windows all around, winter and summer. On sunny days in winter, she says, "Sun just pours in," and when it snows, "It's beautiful. Last winter during the blizzard, it was so dramatic to sit in there with snow falling all around you."

 

Though it may not fit the traditional image of a "conservatory," the glass tower built by Marilyn Lyons and Dr. Clark "Corky" Graham of Annapolis is where the couple retreats in all weather. "We call it our folly," says Graham, describing towers often built as frivolous appendages on buildings, or as stand-alone decorative elements in formal gardens. When Graham, a former U.S. Navy officer, lived in England for a time while working for an American defense contractor, "we toured a lot of estates and castles," he says. "Many would have a folly. They weren't terribly practical, but they were cool and fun."

"I figured the next cool thing I did would be the first cool thing I've done in my life," says Graham. "I wanted my grandkids to think I was a little bit cool."

Behind the design of the house and the tower on the couple's South River lot was award-winning architect Wayne Good of Good Architecture in Annapolis. And by any measure—excepting maybe on the hottest summer day—the glass tower that Good came up with is indeed "cool." And Lyons and Graham aren't the only ones who think so: The house has won awards from the Maryland chapter of the American Institute of Architects for excellence in design, from Builder magazine as Custom Home of the Year, and was Southern Living magazine's "best new home."

Architect Good says the house is modeled after the "shucker's shanties" commonly seen on the Eastern Shore, small cottages with board-and-batten walls. "I like to say the house is what an oyster shucker would build if he won the lottery," says Good.

The highlight of the house is the tower, measuring about 12 feet square outside, with thick, insulated glass, mitred and sealed at the corners. The tower is three stories, with a covered terrace on the ground floor, a sitting room attached to the master bedroom by a glass walkway, and a third-floor room, reached by a ship's ladder, with a peaked roof at the top. The proportions exactly mimic the entry hall, says Lyons. "This house is perfectly proportional. It's an architect's dream."

The tower is a magnet for visitors. "Once you sit down, it's pretty hard to move because the views are so stunning," she says. The couple recently hosted a reunion for Graham's naval unit, says Lyons, "and the men took their drinks up there and just sat. It's pretty funny that people traipse through our bedroom to hang out."

But the folly almost didn't get built.

Lyons and Graham had long planned to live in Annapolis and had purchased the land—with a prosaic cottage—that was meant to be the site of their new house. Their home in coastal Pascagouola, MS, was on the market. Then came 15-foot tidal surges from Katrina, which washed away their home—they couldn't even find the lot afterwards because all the neighbors' houses were gone, too. Also gone were all their worldly goods—furniture, rugs, family mementos, and a prized art collection that Lyons, a former museum director, had spent her entire adult life accumulating in travels all over the world.

The couple felt so displaced after the storm, says Lyons, that they nearly abandoned the plans for their new house. The only thing that kept the plan on track, she says, is, "We'd already hired the builder." At the time, she says, "we had a hard time making decisions. I'd had niches designed in the house for specific pieces of artwork, and no longer had things to put in them."

Lyons has filled the new house with a new collection of art, most of which she acquired in the Gulf area, where she says, the artists "are still struggling to get back on their feet" after Katrina. The art, much of it brightly colored paintings, wood blocks, and collages, as well as whimsical biblical animals, works well in the stark white house.

"We're simple people," says Lyons. "We didn't want lots of molding or anything to detract from the view." When a storm comes up the river, she says, "This is the place to be."

Issue date: October, 2010
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