Photos by Stephen Govel.
In a verdant swath adjoining the Willistown Conservation Trust in Newtown Square, hills roll gently and mature trees define the horizon. Yet, instead of the Pennsylvania countryside, the owners of a stone-and-stucco home overlooking the surrounding acreage saw a vision of France.
“They’ve traveled the world, and the gardens in France inspired them,” says Chuck Hess, founder of Hess Landscape Architects in Lansdale. “They wanted a landscape that looked like it had evolved over many years.”
The plan included a three-season outdoor living space, with room for al fresco dining that could be expanded for family and friends. The owners had previously built a covered terrace with a stone fireplace. To achieve their vision, however, the fireplace had to go.
Relocating the fireplace opened the way for a series of outdoor rooms and gardens that cascade from the back door down a hillside and into an infinity pool with panoramic views of pastures and woodlands.
The fireplace, with a mantel imported from Italy, anchors a covered pavilion that adjoins the original terrace and a fieldstone wall. Overhead is a rustic wood ceiling with trusses. Throughout are clusters of Moroccan-style lanterns crafted from red, amber and blue glass.
In the outdoor kitchen, a hybrid grill is outfitted to cook with propane or wood briquettes. It’s also equipped with a large potboiler for crabs and lobsters. A refrigerator is tucked beneath the counter, while a deep, trough-like stone sink, reminiscent of Provence, provides running water. A pullout step in front of the grill was integrated to allow the owners easier access.
Though France was definitely the inspiration, the space touches on other parts of Europe, with stone flooring from Malta, Italy, stretching across the walkways and the coping and decking around the pool. Once milled, the stone was shipped to France, where master stonecutters shaped each piece.
“We sent a template for the design to the cutting shop,” Hess says. “They took pictures of every piece and how it would be laid out.”
Because the owners wanted to give the flooring an aged appearance, the design called for some broken pieces of stone. “The stone arrived in such good shape and went together so well that we wound up having to intentionally break a few pieces,” Hess adds.
An infinity pool shimmers like a sapphire at the lower level of the garden, shaped in an oval to give swimmers a panoramic view of the countryside.
Technology that harnesses ozone and UV rays keeps the water crystal clear, says builder Peter Fineberg of Ted’s Pools. “It has the most sophisticated sanitation system you’ll find in any pool,” he says. “It’s the same process used to make bottled water. You can literally drink this water.”
A large spa adjoining the pool house shares the same filtration system, keeping water constantly circulating, making it soothing and usable year-round. “He uses it even in the dead of winter,” Hess says of one of the owners. “He calls it his therapy.”
Nearby, the pool house provides a place for swimmers to shower or relax around the fireplace. With its stone walls, tile roof and ceiling of reclaimed wood, the structure looks as if it has stood for centuries.
Beneath the pool house are the mechanisms that operate the pool, spa and a series of streams and waterfalls in the garden. “The pool house is as big underneath as it is above ground,” Hess explains. “The mechanicals look like a ship.”
In the garden, a bog with a natural filtration system removes algae and particulates as water passes through various layers of stone stacked three feet deep.
Water irises thrive in the bog. A series of perennial gardens, sited among stone steps and pathways, are vibrant with a seasonal progression that begins with hyacinths, and shifts to a colorful tumble of lavender, allium, salvia, bee balm, echinacea, yarrow and asters. Soft, fuzzy lamb’s ear and tall, spiky grasses add greenery and texture.
Mazus, a low-growing flowering perennial, is planted between stepping pavers that create a path from the pavilion to the wing of the house designated for the couple’s grown children. “It’s not overly manicured, in keeping with the feeling of French country life,” Hess says.
In the underbrush near the pasture, the approach to maintenance is decidedly low tech. A trio of goats serve as bleating, eco-friendly weed whackers.
The upper nave beyond the gardens provides space for entertaining, with a firepit and level ground that can accommodate a large tent and live music.
“They love this property, and they did a lot of thinking about how to make the best use of the land,” says Hess.