Sensitive design and smart engineering turned a topographically challenged property into a lovely, multilevel landscape
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Balconies, terraces, and rows of windows are the defining features of this Glencoe house, built ten years ago. Landscape architect Drew Johnson created a grass-and-stone staircase to connect the backyard’s two levels. See more photos in our gallery below.
The Glencoe woman was just a teenager, sprinting across a stone bridge a block from her home, when an interesting property caught her eye. Located on one of the many ravines that run through the North Shore, the house afforded breathtaking views of the bridge where she liked to run. “I always thought, Someday, maybe,” she says.
Years later, the woman was living nearby with her husband and three children when she spotted a for-sale sign on the property she’d once eyed. “I was a little bit in disbelief,” she recalls. “I couldn’t bring myself to go over there, so I sent my husband. He called a little while later and said, ‘You are going to love it.’” They bought it.
There were a few hitches. The house, built in the 1930s, was attractive, but updating it for modern living would have been difficult, so the couple decided to tear it down and build new—an English Manor–style house with five bedrooms, seven baths, and plentiful windows and outdoor spaces with views of the ravine and the bridge. To ensure those views would be spectacular, the couple hired landscape architect Drew Johnson of Rocco Fiore & Sons, who had designed their previous home’s garden.
“At first I thought it was a really awkward situation,” Johnson says of the lot’s ratcheting grade changes, which include a 13-foot drop-off from front to rear yard, an eight-foot drop-off between front yard and swimming pool level, and the ravine below it all. To make matters even more challenging, the property was a corner lot. But the homeowners had a vision, and Johnson soon realized that with some creativity, top-notch engineering, and a plan, the garden could be spectacular. “Because it’s a corner lot, it’s much more open,” he says. “You don’t have other houses on top of you.”
And fortunately, the house could be constructed and the landscaping installed simultaneously, allowing his team to work hand in hand with the builders on grading and drainage issues, which proved key. The couple didn’t want to wait months or years to look outside and see trees and flowers, nor did they want water cascading over the swimming pool and down into the ravine every time it rained.
Photograph: Linda Oyama Bryan