Living Light

Living Light

A Bethesda photographer and glass artist creates the minimalist 'tree house' of her dreams

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As she swam laps in an indoor pool some 20 years ago, photographer and glass artist Rhoda Baer would watch the play of natural light on the water and daydream about the light-filled house where she would live and work.

Baer would “move walls around” in her head during these regular swims, envisioning a home that would be as comfortable as a traditional house but as flexible as an artist’s loft.   

A decade later, she set out to make her dream come true. And in 2002 she moved into a modern, 3,450-square-foot glass-and-concrete house on a Bethesda hillside.

The unusual, but striking structure that she commissioned and helped design has two wings connected by a glass walkway. One houses luxurious living quarters with floor-to-ceiling windows; the other is a functional, flexible workspace with a sleek industrial feel.

“For me, work and life don’t compete, they aren’t separate spheres, they flow into each other,” she says.

Baer had thought about designing her own home since she was a 14-year-old growing up in Stamford, Conn. “That’s when my mother bought a set of architectural drawings, hired a builder and built a house for our family,” she says. “This was such an out-of-the-box thing for a woman of her generation to do. It couldn’t help but inspire me.”

The minimalist gem that Baer ultimately built is the third home that she has owned since arriving in Washington, D.C., in her early 20s. She bought her first house, a condo in the District, soon after starting her own photography business more than three decades ago.  

Baer had fallen in love with photography when she was in her mid-20s and working at a trade association. Eventually she found her way to Photoworks Gallery at Glen Echo Park, where Robin Moyer, a well-known photographer and teacher, took her on as his apprentice. Baer has since earned a national reputation as a corporate, medical and advertising photographer.

As her business grew, Baer needed more space. She sold the condo seven years after purchasing it and bought a pretty, wood-frame Victorian on a busy street in Northwest D.C. There, she built a photo studio and darkroom.  She outgrew that workspace, as well, and by 2000 she was ready to move again.

That’s when she hired Stephen Israel, founder of Buyer’s Edge, a Bethesda real estate brokerage that specializes in representing buyers. Baer asked Israel to help her determine what kind of house would provide the living and workspace that she required. They looked at several properties, including an elegant, pre-war apartment and an industrial loft that could be converted to residential use, but nothing fit the bill.  

Eventually they visited an unlisted property that Baer had heard might be for sale: a tree-filled lot on a steep incline with a large outcropping near the Potomac River in Bethesda. Instead of being turned off by the difficult terrain, Baer saw possibilities. Israel helped her track down the owners and determine that the site was suitable for building. Within weeks, she had purchased the land and decided to build a “modern tree house” on top of the hill where she could live and work.

Next she set out to find a local architect comfortable with a minimalist approach. Having long studied homes built by the world’s leading contemporary architects, Baer had fallen in love with the work of the masters of modern minimalism—John Pawson, Tadao Ando, Antoine Predock and Santiago Calatrava. “I liked how their buildings were flooded with light, how they used industrial materials such as concrete block, and the simplicity and functionality of their interior spaces,” she says.

After interviewing several architects, Baer selected Ralph Cunningham of the Washington-based firm Cunningham|Quill. “When I met Ralph, I knew in five minutes that I would hire him,” Baer says. “He had built a lot of houses, and he had also built an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue that was modern and edgy but blended brilliantly with the neighborhood.”  

Baer liked the step-by-step approach Cunningham took to the project. “He told me he couldn’t design a house for me until he knew me,” she says. So the pair toured the building site and her old house, where Cunningham noted what she liked and didn’t like about the design. After getting to know Cunningham, she realized that he would collaborate with her. “He listened to me. That was crucial,” she says.    

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