July-August 2013 | Featured Article

On The Waterfront

A Bethesda retiree goes all out for guests at his weekend retreat on Assawoman Bay

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Talk about the ultimate host. Paul Blinkhorn, a 68-year-old retiree from Bethesda, was so concerned about his guests’ comfort that he built them their own beach house. It adjoins his second home on the waterfront in Bethany Beach, Del. The difference between the two: The guesthouse is bigger than his.

That means his frequent guests have the luxury of privacy and lots of space, all while overlooking beautiful Assawoman Bay.

Inspired by fond childhood memories of his aunt and uncle’s beach house on the Chesapeake Bay, Blinkhorn purchased the 8,540-square–foot property 25 years ago. At the time, it included a ranch house with a one-bedroom apartment above the attached garage. He used the apartment as his summer getaway and rented out the main house each season.

But in 2008, the house was in need of serious updating, including the installation of air conditioning and heating. So Blinkhorn consulted with long-time friends James Rill of Rill Architects and Conrad Zink of Zink Construction, both based in Bethesda.

The trio decided to tear down the existing buildings along 90 feet of prime waterfront and use the remaining foundations that had been grandfathered in and thus were exempt from local zoning regulations.

Blinkhorn calls the resulting yearlong project a “collaborative” effort. “They did 99 percent of it; I did 1 percent,” he jokes.

Rill drew up plans for a compound consisting of two houses linked on the bay side by an adjoining deck. Both homes were elevated so that Blinkhorn and his guests could enjoy the lovely water views.

Rill and Zink understood that their friend’s primary goals were livability and minimal upkeep. So both structures were made of wood, inside and out, with nothing requiring paint—not even the trim. The natural cedar exterior was allowed to gray naturally, giving it a traditional beach house look. Cedar, Rill says, stands up well to the saltwater and coastal weather.

“The whole idea was simplicity and outdoor rooms—with shade, protection and a sense of space,” Rill says, “and to have the indoors feel like you are part of the water and surrounding landscape.”

The architect and builder worked together to create structures with plenty of floor-to-ceiling windows to showcase the unobstructed views of the water and the nearby 2,600-acre Assawoman Bay State Wildlife Area. The glass contains a filter for energy efficiency and argon gas for better insulation.

Simple forms of beams and timbers are enhanced by overhangs, with a green asphalt gable roof topping each building.

Today, Blinkhorn’s three-level, 1,550-square-foot house rises about 40 feet and includes three bedrooms and 2½ baths, with the top floor consisting entirely of the master suite. The adjoining guesthouse is a similar height, but is substantially larger at 2,600 square feet. It offers four bedrooms and 4½ baths, with a bunkroom on the third floor to accommodate any spillover, and a game room—or “fun room,” as Blinkhorn refers to it—to keep everyone entertained on rainy days.

Each house has an open common space, with a country-style kitchen, dining section and living area, all with panoramic views of the bay. The guesthouse even has a 10-foot dining table to accommodate a crowd. The décor in both is eclectic, consisting of unique pieces that Blinkhorn found at roadside antique or “junk” shops.  

From the street side, which accesses the lower-level double garages, an outdoor staircase leads visitors up to a large, open deck between the two buildings. It feels like the bow of a boat facing the water and unites the two structures. The deck railing consists of horizontal steel wires like those on a sailboat, adding to the nautical feel and providing an unobstructed view.

Inside the homes, 6-inch-wide planks of pine flooring as well as 2-inch-wide vertical fir planks on the walls add to the ship-like feel. All of the interior wood has a clear coat finish, allowing “wood to read as wood,” Rill says.

The ceiling joists are exposed for extra height, with the ceiling rising nine feet on the first floor and eight feet on the second, with an extra 12 inches of ceiling to the bottom of the actual flooring above.

Each home has an interior staircase with the same wire railing as the outside deck, and both are lighted by industrial-looking sconces encased in more wire, again adding to the sense of being at sea.

After the homes were completed in 2009, Blinkhorn added a dock to accommodate the 17-foot Boston Whaler that he and Zink co-own. Blinkhorn also has five kayaks and a canoe for guests who want to explore the beauties of the bay.

The oceanfront beach is just four blocks away, offering another diversion. A lifelong Bethesda resident, Blinkhorn uses the property every weekend in the summer and often during the spring and into the late fall.

Asked about the cost of constructing his waterfront compound, Blinkhorn laughs and says he has never added it up. But the pleasure he derives from the property is immeasurable. And he shares it with the friends and relatives who visit most summer weekends.

Rill and his family have been among the visitors, with Rill also using the guesthouse on business trips to the Bethany Beach area. Both Rill and Zink have carte blanche to stay anytime they want, Blinkhorn says, “and they do.”

“I was lucky enough to get this place 25 years ago,” Blinkhorn says. “Why not share it with my family and friends?”

He notes the serenity of the place, even on a July Fourth weekend. “What more could I ask for?” he wonders. Except, perhaps, to watch another beautiful sunset over the bay.

Lisa Braun-Kenigsberg lives in Potomac and frequently writes for the magazine.