On a wooded hill in Virginia overlooking the Potomac River, the lives of an architect, a photographer and an Internet pioneer intertwine in a distinctly American way
hen the average American wants to build a new house, he or she probably finds a plot of land, contacts a local contractor or architect and breaks ground without fanfare. When Luis and Ethel Marden wanted to build a house, however, they wrote to iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. From the ground they broke grew magic, and it grows still—with a twist.
Luis Marden made a name for himself as a National Geographic photographer who embodied the ideals of the magazine. A classic adventurer whose expeditions took him to the furthest reaches of the globe and depths of the sea, Marden was a trailblazer of underwater color photography and retraced the famous trans-Atlantic route of Christopher Columbus. His wife, Ethel, was a mathematician who enjoyed travel herself.
One might think that suburban life would not appeal to this intrepid couple, but by 1940, the Mardens were ready to put down roots near Washington, DC, and they asked Wright to design a house for them. Wright accepted the offer on the condition that the Mardens find a suitable location first. Four years later, while fly-fishing on the Potomac River, they stumbled upon a 2-acre plot of land in McLean, Virginia, just upstream of the rapids of Little Falls. They immediately knew that they had found the site of their future home.
It took Wright eight years to present his concept to the Mardens, and they rejected it, feeling that the architect had not fully realized the location’s potential. Delays caused by Wright’s Guggenheim Museum project in New York City and by the Mardens’ work and travels put the project on hold. Finally, in 1956—16 years after the Mardens first decided to build their home—a design was agreed upon, and construction began. It took three years to complete the 2,764-square-foot house that the Mardens named Fontinalis (Latin for “from a spring or fountain” and an homage to the fly-fishers’ favorite trout, Salvelinus fontinalis). Luis lived there with Ethel until 1998, when he moved to a nursing home, and Ethel stayed until 2003, the year her husband died.
In this house, the spirits of Luis Marden and Frank Lloyd Wright come alive. Nestled above the Potomac’s roaring falls, Fontinalis exemplifies Wright’s philosophy of creating organic architecture and is one of the most stunning examples of his Usonian style—a term he employed to connote design free from architectural conventions. It is a home built through cordial collaboration between architect and client. Wright offered ideas, the Mardens pushed back and eventually a balance was struck between the architect’s philosophy and the owners’ desires. Fontinalis is a calm retreat fit for a couple who loved travel and fast cars—Luis discovered the remains of the HMS Bounty in the Pacific Ocean while Ethel held the women’s world record for deep-sea diving. A magnificent open fireplace serves as a focal point in the main living space, and built-in shelves sweep through the length of the ground floor. Rather than mirror the curvature of the room, the river-facing windows sit perpendicular to the floor—an example of the Mardens’ taste outweighing Wright’s original plan—and offer an unobstructed view of the water below. Luis Marden’s darkroom now serves as a monument to the man’s pioneering nature photography and passion for fishing.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright sits for a portrait in 1935
In 2000, both Mardens were aging without an heir or the money required to obtain landmark status for their home, so the executor of their estate, Eugene Smith, husband of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation board member Joan Smith, contacted the Mardens’ new neighbor, James Kimsey. Kimsey, cofounder of Internet company America Online, was building his own dream house next door—a 21,000-square-foot mansion with parking for 40 cars and magnificent views of the Potomac through floor-to-ceiling windows. The Mardens wanted Kimsey—a multimillionaire—to buy the Wright-designed house and preserve it. Kimsey, himself a pioneer in the digital world and an admirer of Luis Marden’s work, agreed.
“I was stupid rich at the time and said, ‘Sure,’” Kimsey says, speaking about the circumstances in which he, no architecture buff, became the owner of a masterpiece of modern architecture. Till then, he had never set foot inside his neighbors’ house and is quick to admit that he didn’t know much about Wright either. But Fontinalis piqued his interest and imbued him with a drive to restore the Mardens’ 54-year-old home to its original glory.
“I [would] look at the house when I shaved every morning and wonder what to do with it,” Kimsey says. “I talked to Wright enthusiasts and realized they’d burn my house down if I did anything to Wright’s lines.”
The house now serves as a multidimensional celebration of Fontinalis’ design and original owners, as well as a remarkable example of private architectural conservation.
And those were probably not empty threats. The Marden house, though closed to the public, is something of a gem. It’s one of three extant Wright buildings in Virginia, only two of which remain in their original location (Fontinalis and the Andrew B. Cooke house, in Virginia Beach).
Upon becoming the Mardens’ neighbor and landlord, Kimsey allowed Ethel to reside at Fontinalis as long as she was able. In 2004, the year after Ethel moved to a retirement community, conservation work began under the guidance of local contractor Bailey Adams. Adams, working with Joan Smith, hired one of the house’s original carpenters to oversee restoration of the cabinetry. While some technological updates were made, Adams made sure the new additions did not disrupt the home’s feel and flow. Eighteen months later, Kimsey was left with a rare collectible: an almost perfect specimen of American midcentury modern architecture.
A portion of the Mardens’ furniture, designed by Bob Beharka under the direction of Wright, was entered into the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond. Kimsey has since filled the space with Scandinavian modernist pieces, including a Hans Wegner Papa Bear Chair that faces the sweeping view of Little Falls. As Kimsey’s love for the house and his admiration of the Mardens grew, so too did his investment in the property. It now serves as a multidimensional celebration of Fontinalis’ design and original owners, as well as a remarkable example of private architectural conservation. Kimsey uses the house as both a space for entertaining guests and a calm retreat for himself.
A photo in the house’s study shows Luis Marden peering through his camera’s viewfinder, which is pointed at one of the windows and out toward the Potomac. At that angle, Marden would now spy a corner of Kimsey’s gargantuan property. He might shudder. But he also might smile, knowing that his plot on the brow of the hill has the superior view. One can know for certain, however, that Kimsey’s restoration of the Mardens’ home preserves a wonderful, understudied note in Frank Lloyd Wright’s illustrious career.
- All photos of Marden House by Liz Barclay
- Photo by W. E. Garrett/National Geographic Archive
- Photo by Luis Marden/National Geographic Archive
- Photo by Luis Marden/National Geographic Archive
- Photo by MPI/Getty Images