Home Entertainment


Transcending Time

December 1, 2003 By Jean Penn

Very soon, this cozy, Gothic cathedral-like theater, complete with cutting-edge technology and a 14-foot-wide screen, will be the setting for a Doctor Zhivago party—just one of many soirées planned by the owners of this 20,000-square-foot, three-story high-tech castle nestled in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Attired in Russian-style clothing, a dozen or so friends, including movers and shakers in the worlds of technology and finance, will toast the evening with iced vodkas and blinis with caviar. “The air conditioning will be turned way up so everyone can wear furs,” says the hostess.


Custom fabric highlights this gothic-inspired theater, which displays video courtesy of a Runco projector.  (Click image to enlarge)

This grand theater is anchored on the entertainment floor of the home. Surrounding are five acres of elaborate gardens interwoven with English and French sensibilities, exercise paths, tennis courts, a large black-bottom pool, and a loggia and pool house. A sitting room and bar overlook the verdant space, as well as a billiard room lined with linen-fold paneling, a full catering kitchen and an eat-in wine cellar—all interconnected within a series of chambers topped with Romanesque groin-vaulted ceilings. Corner banquettes framing a generous dance floor and a 5-foot-tall medieval-style fireplace abut the theater, which is fronted with massive hand-tooled oak doors.

If a guest must visit the powder room in the middle of the Russian Revolution—not a problem. He or she can keep current with the movie on the LCD screens that grace the powder-room walls. The homeowners, longtime devoted Washington Redskins fans, installed them so they’d never miss a play. During large gatherings, such as a Super Bowl party, every television is tuned to the same channel.

Surround speakers from JBL Synthesis wrap the viewer in sound, while the Runco projector peeks out through a hole in the equipment closet.  (Click image to enlarge)

This home theater, says Tom Wells of Integrated Media Systems in Sterling, Va., started as a basement refurbishment while the homeowners awaited an extensive renovation of their Potomac River home. But they fell in love with the theater so much that the project morphed into a full-house renovation, including an extensive audiovisual distribution system.

Situated on lushly wooded grounds, the project was masterminded by architect Daniel Lee of Daniel Lee Architects in Alexandria, Va. Limestone floors and columns, old French fountains and quarter-sawn oak staircases abound. “We wanted,” says the wife, “something European but not too thematic, lest it become Disneyesque.” The home theater, they agreed, should hinge upon elite technology and be extremely comfortable but Old World in its look and feel.

“Of course, a home theater has to be theatrical,” says interior designer Barry Dixon of Barry Dixon Inc. in Warrenton, Va. “The trick is to pay homage to that concept, but not go too far with popcorn makers on wheels or theater posters lining the halls so that it becomes a cartoon of itself.”

Pay homage this theater does. Its dramatic ceilings, tapestry hunt-scene panels framed in limed oak, and Edwardian-style chairs covered in chenille evoke the feel of a Gothic cathedral tucked within a castle’s private wing; above each sconce is a carved grotesque in the form of a monk’s face. All finishes are intentionally subtle, not glitzy. The space transcends time.

“So often home theaters that rely on Art Deco for inspiration don’t have the space to carry it off,” Lee says. “References alone don’t make a success. Each room has to have its own integrity. When [the theater] is a shocking contrast to the rest of the house’s design and architecture, you get overwhelmed. After a while, you need to leave the room to find relief.

“The home theater is a conclusion in a series of experiences, beginning with the gardens,” the architect continues. “As you approach it, natural light and windows tend to subside … suddenly you are walking to a part of the house that you sense is the deepest. Beyond the beautifully framed timber doors is a gorgeous, almost surreal world. It has peaceful qualities that are so serene that one could easily use [the space] as a great haven of solitude.”

Acoustical cloth stretched over a series of metal frames creates the geometry of a Gothic groin-vaulted ceiling. The same brown fabric, provided by Integrated Media Systems, upholsters the walls that envelope the screen. The wood-framed panels, a nod to Europe’s stained-glass windows, were a special splurge, Dixon says. Hand-loomed tapestry from England (the pattern is a real design used in London’s West-minster Abbey) fills the wood frames of quarter-sawn oak dotted with bronze nail-head trim. Carpeting is a soft sea grass hue and the translucent chandelier above is handpainted silk with bronze and gold inlaid metals; the shield pattern is emblematic of the Ottoman Empire.


This home’s state-of-the-art system includes audio electronics and speakers from JBL Synthesis, a Runco video processor and projector, an RCA satellite/HDTV tuner, Sony DVD players with an Escient CD management system, and a touchscreen remote control system from AMX.  (Click image to enlarge)

The basement, illuminated by countless windows, is an extension of the home’s overall character. To incorporate the theater with corner banquettes, Lee had to excavate, digging down four levels for a total drop of four feet; this move also afforded tiered seating in the theater.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t the couple’s first home theater, but it’s the first one they use for more than movie-watching. Since moving in less than two years ago, they’ve hosted several themed bashes. “Our friends love formal parties and the chance to dress up. On Christmas Eve, we played It’s a Wonderful Life in the theater and all over the house,” the wife says. “On New Year’s Eve, with the big screen and the great sound, we felt like we were actually standing in Times Square for the countdown.”

On quiet nights alone, the homeowners watch the evening news in the theater, sometimes over dinner. “Our last designated room for watching movies had a projector hanging from the ceiling and [traditional row] seating. We hardly ever went in it. It doesn’t feel like anything but a big television unless you do it right,” she says.


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