This waterfront contemporary in Kingsmill provides more than a splash of continental style to a Colonial town.
Dr. Mira Dunn couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t seen the female duck that frequented the water behind her estate home in Williamsburg’s Kingsmill resort community this spring. Then, one day in June, the duck made a sudden appearance. As Dunn prepared to enter the house, she heard a splash in the swimming pool. Moments later, she recalls, the duck “got out of the pool and came running toward me,” as if recognizing an old friend. “She walked up the outside steps with me to the kitchen and, after getting some bread, she flew away.” An hour later, the bird made a return appearance. Dunn was looking out her kitchen windows when she saw the duck waddling up the stairs, followed by three little ducklings. “It was quite touching to see that she trusted me so much, to bring her babies to my door.”
Dunn isn’t surprised at the wildlife she sees on her private peninsula overlooking Wareham’s Pond. The animals, from bald eagles to herons, are as special to Dunn as the Europeanstyle contemporary home she and her husband built in Kingsmill in 1994. The approximately 7,100-square-foot, 12-room, waterfront estate sits on one-and-a-half acres of prime real estate in the 2,900-acre golf course community.
Born in Poland after World War II, Dunn lived with her family in a small residence in Wroclaw, Poland, for six years. The house was filled with books on architecture left by Germans who had fled the area after it was regained by Poland. The youngster looked at the elegant pictures in the books practically every day. For years thereafter, long after emigrating to America (in 1961), earning a medical degree and practicing radiology, she dreamed of living in a home with an architectural flair that celebrated her European heritage.
Dunn and her husband, Neil, also a radiologist, lived in Yorktown for several years, in a modest-size home that was “as contemporary as we could find, ” she says. The couple later looked for a bigger house, but nothing they saw was quite right. “I couldn’t find a house in the Williamsburg area that I liked and would feel happy in. I need to be in a place that is open and full of light and sun but at the same time warm and cozy.”
When you can’t find a house that suits your needs and ideals, you build it—and that’s what the couple did after becoming intrigued by Kingsmill. “We fell in love with that area when we visited it,” Dunn says. Finding the perfect lot, however, took time. She credits her final choice to her late dog, Lucky, a Belgian sheepdog that someone had dumped on the side of the road. “He’s the best thing that happened to us,” Dunn says. “As long as he was with us, we knew we would be lucky.” The minute Lucky saw the Kingsmill lot, he “went crazy,” she says. “He was running back and forth. That’s when I said to myself, ‘This is a sign.’”
The Dunns’ 1.59-acre waterfront estate sits on an quiet, tree-lined cul-de-sac designed for privacy and security. Dunn and her husband were among the last homeowners in Kingsmill allowed to build close to the water. “Today we wouldn’t be able to build the house as it sits,” she says. “They want to maintain the area as natural as possible.”
Finding the right lot was step one. Then came the bigger challenge of designing the house. Dunn says she didn’t want “just another square or rectangular box with boring windows. I wanted [the house] to be elegant, classic, timeless in its style.” Her husband felt the same way. Their idea was to have each space in the house defined and separate in its function and design. “I wanted the house to have an open feeling, but not too open, so that the function of each space would be clear,” she says, scanning the home’s spacious great room. “For example, there are no doors between the living and dining rooms, but you can only see a small section of each room from the other.” It’s clear the couple got the home they’d spent years constructing in their minds, even though, Dunn says, “I never thought it would happen.”
Years of studying architectural magazines gave Dunn the confidence she needed to work alongside the Newport News firm Rancorn, Wildman, Krause and Brezinski Architects. (The company was involved in the design of the Hampton Air and Space Museum, along with another firm.) “They contributed the structural design and the shape of the roof,” Dunn explains. “I provided a lot of pictures, and they had to put it all together.” Many of the architectural features were her ideas— including the floor plan. “For example,” she says, “I redesigned the kitchen windows into a serpentine-shape glass wall in order to not only improve the view, but also to feel as one with nature. I also changed the architects’ plan so that every room has a water view.”
Their home’s unique curved rooflines, stacked rectangular windows and massive California redwood double doors are hints at the couple’s aesthetic. So is the distinctive, creamy-white, two-story foyer with a curved floating staircase. “The inspiration for the staircase mainly came from pictures I had seen,” Dunn says.
The exterior is stucco. “We chose it because of its quality,” Dunn explains. “Europeans have been using it for 500 years. Both the stucco and the cement tiles on the roof are fire-retardant. We also used Arizona sandstone for the decks, balconies and walkways.” The sandstone was so heavy that it couldn’t be transported all at once. “It was 85 percent complete when they had to go back and get more,” Dunn says. When the Dunns found out the quarry had closed, they were panicked. “We didn’t know if we could match the color. Luckily, we found another quarry that had the same colors.”
Before construction began, Dunn travelled to Las Vegas, Atlanta, High Point, N.C., and Washington, D.C., attending builder’s conventions and kitchen and bath shows and searching through design centers in her quest for both inspiration and European manufacturers. She found numerous items that she incorporated into the home, including German and Italian fixtures as well as distinctive works of art. Her collections range from kachina dolls from the Hopi tribe to an ebony African mask from Senegal.
The great room that flows from the foyer is 18 feet high. Sunlight pours through the geometric panels of glass that wall most of the room and provide unobstructed views of the home’s natural surroundings. The wall opposite the panels of windows conceals a custom entertainment center with wet bar and pull-outs for the Dunns’ audio/ visual system. The end of the room is accentuated by a raised platform positioned to overlook the pool. “That design element was the architect’s idea for my grand piano,” Dunn says. “I was afraid the piano would obstruct the view too much, so instead I made it a cozy seating area.”
The right wing of the house includes the den, with fireplace, and one of the home’s four bedroom suites. The guest suite has its own kitchenette, walk-in closet and full bath. The left wing contains two butler’s pantries, laundry and powder rooms and access to the dining room. In the dining room, Dunn designed shelf cutouts to spotlight her growing collection of American Indian pottery from the Acoma tribe of New Mexico.
The kitchen’s uninterrupted curved glass wall allows the ever-changing landscape of the peninsula and pool areas to become part of the décor. The room is designed to “flow with the outside,” says Dunn. Dunn discovered the sleek cabinets— designed and made by the German company Siematic—during one of her buying trips. “The rubber gasket around the opening of the cabinets keeps the dust off,” she explains. “I also added a pull-out knife shelf and a hidden step stool into the design of the room.”
A few steps away are the breakfast area, morning room and a full bath with steam shower, a special convenience for those using the nearby pool. The heated, 60-foot-long, in-ground pool is lined by 13 effervescent fountains and includes accent lights and a waterfall.
A large white oleander tree bursting with flowers stands between the kitchen and the pool area. “Oleander trees usually don’t grow well north of Virginia Beach,” Dunn explains as she fingers one of the blossoms. “This tree, however, is protected from the weather.”
Back in the house, Dunn walks up the circular stairs past a gallery of handmade art that she has collected, pointing out a wall hanging made from pieces of an antique Indian wedding gown. The second-floor master suite includes a master bedroom, mini-kitchen, exercise room, sauna and master bath with expansive views of the pool and pond. The bedroom houses a gas fireplace and rear balcony as well as uniquely designed square windows and French doors. The modernistic master bath features a heated ceramic tile floor along with a raised platform with oversized whirlpool situated near a wall of checkerboard-style square windows. Two additional bedroom suites and a bonus room complete the second level.
When they built the house, the Dunns had no intention of moving, but their love affair with the Southwest has lured them away. The couple is moving to Scottsdale, Arizona. As Dunn looks around her home, she thinks back to her early years. “In postwar communist Poland, even owning a car was rare,” she says. “Most families lived in a one- or two-room apartment owned by the government. My fantasizing about building a large house was just a fantasy that, realistically, I knew would never happen.” Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.
And the duck? Dunn is confident that she’ll stick around Kingsmill—there is water, after all—and eagerly greet the new owners.
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.