Designer Tracy Schlegel and her builder-husband Mike fashion their own outdoorsy escape in Bethesda

On balmy summer evenings, designer Tracy Schlegel can be found relaxing on her lofty deck, nestled among the tall trees lining the backyard of the home she shares with husband Mike and their two teenage children. The C&O Canal and Potomac River meander in the distance. “I sit there with a glass of wine and look out to the view,” reveals Tracy. “It feels like you’re in a treehouse.” 

The sylvan parcel—bordered by protected parkland and located within Bethesda’s quaint Brookmont enclave—sealed the deal for the Schlegels in 2001. Charming outside yet crumbling inside, the 1928 “Hansel and Gretel cottage,” as Tracy describes it, checked all the boxes too. “We were purposefully looking for a house that needed a full makeover with the intent to completely gut it,” recounts the designer, who worked in advertising back then. “We didn’t want to take on someone else’s style.”

They also intended to be hands-on, with Mike, now COO of a construction and property-management company, serving as general contractor and Tracy supplying the vision for the spaces—on top of their day jobs. They asked Jim Bryan of Heffner Architects to devise a plan for open, functional and light-filled interiors that would leave the curb appeal intact. “First and foremost, we wanted something that fit in the neighborhood,” Mike asserts.

Ultimately, the mission grew into more than a makeover. Bryan preserved the brick façade; everything behind the exterior front wall was torn down and rebuilt from scratch (the project was deemed a renovation/addition since that wall remained). Cedar siding and cultured stone complement the brick. “By using part of the old house and keeping a similar look for the front elevation, we maintained the existing community feel,” the architect explains. “It still feels like a cottage even though it is a very, very nice one.”

Its magical allure aside, the downward-sloping lot presented a challenge. “It was narrow and incredibly steep, so fitting all of the program elements [into the plan] took a lot of care,” recounts Bryan. Though deeper and taller than its predecessor, the 4,400-square-foot dwelling doesn’t overwhelm the property or adjacent homes.

An airy foyer with an open staircase and soaring ceiling beckons guests; Tracy’s office lies to the left. Across the back of the house, the living and dining rooms share a double-sided fireplace and the bumped-out breakfast nook flows into the kitchen. The second floor houses the master suite and a bedroom for each child (both born after construction was completed in 2002). The at-grade lower level comprises a television-viewing area and game zone, plus two guest bedrooms.

Bryan integrated three outdoor-living spaces, including the main-level deck off the living room, into the rear façade. The lower-level recreation areas spill out to a flagstone patio, perfect for entertaining al fresco, while the master bedroom opens to a deck offering an unparalleled panorama.

Indoor spaces commune with nature courtesy of some 100 windows and glass doors, which also usher in soft, natural light. “With so many trees, the light there was dappled and filtered,” recalls Bryan. “I put as many windows as I could fit” along the back and sides.

As Tracy explains, she and her husband “wanted it to be a surprise when you come through the door, where you can’t believe how open it is and connected to the view.”

Mike adds: “Tracy and I are outdoors people. So being inside and feeling like you’re outside is fantastic.”

The designer chose—or eschewed—interior details with a cottage vernacular in mind. She dismissed crown moldings as too formal for the setting. More plainspoken selections, such as the wide-plank, pine floors that flow through the home, have stood the test of time. Still, the spaces have evolved over the years with Tracy’s aesthetic. Take, for instance, the warm-gray paint color that replaced a “peanut butter” hue on social-area walls.

“I have a rolling palette of neutrals, and I can switch up the ‘pop’ colors on pillows and blankets,” notes Tracy. “Neutral finishes on more permanent selections lay a good foundation for the interiors.  That’s really what I try to do for my clients too.”

As it turned out, Tracy’s experience crafting her own homes (the Schlegels had previously overhauled a Cleveland Park duplex) sparked a career change. “I’ve always loved fashion, flowers, making things look beautiful,” the ad-exec-turned-designer reveals. Her new path “became an extension of that, thinking about what you want your environment to be.” When her interior-designer sister, Kelcey Huff, suggested they go into business together, Tracy eagerly agreed. The two started Waterlily Interiors in 2009.

The Brookmont abode reflects Tracy’s signature blended style. “I like to mix antiques or pieces that were handed down with upholstered pieces that have a cleaner profile,” she says. “It’s about figuring out how to bring things you like together as a cohesive collection.” For example, the living room tableau combines a circa-1870 Asian cabinet with transitional seating.

From her tranquil master suite to her beautifully appointed outdoor spaces, Tracy cultivates a sense of escape. “To be able to stop, sit and find peace in your home—I feel really lucky to have that,” she admits. “Everyone deserves a home they can step into and feel happy.”

Architecture: Jim Bryan, Heffner Architects, P.C., Alexandria, Virginia. Interior Design: Tracy Schlegel, Waterlily Interiors, Bethesda, Maryland. Renovation Contractor: Mike Schlegel, The Bozzuto Group, Greenbelt, Maryland. Landscape Contractor: Blue Ridge Landscape & Design, Winchester, Virginia.

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