Katie Cornell found her dream plot of land in Monkton through a most unlikely broker: her horse. “I had been riding across this property for a couple of years,” says Cornell, who fox-hunts with the nearby Elkridge-Harford Hounds. “I always said if I ever built a house, this would be a beautiful place to build. Little did I know this would eventually be the place we did just that.”
It would be several years before the 14 acres were for sale. After meeting her husband, Tom, in 2001, Katie introduced him to the wonders of rural northern Baltimore County. As soon as the neighbors were prepared to sell, she and Tom seized the opportunity. “When Tom saw how beautiful Monkton is and familiarized himself with the place and the people, he said, ‘This is the kind of place I want to live and retire to,’” Cornell recalls.
Cornell knew she wanted to re-create a little piece of the French countryside on their rolling acreage. She wanted a home that didn’t feel overtly new and that contained elements of Old World European charm that would mix well with the couple’s casually elegant lifestyle. One afternoon while flipping through the pages of Architectural Digest, the perfect home leapt off the page when Cornell came across a quarter-page advertisement for Jack Arnold Designs. The couple were able to purchase the plans for their dream home and make only a few minor alterations.
“[Jack Arnold] has, in his designs, captured the true essence of a French Country home,” Cornell explains. She loved the deep-framed doors with curved tops, high ceilings, casement windows and the asymmetry of doors and windows that give the house a sense of history and character. “The other thing I love about his designs, when you walk into one of his homes you feel like you can breathe— the ceilings are high and there’s a lot of light— and they’re graceful because there are a lot of curved lines to offset the angles,” she says.
When they began looking for a builder to execute the Jack Arnold plan they didn’t need to look far— Cornell admired the workmanship of a new home on nearby Manor Road. The couple’s realtor made inquiries and put them in touch with Brian Baker, a young, talented builder with Taylor-Reed Builders Inc. “Brian kept me on a really precise timeline,” she recalls. “He is extremely organized.”
Cornell had experience with home renovation and design and wanted to do the interior design herself. She had restored her previous home, a Victorian townhouse in Hampden, but says that building a home from the ground up was much more challenging. She and Baker made a good team, working to augment and execute the home’s plan. The warm red-toned Brazilian cherry floors were Baker’s suggestion. When Cornell asked if she could have a coffered ceiling in the living room (not called for in the original plans), Baker built it for her himself, as well as the moulding over the living room windows. They spent hours looking at doors and custom cabinetry. “He helped steer me in certain directions,” says Cornell. “We worked well together and, really, I learned a lot.”
Much of what she learned was self-taught, thanks to her discovery of a series of French design books from the ’40s and ’50s. Though her French was a bit rusty, she was able to pore over the photographs, examining every detail of the French Country style and deciding which elements she wanted to put in the house. It is those details, the tiniest elements that no one might recognize, that come together to give the house its authentic French Country feel.
Cornell points, for example, to the rather modest crystal chandelier in the living room. While others might have selected a larger, more dramatic light fixture, her research indicated that a smaller chandelier was more in keeping with the French Country style. She also hand-selected each of the wrought-iron spindles in the main staircase to create a pattern that suggests the French Country aesthetic.
From the paint to the doorknobs, Cornell created the entire design of the home, working slowly through the process. “I like to live with a house for a little while and, eventually, I find that the house speaks to you,” she says, noting that it is important to watch how the light enters the house to really get a sense of the correct design elements to place inside.
Some of the decisions she made are surprising. For example, the house has no formal dining room. The room that is intended to be the dining room on the original drawings is now a comfortable den.
“I didn’t want to waste these views on a room we might use two times a month,” Cornell explains, indicating the pastoral vantages out the large windows. The room is decorated in warm hues, including a rag-finished ochre on the walls, deep-seated leather furniture and rich silk window treatments made of a Schumacher fabric that is a reproduction of a 17th-century tapestry pattern. The stone pedestals for the glass-top table were once the base of a garden bench in Cornell’s grandparent’s garden. She gave them new life in the den and they blend well with the Old World look she wished to evoke.
The dining room is incorporated into the kitchen, but it is no casual breakfast nook— there is a reproduction antique table crafted by Gaines McHale and formal antique chairs set on rich yellow needlepoint rugs purchased through Horchow. There is also a large limestone mantelpiece, one of two Cornell had custom made (the other is in the living room) and a crystal-accented chandelier. According to Cornell, it is very European to have a formal dining area in the kitchen, and since it was to be the only seated eating space in the house, she went a little against the grain of American norms.
“I’ve learned that no matter where you want your guests to be, they always end up in the kitchen,” she explains. More often than not, the couple entertains on the large veranda that runs the length of the house and that embraces a small garden full of hydrangea, roses and lilacs. “Our lifestyle is fox hunting and horses and gardening and being outdoors, so we sacrificed the dining room for this den.”
For her part, Cornell often ends up in the living room. “I can sit in that room with the fireplace going in the winter and look out in the field and watch the horses,” she says. Every home she’s ever lived in has had a yellow living room, a color she loves and that sets off artwork and accessories well. It is also part of the traditional French Country color scheme of muted blues, beiges and yellows. Cornell found the silk for the window treatments while traveling in Singapore.
Having grown up in older houses around old things, Cornell says she has an appreciation for the craftsmanship and textures of old materials. But she also likes to mix things up to keep them interesting. So it is not surprising that the home’s art collection features English oil paintings of horses as well as large French posters. African masks join rugs from Egypt that the couple selected while traveling. The home’s accessories are not from a designer showroom— they are very much a collection created by the couple. “The house is not only a reflection of our lifestyle, but our travels,” says Cornell. “It is very personal.”
Cornell says that she thought long and hard about the way she and her husband lived when making decisions about the home, and certainly that care is evident in each room of the house. It is not a massive structure with extraneous rooms, but a well-planned home where every detail and room choice makes sense. There are small, cozy rooms for guests that tuck up under the roof (decorated in toile, a signature of French Country home style), and a petit master suite. “I didn’t want it to be too feminine,” says Cornell of the bedroom. Although the room is done in romantic rose hues, Cornell selected a heavy fabric from Pindler & Pindler rather than something overly feminine and gauzy, and chose heavy, antique pieces, like the Scottish linen press, to give mass and a touch of masculinity to the room.
Where many would look at the Cornell’s house and see a French Country showplace, they see home, a place where dogs can— and do— sit on the furniture and where muddy riding boots often trop on wood floors. “There are many things here my husband and I have purchased on our travels and I’m also surrounded by paintings and furniture that have been in my family for years, so there’s the comfort of familiar things,” says Cornell. “We have our dogs and horses and we love our garden. This is really a self-contained lifestyle— we have everything we need.”