This Custom Conservatory Offers an Escape from the Ordinary

The Metzlers didn’t need to look far to find a builder who could create a classic conservatory that’s a home away from home—in their backyard.

Molly Metzler and her husband, Mike, live in an expansive brick house on the Nanticoke River in Seaford that looks like it has been there for 150 years. 

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They don’t have to go far to unwind at their home-away-from-home, a jewel-like, freestanding conservatory nestled in an English-style privet hedge maze just a short stroll from the main house.

Only 300 square feet, the conservatory blends the centuries-old tradition of glass shelters designed to house exotic plants and the new tiny house movement, in which people gravitate toward smaller, intimate spaces. Think of it as a petite palace, a manor in miniature, a castle cocoon. “It is an exquisite place, like going on vacation,” she says.

The Metzlers at first planned to build a greenhouse on their property. They opted for a conservatory because it would provide them with the additional pleasure of a water element they could enjoy year-round. “We had always wanted a winter water feature, so we put in the spa,” she says.

The conservatory features a copper roof with a large cupola crowned with wrought-iron spires and grillwork.

French doors with arched insets of leaded glass and cast-bronze hardware are topped with a leaded-glass pediment.

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To design and build the structure, they turned to Tanglewood Conservatories in Denton, Md. The firm already had installed a cupola above the foyer in the main house, as well as a conservatory sparkling with stained glass and antique chandeliers adjoining the master suite.

“Most conservatories are attached to other buildings, so the Metzlers’ place is unique, a little getaway,” says architect Alan Stein, who leads Tanglewood with his wife, Nancy Virts.

Tanglewood makes handcrafted, one-of-a-kind conservatories for clients in locales from the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle to Shanghai, a favored destination for a growing population of Chinese tycoons. Each is custom built in Denton, then disassembled and rebuilt on site.

The company manufactures its own high-quality insulated glass and has assembled a team of craftsmen in such scarce arts as copper seaming. Woodworkers draw on skills honed by generations of boat builders on the Eastern Shore.

Metzler called upon the design sensibilities of her own hands when she sat down with Stein to describe the conservatory she envisioned. “I was making shapes in the air with my hands,” she recalls. “Alan listened to what I said and started drawing by hand. And I said, ‘Yes, that is exactly what I want.’”

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Like the main house, the Metzlers wanted the conservatory to exude an aura of time and history. “The house is only 20 years old, but it was built to look like a home that is 150 years old,” she says.

The sofa and chairs were inspired by the furnishings at Althorp, the ancestral estate of the Spencers, where Princess Diana grew up.

On the exterior, the conservatory features a curved copper roof with a large cupola crowned with wrought-iron spires and grillwork. French doors with arched insets of leaded glass and cast-bronze hardware are topped with a leaded glass pediment. The entry is lit by a pair of lanterns mounted on graceful pedestals.

While many tiny houses are mounted on wheels so that they can be transported, this structure is rooted visually and structurally in its wooded setting. “It has an organic look, as if it sprang out of the earth,” Stein says.

The design echoes the red brick and copper standing-seam roofs over the windows on the main house. The roofs are curved on both structures. “The shapes and the materials tie everything together,” Metzler says.

Inside, the conservatory blossoms with luxurious finishes. This tiny house makes a big statement with a soaring, arched ceiling crafted from Honduran mahogany.

Large arched windows are accented with sidelight panels of stained glass and beveled jewels in the delicate hues of a watercolor landscape. The floor is natural stone. A paddle fan whispers overhead. And because it is a conservatory, a tropical palm thrives year-round.

There’s a baronial fireplace with a massive mahogany mantel. A copper sink is inset into a mahogany console topped with marble. A flatscreen TV is ideal for watching movies or the big game.

An inviting sofa combines leather and upholstery fabric with nail-head and wood trim for a sense of relaxed elegance. The sofa and chairs were inspired by the furnishings at Althorp, the ancestral estate of the Spencers, where Princess Diana grew up. (Metzler didn’t have to travel to England to find the pieces. She bought them at Mitchell’s Interiors in Laurel.)

The soaring arched ceiling is crafted from Honduran mahogany.

“Molly is a wonderful decorator,” Stein says. “She has the gift of choosing the right furniture to bring a space together.”

The centerpiece of the conservatory is an oval saltwater spa, 9 feet long, 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep, with a built-in bench around the perimeter. The spa bubbles to life four times a day and runs for an hour each time. In addition to providing a visual show, chlorine levels are adjusted automatically.

It might look effortless, but installing sophisticated technology in a 20-by-18 foot structure requires mechanical magic. The spa is powered via a pump house hidden in nearby foliage. Plumbing is piped underground and up into the conservatory. 

A wall-mounted unit provides heating and cooling. But its utilitarian cover is not in keeping with the stateliness of the setting. Stein’s solution was to camouflage the unit in a casement of mahogany panels. Louvers allow the passage of air and also enable the homeowners to adjust the temperature via remote control.

Occasionally, the Metzlers will invite a few friends to join them in the conservatory for a glass of wine. But in this tiny house, three is almost always a crowd. “It is our special place and ours alone, where we can enjoy peace and tranquility and being together,” she says.

The more they enjoy the conservatory, the more uses they discover for their private retreat. “My husband is thinking of playing his guitars here,” she says. “The acoustics are really great.”  


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