Lighting designer Leslie Sander is at home in the rafters, illuminating the stage for such stellar performances as the Live 8 concert and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
She lives in a theatrical house, a soaring contemporary structure of glass, cedar and metal, where she finds peace among the treetops.
Sander’s work has taken her far and wide. But when it came to buying her first home, she couldn’t find the right fit, a place where she could unwind instantly.
“What I was looking for was a reason to stay home,” she says. “I had been on the road for so long.”
Fortuitously, Sander had a longtime relationship with an architect who knew her well. Her brother, Whitney Sander, is a celebrated contemporary architect in California, the latest generation in a family of architects. He agreed to design a one-of-a-kind home for his sister on a verdant plot she owned in a traditional neighborhood in Greenville that was developed in the 1950s.
“When we were growing up, everybody else was weaving potholders, and my brother was putting together little buildings with toothpicks and glue,” Sander recalls. “We hoped doing this project together would be a lot of fun.”
It also was a rare opportunity for the siblings to reconnect. Brother and sister were separated several years after their parents divorced. Leslie, who was 12, went to live with her father. Whitney, 18 months younger, stayed with his mother.
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“After all those years apart, this gave us the chance to rebuild our relationship,” she says.
Forging the bonds of familial affection came naturally. Building the house was problematic.
Neighbors objected to the structure’s severe angles and boxy, flat-topped shape. They suggested Sander add a peaked roof and Colonial-style shutters to the design.
A stream runs through the property, increasing the potential for flooding. As a result, the area that could be developed was small.
With little space to build out, the Sander siblings decided to build up, designing a vertical house with a raised living room and master suite that create a lofty vibe.
In the end, the home became the architect’s first hybrid house, meaning that the construction is partly prefabricated, yet totally custom. Sander’s home, christened The Tree House, has won numerous awards and was recently featured as one of the top 1,000 residences in the book “Architecture of the Americas.”
With broad expanses of glass, it’s a style more suited to sunny Southern California than the Mid-Atlantic, where winters are cold and snowy. The project called for such unorthodox materials as commercial storefront glass. A radiant heat system was installed under bamboo flooring.
A steady stream of contractors passed on the job. Ultimately, Sander hired Gary Munch of Boss Enterprises Inc. in Wilmington to build it.
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“No one wanted to take it on,” Sander recalls. “But Gary did, and he did a fantastic job.”
Only 1,000 square feet, the house has three levels: a ground floor dedicated to the garage, laundry area and a casual recreation space; the second story, 35 feet above the ground, includes an open living area, kitchen, den and powder room; and a third story houses a loft bedroom and master bath. There’s an open-air rooftop deck with a parapet, a protective wall first developed to protect soldiers defending forts.
Both siblings share an admiration for contemporary architecture. Still, their design sensibilities varied widely. Whitney’s style is spare and sleek, while Leslie gravitates toward earthy materials.
“I was not allowed to use the world ‘rustic’ during the course of the project,” she says.
Brother and sister also are on opposite sides of the color wheel.
“He’s a black-and-white and chrome sort of guy, with art for pops of color,” she says.
Sander has a passion for purple, choosing plum-colored slate to surround the wood-burning fireplace in the living room. As soon as her brother went home to California, she moved her cherished purple print sofa into the living room.
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A friend alerted her to a rare find in appliances, a side-by-side refrigerator in a shiny grape finish. She bought it on the spot and kept it in storage for two years while the project was under way. She designed the underlighting for the deep purple resin sink and countertop in the powder room.
“When you see purple, you have to get it,” she says. “You know it won’t be around much longer.”
A hip 1969 Knoll sofa, originally purchased for her father’s beach house, retains its original cobalt blue upholstery. A partner in Walker Sander Kerr & Ford, her father was a well-known architect in Princeton, New Jersey, for many years. When he died, he left his daughter money to build a home of her own.
Leslie’s stepfather, Denver-based ceramicist John Swift, made a pair of round, ruddy vessel sinks for the master bath.
A whirlpool tub is extra deep, ideal for soaking. It’s outfitted with lighting in an array of colors, a floating remote control and other goodies, “back massager, neck massager, a ledge for my wine and cheese,” Sander says.
On the main living level, a floor-to-ceiling panel of etched transparent resin creates a small foyer and buffers the entry from the living space.
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“My brother didn’t want people to come into the house and immediately see the view,” she says. “With this panel, there’s a build up of the drama that is going to happen.”
Massive glass storefront doors, each weighing 500 pounds, are set in tracks to glide open to a deck. In summer, screen doors allow the breeze to waft into the living room.
Covering a large expanse of glass requires curtains of theatrical proportions. A simple drape in eggplant purple is 18-feet, 3-inches long. It glides closed to make the room a cozy cocoon.
“That’s the standard track you would find at MOMA (the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art),” she says.
A metal staircase is a sculpture, as well as a way to access the loft-like second floor. The stairs were fabricated at Light Action Productions, the performance stage shop where Sander designs lighting. The stairs are made of aluminum plate, one-half inch thick.
“My brother designed the stairs,” she says. “I made sure they were put together correctly.”
Outside, a spiral staircase is a powerful visual statement, a corkscrew counterpoint to the stark geometric lines of the exterior. It’s pragmatic, too, providing access to the rooftop deck.
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“We widened the dimensions by six inches in order to get a quarter keg up the stairs,” Sander says. “It’s a wonderful place for a party.”
A small evergreen at the end of the driveway was near the top of her whimsical wish list, as was the wiring required to light the tree during the holidays.
“I always wanted a little Christmas tree with those big, old-fashioned colorful lights,” she says.
In the stand of graceful trees behind the house, Sander used concert-style light fixtures on bases as uplights. She shifts the lights in keeping with the season, illuminating the silvery bark of tall trees in winter and the canopy of leaves in summer.
“The moment I light up the trees, the living room becomes enormous,” she says. “The outdoors becomes part of the space.”
Wiring already is in place for such future improvements as an automatic opener for the curtain. For now, Sander is enjoying the tranquility of listening to the bubbling water in the stream on calm summer nights.
“Building this house is the best thing I have ever done in my life,” she says. “I am perfectly content.”
- Toss tradition. Combine such time-honored materials as cedar with unexpected choices. In the Sander home, an interior staircase was fabricated from aluminum.
- Think infrastructure. Leslie Sander installed circuits and wiring in the walls in anticipation of future improvements. “When I’m ready to upgrade, they’re already there,” she says.
- If you love it, buy it. When Sander spied an unusual purple refrigerator, she purchased it immediately, knowing she might not get another crack at such an unusual appliance.
- Embrace nature. Stands of tall trees visually expand Sander’s home. Cedar siding is compatible with the woodsy surroundings
- Take it personally. Family members helped to make the house a one-of-a-kind place full of such details as artisan ceramic vessel sinks.