Type to search

Wright at the Beach


Varied ceiling heights define the home’s spaces.

Photographs by Keith Mosher

Jim and Jackie Rifenbergh moved east from Minnesota, bringing with them five dogs, a pot-bellied pig and the best in Midwestern design tradition.

Their destination was Lewes, the oldest community in Delaware, long known as a bastion of Early American architecture.

The Rifenberghs were inspired by another American icon, Frank Lloyd Wright, who interpreted the broad lines of the prairie into striking, organic homes.

“I’m a great admirer of his style and the way his homes are in harmony with nature,” Jim says.

But while Wright’s life was marked by turmoil and tragedy, the Rifenbergh project was touched by serendipity from the very beginning.

After long and successful careers—Jackie as executive editor of Working Woman magazine, Jim as CEO of Brown Printing Co.—the couple was looking for a location that would offer them both East Coast sophistication and milder winters.

They anticipated spending up to six months to identify the right spot. But only three hours into their search, they found a lovely, wooded lot in Lewes. At a little over an acre, there was plenty of room for the sylvan compound they had envisioned, as well as a place for their pets to romp.

“We took it as a sign that we were on the right track,” Jim says.

A collection of porcine art was inspired by Hamlet.

That same day, they visited John Lester, a local architect who specializes in contemporary homes and commercial buildings. The couple shared their respect for Wright’s work, as well as their own design sensibility.

While Wright’s interiors were frequently dark and intimate, the Rifenberghs’ style is light and welcoming.

“Can you make us a house Frank Lloyd Wright would have designed, but light?” Jim asked.

“Absolutely,” the architect replied. “I’ll even make you one that doesn’t leak.”

Within 24 hours, the Rifenberghs had made deals to buy land, design a house and build it. The result of that day is a compound of three angular structures—the main house, a large, detached garage and a gardening pavilion for Jackie, a master gardener—all at peace with the surrounding woods and gardens.

“We call it Frank Lloyd Wright at the beach,” Jim says.

The first step in building the compound was to blaze a path through the woods, while preserving as many trees as possible, and to establish a central courtyard that would serve as a staging area throughout the construction.

Copper rain chains replace traditional gutters.

Instead of traditional gutters and downspouts, water from the roofs travels down 20 rain chains, a series of copper cubes that combines the practicality of a bucket brigade with the whimsy of charm bracelets.

“A cascade of waterfalls around a house looks so much nicer than a bunch of ugly downspouts,” Lester says.

The front door makes a statement, with applied geometric shapes in clear, bright colors that are a whimsical contrast to the earth tones of the siding.

Strong horizontal lines are a hallmark of Wright’s work. On the exterior, the edges of cedar clapboards are beveled to define linear planes. Inside, simple applied moldings, painted the same color as the walls, create visual bands that wrap the dining room.

Simple applied moldings, painted the same
color as the walls, wrap the dining room.

Like Wright, Lester utilized various ceiling heights to define spaces. In the public areas, the ceiling is lowest in an intimate seating area, a step higher in the kitchen and informal dining space, and loftiest in the gathering room. Yet the floor plan is open, with a sightline that extends from the front to the back of the house.

“Nobody feels isolated,” Jackie says. “Everybody is part of the event.”

She loves to cook, so a get-together at the Rifenbergh house typically includes great food. A commercial-style range top and wall ovens make the job easier. The task area is compact, enabling the cook to easily set out food on the granite-topped island. It helps to define the kitchen, but stays open to an adjoining area for informal dining.

“I didn’t want a big kitchen,” Jackie says. “I wanted an efficient kitchen.”

Cabinets installed above the window over the sink provide storage for seldom-used items. Built-in cabinetry in the dining area was crafted from cherry. The upper cabinets are fronted with reeded glass, which offers the benefit of adding light to the space without exposing the contents.

Wright himself might have chosen the cork flooring throughout the public spaces of the house for its organic feel and foot friendly function. Actually, the choice was the result of a happy design detour.

“We started out with concrete, but it didn’t work,” Jim says. “So we switched to cork, which has been just fantastic.”

Seven windows were stacked from floor to ceiling to create a glass accent wall in the gathering room. Lester suggested applying contrasting blocks of marble on the fireplace to keep the angular vibe going, placing some pieces on their sides so they protrude like steps.

Natural light is an integral part of the design. It is ushered into the house through large banks of windows, as well as skylights, in the bedrooms and gathering area. “We provide sleeping masks for guests,” Jackie says.

The master suite is large and linear, furnished with a crisp, white Pierre Cardin bed, night stands and dresser made in the 1970s that retains its sleek, modern finish.

An expansive master bath includes his and hers spaces and lustrous white tiles accented with bands of red trim tile. The small scarlet accent squares, set into white tiles, are an homage to Wright’s affection for red.

A repurposed garage provides a place
for the owners, their five dogs and pet
pig to hang out.

The Rifenberghs are passionate about their pets: three Clumber spaniels, two Sussex spaniels and a Vietnamese pig named Hamlet, who inspired the couple’s expansive collection of porcine art. To create a space where they can all spend time together in comfort, the couple repurposed a three-car garage, transforming it into a spacious family room.

There’s a small kitchen, a small office and an exercise bike for Jackie, who works out with her four-footed friends. She designed the cushioned banquette beneath a bank of windows, an ideal spot for the dogs to rest, look out the window, and watch birds and squirrels in the gardens. Ceramic tile is laid over a radiant heat floor, providing both easy maintenance and comfort.

The Rifenberghs and the dogs can snuggle on a big red leather sofa to watch movies or gaze at tropical fish gliding gracefully in a 135-gallon aquarium.

“I find myself watching the fish more than I watch TV,” Jackie says.

Borrow from the best. The Rifenberghs took the inspiration for their prairie-style complex from architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Experiment with materials. Enamel-and-copper panels can transform a utilitarian door into a spectacular passage. Cork floors provide an organic look that also is quiet and foot friendly.

Designate a pet friendly zone. The Rifenberghs love animals, so they built an expansive family room where all members of the clan—four-footed and otherwise—can relax together.

Let there be light. Bountiful windows, transoms and skylights provide views of the garden and woods, as well as peaceful clouds and twinkling stars.

Details make the difference. Red squares set into ceramic tiles give a bath a dash of panache.

Previous Article
Next Article

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Delaware Today Newsletter.

No thank you