Luis Marden House 1952, Virginia

The Marden House is an interesting one, because little is known about it. Marden, an editor for National Geographic Magazine, tended to collect things. Some speculate that since that is quite opposed to how Mr. Wright felt people should live in a Wright-designed home, Mr. Marden tended not to allow others to view his home.

Many of you know that I live in the Washington, DC area… only miles away from the Marden house. You might wonder why it is that it has taken me so many years to put up information about the house. Quite honestly, it is almost completely inaccessible. There is no view of it from the street. The house number doesn’t even appear on any driveways as you make your way up Chain Bridge Road.

I did finally find a place where you can view the Marden House. After a lot of hiking and climbing over boulders in the park across the river, I was able to get a small glimpse of the Marden House. Below you’ll see the photos that I took.

The Marden House is shaped like a football if you look at it from the top. There was a period in Wright’s career where he did many such homes. One was for his son, Llewellyn, in Bethesda, Maryland. Storrer talks about how Mr. Wright tried to convince Mr. Marden to trade lots with his son. I think Mr. Marden definitely had the better of the two home sites. As you’ll read below, Mr. Marden wasn’t the kind of man to give in to that kind of persuasion.

The shape of the house fits perfectly with its setting. The home is built into the brow of a cliff that overlooks the Potomac river. As you might imagine, it has full height glass along the entire view of the Potomac. It also is remarkably private from down below.

The Marden House has one large bedroom and one very small one. At almost 2600 square feet, it is a good livable size for a married couple with no children. The house cost an amazing $76,000 to build by the time it was completed in 1959. One of the interesting things is that it is one of the only Usonian homes that has an actual garage. There’s also a small tool room off one side of the garage.

Wright had originally designed a wide terrace and even a lily pond for this home. Those plans were scrapped when it became obvious that a lily pond wouldn’t work well or look right on a house that was built upon a cliff.

Probably the best way to get a feel for this house is to understand its owners and their lives. I read a wonderful article about the Mardens in the Washington Post last year written by Annie Gowan. Her introduction goes a long way to properly describing the Marden House.

About 15 years ago, a Chevy Chase contractor named Bailey Adams was looking for some antique Brazilian rosewood for a home he was restoring, and a friend suggested he see Luis Marden.

Marden, then in his late seventies, was a globe-trotting National Geographic magazine photographer and writer known to be a connoisseur of exotic woods, as well as an expert pilot, scuba diver, explorer and friend of kings and sultans.

Adams already knew Marden lived quietly with his wife in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright overlooking the Potomac River in McLean. One of three Wright-designed homes in the Washington area, the Marden house, as it is called, seldom has been photographed or examined by scholars. For many Wright aficionados, the home remains a mystery even today, nearly half a century after it was built.

So Adams was not prepared for the experience he had when he first entered the house.

He remembers going to see Marden in autumn, negotiating his way down a steep driveway to a small concrete structure, surrounded by weeds and cut unassumingly into the side of a rocky hillside above the river.

Marden, a slight, mustachioed man wearing an ascot, answered Adams’s knock on the door and greeted him pleasantly, beckoning him in.

Adams stepped into a dark vestibule, then turned to his left.

“There were 80 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows, 300 feet above the most beautiful set of rapids in the river,” Adams says. “It took my breath away. I just stopped. I couldn’t say anything.”

Marden turned to him, totally deadpan.

“He said, ‘Well, I see it has the desired effect,'” Adams recalls, with chuckle.

Ms. Gowan goes on to do a great job of describing the Mardens and why they fit with this home so well.

While Wright was the flamboyant genius whose style of organic architecture broke new ground, Marden was a self-taught man who managed to parlay an interest in early color photography into a decades-long career at National Geographic, picking up five languages along the way and writing more than 55 articles for the august journal.

Marden’s exploits were legendary at the magazine: He discovered the ruins of the HMS Bounty near Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific in 1956, and later met with Marlon Brando to counsel him on his role in the movie version of the tale. He went on dives with Jacques Cousteau. Long after he had officially retired, he and wife Ethel, then in their seventies, set sail from the Canary Islands to retrace Columbus’s journey to the New World, arguing that the explorer had actually landed much farther south than historians initially believed.

“[H]e is a celebrity to an eclectic circle of admirers on all continents,” journalist Cathy Newman wrote in a National Geographic article titled “The Art of Being Luis Marden” in 2000. “Long ago, staffers at the magazine stopped being surprised when asked by a Mideast monarch or a mule driver in Mexico: ‘Tell me, how is Luis Marden these days?’ The late Joseph Judge, an editor, claimed a hermit in Alaska turned him down for an interview. He was ‘saving my story for Luis Marden.'”

Ethel, now 94 and living in an assisted care facility in Arlington, was a thrilling person in her own right, recalls Luis’s niece, Danielle de Benedictis, 59, a Massachusetts attorney.
The couple had met at a Washington boarding house in 1934 and were married in 1939.

Trained as a mathematician, Ethel Marden had a long career at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, working on prototypes of the earliest computer, de Benedictis says. She was also a licensed pilot and an expert scuba diver, and she adored fast cars.

The Mardens had been fishing along the Potomac in early 1944 when Mr. Marden looked up the cliffs and noted that that would be a nice place to live. They purchased a plot of land overlooking the Potomac River very soon after.

Mr. Marden had been in correspondence with Frank Lloyd Wright back in 1940, asking him to design a home for them. Wright agreed, but, due to busy schedules on both of their parts, it wasn’t until 1952 that the designs finally came. As described above, the home was completed in 1959.

The Mardens loved the home. Its floors cracked and the furnace was never installed properly, but they loved it none the less. Mrs. Marden wrote to Wright in 1959, “Our beautiful house.. stands proudly just under the brow of the hill, looking down always on the rushing water which constantly sings to it, day and night, winter and summer. It will … represent for us, as you put it when you were here, ‘a way of life’”. (Again quoted from Ms. Gowan’s article).

In 1998, Mr. Marden moved to a nursing home. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease. The home was sold to James Kimsey (founder of AOL) in 2000 for $2.5 million and the condition that Mrs. Marden could go on living there as long as she was able. Another condition was that the home could not be demolished or changed significantly on the outside. Mrs. Marden finally moved to a retirement community in 2003.

Mr. Kimsey made the decision to return the home to its original state and renovations have been going on ever since. It was scheduled to be completed in fall of 2005. I do not know the current status of the house.

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Brad Smith

Brad Smith is an experienced interior designer and the founder of With a Master's degree in Interior Design from Pratt Institute and a passion for creating safe and healthy living spaces, Brad shares his expert insights and innovative design ideas with our readers. His work is driven by the belief that home is where every story begins.

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