Anyone who lives in and around Arlington or McLean is familiar with a Morris-Day house, even if they don’t know it. The firm led by architect Rob Morris has changed the landscape of neighborhoods here, designing and building traditionally minded homes with the latest technology and building methods. Here are a few examples:
The firm was rocked apart in December, however, when Rob committed suicide.
It was a huge shock to the design community, and fans who sought out his nostalgic brand of architecture. I counted myself among his fans, and have fond memories of his huge, welcoming house parties (I did a post on one of his many homes, right here).
Rob left behind an office full of people who suddenly had nowhere to go. I can’t even imagine having to deal with the grief of a lost colleague on one hand, and trying to move forward professionally on the other.
But this is a good-news blog post: Morris-Day’s principal architect, Dwight McNeill (who designed the homes you see above), and its director of operations, Jim Baker, have taken the firm’s clients—and are gaining several new ones—in a new McLean office with a new name: McNeill Baker Design Associates.
Most of McNeill Baker’s team came over with Dwight and Jim to build the new company. While Morris-Day was a design/build firm, McNeill Baker is design-only, and it’s already forging relationships with a number of local builders to handle the construction side.
As for interior design, they continue to work closely with designer Rose DiNapoli of DiNapoli Interiors, who also owns the Modern History Collection, a home furnishings and design shop in McLean. “Rose and Rob worked closely together for many years, and her input remains vital to the kind of homes we create,” Dwight says.
Dwight worked with Rob Morris for more than 25 years and was project architect on over 100 jobs. He leads the new design team as the architect of record. Jim has a background in construction, home building and commercial and residential development. As president, he focuses on organizational strategy, sales and marketing.
I asked them both how they’ve been doing since their careers took an unexpected turn six months ago. Here’s the Q&A:
It was a shock to everyone in the design community when Rob Morris died in December. Can you tell us how you all, as his colleagues at Morris-Day, responded in those first few days and weeks?
DM: We were in the process of moving our offices at the time of his death. In fact, we all heard the news the morning we showed up to complete the move. There was no time to mourn, we just had to roll up our sleeves and finish the job. Rob’s death was a shock but not a surprise. Rob battled depression for years and, faced with some personally difficult business decisions, he chose suicide instead. It’s unfortunate.
JB: I was devastated, as I had just seen him the previous day. There really was nothing more to do than to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
What happened to all the ongoing Morris Day design and construction projects? How are those clients being handled?
DM: Those clients are a big reason why McNeill Baker exists. Rob was the sole proprietor of Morris-Day, and there was no plan in place for sustaining the company without him, so in effect, Morris-Day died with him. In the days following Rob’s death, Jim and I met with each of the remaining clients. With a good working relationship already in place, the design clients chose to come on board with us and, over the next few months, we helped the construction clients find new builders.
JB: The first two months were the most stressful for both staff and clients. There were so many questions about how to set up the new business. The hardest—and ultimately best—decision was to become a design-only company. It’s opened a host of new business opportunities, as much of our business today comes from developers/builders with one-off spec-home projects.
Sudden losses often effect dramatic changes. Can you describe anything different you might be doing at McNeill Baker that’s a shift from Morris-Day?
DM: McNeill Baker is not a design-build company like Morris-Day—at least for now. At heart, we love to design houses, and I can’t imagine straying too far from what we do best. However, we have been batting around some ideas like doing more historic preservation and expanding our geographic comfort zone to include downtown DC and beyond. Personally, I’d love to see us do more houses in rural Virginia, particularly near my own weekend place in Faquier County.
JB: We’ve had a couple strategic-planning meetings, and the entire team still wants to design homes based on traditional styles. In addition, since we are no longer the builder of record, our design contracts have changed to incorporate Bidding/Negotiations Services with contractors; Construction Administration; and Post-Construction Services such as the punch and warranty walks. The addition of these three areas insures that the client now has an advocate in us as their architects.
Likewise, is there any M-D legacy that you intend to preserve?
DM: There will always be one common thread—our continuing interest in creating traditional architecture for modern times. I recently heard an interview with a renowned southern chef where he said, “The past feeds the present.” I think that’s true of the kind of homes we want to create as well; nourished by tradition, they do more than meet the basic needs of shelter and sustenance—they enrich our lives.
JB: For me, this was the culmination of 15 years of admiration of Morris-Day’s design, my long-standing friendship with Rob Morris and love of the design and construction industry. Rob and I were working through creating a partnership path for the future of Morris-Day; however, his death propelled us all in a different direction, and I think we are carrying on the tradition of excellent design and quality craftsmanship.
The climate for architects and designers seems to have improved dramatically since the dark days of 2008-09-10. What are clients looking for now?
DM: While the demand for McMansions seems to be waning, we do see people in wonderful, old, small-scale neighborhoods suddenly wanting—and needing—lots and lots of space. Gaining the space they want while honoring the neighborhood context can be a huge challenge – even as the neighborhood context continues to change and grow.
Another trend is planning for aging parents and in-laws. Not only are people adding in-law suites and apartments to their homes; one of our clients is developing a neighboring lot with a brand new house for a very active mother-in-law. By design, the house will have a master plan for expanding it later for resale as a 4-5 bedroom family home.
JB: “Green” sustainable building materials and in-home technology have been advancing rapidly, and we are building key business relationships to meet that demand. Today’s homeowner tends to look for low maintenance, energy-efficient and technologically advanced homes. We’re incorporating geo-thermal and solar technologies, smart-home systems and earth-friendly materials into the homes we design.
Who are your and Jim’s architect icons and why?
DM: I read Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography as a child, and while I didn’t know his architecture, I loved the way he wrote about it. That book, and a childhood visit to Monticello, are the reasons I became an architect. Robert Venturi is a constant inspiration. He’s retired now, but he revolutionized residential architecture in the 1960s by tempering modernism with traditional house forms.
JB: I have to say that my favorite architect was and still is Richard Morris Hunt. While the homes he designed were terribly grand and over the top by today’s standards, he seemed to control proportions and space so well. In addition, during the period where he was building homes like the Breakers in Newport, RI, and the Biltmore in Asheville, NC, he was incorporating cutting-edge technologies, building practices and materials at the time.
What are your favorite buildings in Washington, architecturally speaking?
DM: Edwin Lutyen’s British Ambassador’s Residence comes immediately to mind. One of Britain’s greatest architects, he was known for imaginatively adapting traditional architectural styles to meet the requirements of his era. The residence, completed in 1928, is his only built work in the United States.
Closer to home, I love the Glebe House in North Arlington. Its roots are in the 1770s, but the large octagonal part was added in the 1850s. I especially like the cupola with the huge wooden eagle on top, a gift from the people of Spain to Senator Frank Ball, a former resident and ambassador to Spain.
JB: I’m drawn to the classic architecture of the Connecticut Avenue co-ops and the shingle-style homes in Cleveland Park, but who could resist a Tutor in Spring Valley or a Federal in Logan Circle?
What broad trends are you seeing in residential design that you a) love and b) hate?
DM: I have a love/hate relationship with online sites like Pinterest and Houzz. We rarely see clients walking through the door with piles of magazine clippings anymore. They’re doing it online, and that information can be very helpful. But unlike magazines, the content online is generally unedited, and everything—good and bad—is presented the same way , giving it all the same value. Houses are more than a collection of details, and I worry that homeowners may come to look at their homes that way, and fail to see the bigger picture. That said, I’m totally addicted to Pinterest and “curate” two folders dedicated solely to houses, “Domestic Architecture” and “House and Home.”
JB: I think that Houzz, HGTV and DIY network are driving influences today. While any media outlet or show that promotes interest in renovating or building is great for our business, they can sometimes overwhelm the client and set up unrealistic expectations of budgets and timing. Yet those outlets give reasons for clients to hire an architect, interior designer, landscaper and/or Realtor—they inspire ideas, and the professionals then help temper the ideas, educate the client, craft the client’s vision and deliver the desired results.