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From Sun Magazine: 'A place to exhale'

It is in Elsa Walsh's warm and unpretentious nature that she would not toss her husband's name around like confetti.

So when architect Stephen Muse raced back from looking at a piece of waterfront property to tell her how amazing it was and how much he wanted to design a home for it, he didn't realize that the "Bob" in the "Bob and I" she kept talking about was Bob Woodward until the noted Watergate journalist and presidential reporter opened the front door of his Georgetown townhouse.

"I didn't know it was Bob Woodward. I just knew it was a terrific piece of property," said Muse of that long-ago meeting in the early 1980s.

"At that point, the only thing I had really done was my own apartment," he said. The apartment was distinctive enough to earn coverage in the Washington Post Home section, but it was still just an apartment. Not a weekend retreat on the water.

"Bob was very nice, but by the end of the meeting, he is saying, 'I like you and I like your apartment, but I am having a hard time making the jump here.'"

Undeterred, Muse went back to his apartment and drew a schematic and built a model of the house he pictured on the small bluff overlooking the water in southern Anne Arundel County.

"I called and asked for a second interview, and I went back to the townhouse holding this model like a birthday cake. A couple of days later, he calls and says, 'If you really want to do this house, it's yours.'"

"What we liked about Stephen," said Walsh, an author and journalist who until recently wrote for The New Yorker magazine, "is that he has this raging imagination behind his calm demeanor."

That was more than 25 years ago, and the house Muse built for Bob Woodward and Elsa Walsh is very much like the model he presented them that day: a one-bedroom house in the middle, with side wings holding offices and bedrooms, known as a five-part Maryland house.

"It is a place to exhale," said Washington interior designer Pamela Ryder, who has worked with the family for years on this home and on their Georgetown home, which is a little more than an hour away from the weekend house. "It is a place to escape Washington life that's lived as only Bob Woodward could live it."

"Every day or weekend we are there is equal to or better than a vacation," said Woodward in an email. "It can get contagious and you never want to leave. The place is an exhilarating retreat."

The family tries to get to the house every weekend, although the busy life of Diana, their rising high school freshman, competes for their time.

"We are hanging on with our fingernails," said Walsh with a laugh. "Sometimes all we can manage is a day or a night there. Diana says that what we like about it — the quiet — is what she doesn't like about it."

"It is a sanctuary," said Walsh, who nonetheless hosted 80 eighth-graders there for a graduation party. "The house is the central foundation of our relationship. We built it together. We go there and we are alone, together. It is the place that we love most."

The view of the water is, of course, central to a house like this, but Muse makes you work for it. In the master bedroom, you have to go past the fireplace and mantel and out onto the porch to see it. On the first floor, the dining room — designed to feel like dining on a screened-in porch with a view of the water — is also behind a fireplace.

"I love to sit on the balcony and read," said Walsh. "But the dining room might be the most perfect room in the house."

Ryder took her cue for the home's colors, washed shades of periwinkle and gray, from the art Walsh has collected since the days when she was a court reporter for The Post. "Elsa has always been interested in art, and every piece has a story behind it. It is from a friend or a trip or it is part of a memory," said Ryder.

"The piece above the fireplace in the bedroom is from Bob's mother," said Walsh. "And the painting above the fireplace downstairs is by Susan Davis. She was one of my closest friends," she said of the artist, known for her New Yorker magazine covers, who died of brain cancer a decade ago.

"When we got married in 1989, she said she wanted to paint something as a wedding present. Unbeknownst to me, she would go out to the house when we weren't there and paint what she saw from our deck. She added two people sculling on the river. That's Bob and I."

The second floor of the house opens up over the kitchen with a pair of parallel catwalks that lead from the master bedroom to his and her bathrooms and dressing rooms.

"When I showed the drawings to my friend Sally Quinn [journalist and wife of former Post editor Ben Bradley, Woodward's boss during Watergate]," she said, 'There's no baby's room upstairs. You have to have a baby's room up there.' At the time, we weren't thinking about babies. But it turns out, Sally was right."

Three years after the house was built, the pool was added, and what started as a pool house became a guest house. "They always have writers from D.C. crashing with them while they finish books," said Muse. "But you'll notice the guest house doesn't have a view of the water. You don't want your guests staying that long.

"Though I wrote one book there, frankly it is really not a place for work — too open and too free," said Woodward.

The guest house is imposingly open. "Super high ceilings," said Walsh. "But perfectly proportioned, like a Greek temple, that immediately creates a calmness and an equanimity."

"I viewed it as more than a guest house," said Muse. "I thought of it as one big terrace that just happened to have a roof over it."

The entrance to the property is through a shade tree allee, and the grounds, designed and maintained by Betty Govatos of Annapolis, continue the soft color of the interior. White and soft pink peonies — Walsh's favorite flower — and purple iris, roses and wild flowers. The gardens follow the undulation of the lawn down to the river.

"Bob and I ask each other, 'Which time do you like best?'" said Walsh. "And what we found is that we both like it all the time. I like it best in spring and summer, and he probably likes its best in fall and winter, when it is starker, with more poetic beauty."

She remembers best the summer of 1997, when they moved to the weekend house with their 1-year-old daughter. Woodward was finishing a book — "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate" — and the Georgetown house was undergoing a major renovation.

"We lived here for six months and we call it 'our summer of happiness,'" said Walsh. "It was hard to move back."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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