These Sisters Transformed Their Mountain Home to Accommodate Their Growing Families
The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina are about as iconic as America’s summertime destinations get—a place where lush forests, rolling hills, and idyllic activities converge. When the Morten sisters’ parents bought this 1929 vacation home there in 1993, it came as a furnished estate—and the ideal spot for kids to let off a little school year steam. “I remember going up there and feeling like it was a Nancy Drew novel incarnate to sift through a house that was entirely filled with somebody else’s things,” says middle sister Liza Morten Gioia, who was around 6 years old at the time. “The basement stairwell had a concealed cabinet filled with dusty Prohibition-era liquor!” The sisters have bottomless memories in the place, having annually piled into their family’s station wagon at home in southern Virginia the day school let out to beeline to the mountains for the rest of the season.
Eventually, the inevitable happened: They grew up. Soon, their once perfect getaway, which had been given a few smaller revamps over the years, wasn’t feeling quite so perfect anymore. “When spouses started coming into the picture, we were really bursting at the seams. There was never hot water, and we were blowing fuses in the bathroom,” recalls Liza, who is now based in New York City. “It had been evident for a long time that we had outgrown the place,” admits Mary Spencer Morten, the youngest, who also lives in New York. Still, building an entirely new home was out of the question. “So much has changed in all of our lives, but the house has remained a constant, which is one of the reasons it’s so special to Liza, Mary Spencer, and me,” says eldest sister Devon Morten McCombs.
Left to right: Liza Morten Gioia; Mary Spencer Morten; Devon Morten McCombs; and Liza’s dog, Teddy
Their family’s solution would add 3,000 square feet to the existing property, taking it from having four bedrooms and four baths to a more spacious setup with seven bedrooms and seven baths. All of this was conceived by Devon, who spent 10 years working for designer Alexa Hampton. She’s been running her own firm, McCombs Interiors, in Washington, D.C., and plans to move it to Bethesda, Maryland, this summer. “It was my dad’s idea to ensure each daughter had a bedroom of her own and a twin bedroom on the same floor for her children,” Devon says of the thoughtful expansion. “One of the things that makes for harmonious family life is for everyone to have space—for grandchildren to play and for grandfathers to have TV rooms with good doors!”
Throughout the house, Devon employed diverse motifs and textures with plenty of input from the group, especially her dad and stepmother. “Layering patterns is what keeps things from looking too decorated and makes the place seem more lived in, not like you just met with a designer twice and bought the concept,” she says. Now, their beloved home in the mountains carries vestiges of the past with plenty of breathing room for the future. “My best friend in the whole world lived up the hill, and when we would pull up into our driveway, she would run down,” says Devon, recalling her childhood visits to their Blue Ridge escape. “Now, she has a baby and I have a 2-year-old, and I hope our kids will do the same.”
Make the Entrance Bloom
A central staircase built from locally sourced river rock offers an inviting descent from the street to the front porch. “When we bought the house in the 1990s, one of the first decisions made was to tear out the overgrowth of rhododendrons that made the place feel dark and inhospitable,” Liza says. “With the garden in the front and a stairway to the entryway, the house is much friendlier.” The landscape has seen many iterations over the years, with tiger lilies, lavender, and sweet peas all making appearances, she notes. “The hydrangeas are a more recent addition by my stepmom, who loves to garden,” says Liza. “They are very happy in the mountains, where they get plenty of rain.”
When the concept of a major renovation first came up, each sister independently asked their dad to preserve the home’s original Dutch entry door, which Collinsville, Virginia-based Freeman’s Restoration brought back to its original glory using historical techniques.
Set a Welcoming Tone
Antiques inherited from the family’s paternal grandmother—including a chest, mirror, and bench—greet visitors with the aura of memory in the foyer, while a lively carpet (Stark’s Zena) makes the space read unequivocally “now.” A Phillip Jeffries wallpaper, Origin Weaves Stripe, is carried throughout the main arteries of the house. “Often in hallways, there aren’t many opportunities to decorate the space or soften it because you don’t have a lot of furniture or windows,” Devon says. “It’s just lighting, rugs, and wall treatments.” Farther down the hall, handpicked Ornis Gallery avian prints flutter across the walls. “Any minute you look out the window, you might see deer or bunny rabbits or even wild turkeys coming through,” says Liza.
Be Ready for a Crowd
“We used to sit in the window seat with our mom and watch big electrical storms come in,” Devon says. “It’s kind of like the beach because you’re looking at this big, open sky, but we felt very safe in that window seat cocoon.” Their table, which belonged to their stepmom’s mother, seats eight, but they sometimes pull it up to the bench to squeeze in six more. “I used to love it when we would do that as children; I felt like I was in a restaurant,” Devon says. Liza suggested they hang antique china the family inherited from the home’s previous owner on the walls, which are paneled in American chestnut (now a functionally extinct wood). An area rug by Farsh Carpets grounds the dining table, encircled by chairs that came with the house.
Layered in Time
A painting by William Skilling stands watchword over the living room, hung from the original wood fireplace. “This room was never fully redecorated; it’s been tweaked and layered and changed over the course of decades,” Devon says.
Look to the Locale
The Pheasant pattern by Twigs Fabrics and Wallpapers provides a note of alpine splendor in this powder room. “If you don’t adore the paper from the get-go, you’re probably going to grow tired of it,” Devon says. A dark soapstone counter tops the vanity, and the gold Gothic Twig Mirror by Carvers’ Guild, “is suggestive of the home’s setting because of its woodsy form but is still gilded,” she notes. “We wanted to stay away from mountain clichés but have the design remain appropriate for the location.” They opted to paint the room’s trim in Benjamin Moore’s Mountain Moss (2142-30). “White would have been too stark, and we wanted it to feel cozy, especially since it faces the front hall, which is lined in stained wood,” Devon says.
Lean on Texture
The four-poster beds in the master were inherited from the Mortens’ grandmother. “She had beautiful taste; my dad jokes that if we have learned anything from her, it’s that buying nice things pays off. I still have clothing and jewelry of hers that I wear!” says Devon. The designer used a largely taupe palette here, including the Osterley bed hanging from Cowtan & Tout and a Colefax and Fowler wallpaper, Swedish Tree in Beige. “People often think ‘cozy’ means using rich or saturated colors, but I think texture can also give the effect of comfort,” she says. “Wallpaper, embroidery, and crewelwork—those things all work together to make it feel layered.” Matouk bedding plus pillows (Lee Jofa) and patterns (Rogers & Goffigon’s Vellino on the ottoman) add extra warmth.
Accommodate All Ages
Devon designed this room to appease children and adults alike, making use of spirited Bangalore Paisley wallpaper from Quadrille and twin beds that were original to the home. “If a couple stays in there, they don’t feel like they were put in the kids’ room,” she says. Visual Comfort sconces illuminate the two antique beds. The bedside table belonged to the sisters’ great-grandmother. The Garrick Table Lamp is from Bassett Mirror Company, which her great-great-grandfather launched and her dad runs today. Devon asked architect Don Duffy to make the bedroom closets smaller. “I didn’t think it was necessary for them to be massive in a vacation home,” she says.
F. Schumacher and Co. wallpaper (Santa Barbara Ikat in pink) and polished nickel sconces by Visual Comfort make for a winsome washroom. “When we were assessing the budget, we decided if we painted a bedroom we tried to wallpaper the accompanying bathroom, so we didn’t have to wallpaper every single room,” Devon says.
Brighten the Basement
The last person who shows up stays in this subterranean space—where cool colors, like walls in Benjamin Moore’s Gray Owl (2137-60), are made warm thanks to pattern play and abundant textures. “We wanted it to feel very cozy, not cold,” Devon recalls, noting that they installed a ceramic tile floor and dehumidifier in case of any errant water. A plush rug underfoot (Kubra from Stark) and headboard and bedskirt (Schumacher’s Sandoway Vine) keep this queen bedroom looking anything but dark and dreary.
In the corner of the basement bedroom a cozy chair creates a nice space to relax near the windows. A painting of the family matriarch, the Morten sisters’ grandmother, Gabu, graces the wall.
In a nearby kids’ room, Devon selected a poppy Sister Parish Design wallpaper (Serendipity in Blue Orange) and colorful antique quilts to add some vibrancy. “We wanted it to be cheerful since it’s in the basement and looks out to a stone retaining wall,” she says. Painterly stripes on the One Kings Lane area rug (Anyu Flat Weave area rug in blue) nod to child’s play.