By Khristi Zimmeth
Photographs by Laszlo Regos Photography
When Arie and Karolyn Leibovitz were planning their new house in West Bloomfield, Mich., there was never question what the focus would be. The dramatic 6,500-sq.-ft. contemporary home sits within 35 ft. of Walnut Lake, with an uncompromising vista of natural beauty.
“Water was the driving factor from the very beginning,” says Arie, a commercial developer and builder who moved with Karolyn from a land-locked home less than a mile away.
They had long heard of the many pleasures of lakefront living and eventually decided to experience them firsthand.
“This is the Great Lakes State, and like many Michigan residents, we’ve always dreamed about living on the water,” he says. “But we also had a practical reason for building this home. We have five sons; if we wanted them to come home often and bring our grandchildren, then a place on the water would be a good draw.”
Realizing their dream wasn’t easy, however. While the location is one of the most desirable in highly desirable Oakland County, the challenging lot that they chose was not. In fact, it languished on the market for years because of its extreme proximity to the lake, as well as bad soil, on-site wetlands and a long list of city restrictions and regulations.
“Most people were afraid to mess with it,” Arie says. “Because I’m a real state, I saw it as an opportunity, not a problem.”
Even when the problems and regulations were ironed out, building the house was less than smooth sailing, says Kevin Akey of AZD Architects of Birmingham, Mich., whom the homeowners commissioned to design their home.
“While the water views are definitely spectacular, there were real challenges,” says Akey. “We jumped through a lot of hoops before getting the go-ahead.”
Before approaching the architect, the couple had considered a Mediterranean-style residence similar to those they had seen on frequent travels and in Arie’s native Israel. Because of the peninsula-shape lot and proximity to the water, Akey suggested abandoning those plans in favor of a more flexible, soft contemporary that featured natural light, spacious multipurpose rooms and an open floor plan.
“We had always appreciated contemporary design, so switching gears was easy,” says Arie. “Our only real requirement was that every room- even the first floor laundry- had to have a lake view.”
Akey’s innovative solution was to design the residence as a series of separate yet connected buildings placed in a fan-shaped arc facing the water. Arie acted as the builder himself, using contractors and friends from his 25 years in the real state business.
Once the team had the go-ahead, it took determination, creative thinking, 18 months of planning, another 18 months of construction and more than 80 concrete pilings to turn their vision into reality.
“The end results were well worth all the hassles along the way,” says Arie. “The house has definitely exceeded our expectations.”
Outside, a striking front porch with large concrete pillars and a large wall of curving, two-story glass welcome visitors. Other materials include oversized 16in.-by-24-in. concrete masonry blocks, plaster, frosted glass and stainless steel.
“This was our first chance to use the larger concrete blocks, which we’ve always loved but are not inexpensive,” says Akey. “We’ve found that homeowners don’t want to paint theirs houses every few years anymore. One of the beauties of the Leibovitz house is that there’s not an ounce of exterior maintenance.”
Inside, a spacious foyer features a dramatic, two-story stainless-steel waterfall and a view of Walnut Lake through the adjacent living room. The homeowners designed the interiors themselves, placing a green serpentine-shape suede sofa in the living room along with items from their extensive art collection. As with the rest of the house, furniture and accessories were intended to hold their own yet not detract from the views of the lake.
“People are always telling us that the house is extremely inviting,” says Arie, “even people who don’t like contemporary homes like this one.”
The kitchen features light maple cabinets and floors and is designed to accommodate a crowd, with a large modern table and plenty of elbow room for Karolyn, a gourmet cook. Any overflow of guest can spill out into an adjacent recreation room and a nearby large deck overlooking the lake. The Leibovitzes entertain frequently and even hosted a party for the contractors and tradespeople who worked on it when the house was completed in 2003.
“These people put a lot of themselves into our home and were really instrumental in how it turned out,” says Arie. “Many are friends or became friends during the process, but in most cases they don’t see their hard work once it’s completed. I wanted them to enjoy the end results as much as we did.”
Upstairs, the more private second floor features five bedroom suites decorated in neutral shades. A loft and sitting area near the master bedroom opens to the living room and water below.
“Originally, the plan was to close this off, but we decided it was silly to waste the view,” says Arie. “This is where we relax at the end of the day and listen to music.”
While water is a prominent theme, so is dance. Karolyn runs a nearby ballet school, and sculpture, paintings and other dance-related art can be found throughout the home. Artist Tom Myers’ striking abstract sculpture “The dance of life” occupies a place of honor on the front lawn. Even the custom made glass shower door in the master bath, sandblasted by a local artist as a surprise for Karolyn from Arie, features an image of three ballerinas on a stage.
Because every room has a lake view, the couple can enjoy the changing seasons on mile-long Walnut Lake from various perches throughout the house. In summer they sunbathe on the second floor deck off the master bedroom and watch the swans that share their lakefront home. In fall they watch the colors shift from green to orange to fire-engine red.
“Waterfront living has been everything we expected, and more,” says Arie. “It’s almost like being on vacation every day.”