Artful Alfresco Bliss
Written by Katy Schamberger | Photos by Matt Kocourek
With the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art as a neighborly inspiration, landscape architect Joann Schwarberg overhauls a small courtyard into a luxe outdoor jewel box.
ebra Niewald gently nudges delicate volcanic glass shards dangling from an obsidian wind chime before descending into a spectacular outdoor sanctuary.
The chime’s harmonious tinkling continues to vibrate as she settles into a chair, surrounded by foliage losing luster after the summer heat, anticipating the dormant season. A 70-foot-tall Ailanthus altissima, or tree of heaven, towers over the narrow, 1,800-square-foot flagstone patio, allowing dappled sunlight to filter through the thick leaf canopy.
Poetically Zen and extraordinarily conceived, Debra and husband Greg Teschner’s outdoor living space is a haven of meticulous planning and design execution. Teaming with renowned Mission Hills-based landscape architect Joann Schwarberg, Debra transformed a once nondescript exterior space into a year-round retreat for relaxation, meditation and entertaining. Just like her business, which helps entrepreneurial companies and their leadership teams realize untapped potential, Debra—a self-described storyteller—reimagined both indoor and outdoor space with purpose.
In 2007 she found a property in a curious row of seven cedar-sided condos in the style of Contemporary Craftsman, built in the mid 1960s and designed by accomplished Hungarian architect George Peter Keleti. Situated in the Rockhill urban historic district by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the two-story home was in need of updating but caught Debra’s attention.
“I didn’t even walk around the back—something resonated with me,” she says. “It felt like Colorado or California; the vibes were clear.”
Closing on the house in January 2011, Debra set about intentional renovations, beginning with the second floor. Nearly eight months after starting the ambitious project, she met her future husband, a retired Naval commander. The couple had their first date at the Nelson-Atkins, where her uncle, Kansas City’s legendary and beloved artist Wilbur Niewald, had a show of his paintings. Months later, they became engaged at the museum.
“Greg wasn’t part of the purchase process, but he took this home and my labor of love on like it was his own,” Debra says. “He’s auditory and visual, such a steady grounding. We have heroic stories of him finding things for the house, and so it became a collaboration and shared vision.”
Marrying in October 2012, the newlyweds finished the second-floor renovation their wedding week then hit pause until taking the main level to its studs in 2014. The patio was the final project, which Debra and Greg initiated in 2017, hiring Joann to bring life and beauty to an outdoor room they interpret as a true living space.
“In a space that size, every detail matters and they wanted it to feel like another room of their house,” Joann says. “It required the quality and unique amenities and comforts they enjoyed inside their home.”
Debra met Joann through mutual friends 12 years before hiring her.
“I went to dinner with friends and Joann was there,” she says, “We connected and I thought, ‘Maybe one day I will work with her.’ Before I even had the house, I knew. Years later, when we were ready to design the outdoor space, I showed it to her—she got it. She got me.”
Joann says Debra and Greg were “very clear on how they wanted to utilize the space, critical when you’re working with a compact site. It’s a jewel box and must be done well. In addition, as we discussed the design, they responded in real time. It was the perfect collaboration.”
Regarded for her holistic design approach in connecting people with the outdoors and a philosophy of marrying the natural and built environments, Joann solved the challenges of hiding gas lines and creating the necessary grading and drainage crucial for a successful project.
Subtle, soft lighting was installed to establish the impression of a perimeter.
“At night there’s a glow, but you never see a fixture,” Joann explains. “There’s a warm ambience and sense of intimacy where it’s important. The main fountain is softly downlit from the tree. Lights around the spa are directed away from seating areas. The backyard trees are uplit, as well as the entry patio’s crabapple tree. The bar and grill’s undercounter ledge lights add definition, but not attention.”
Debra is delighted with the results of the collaboration with Joann, one that she imagined through her creative lens ultimately yielding a variety of spaces, materials and design.
“This,” she says, surveying the space, “is where I renew, recharge and restore. It’s where we socialize, celebrate and create. It’s home.”
Landscape Architecture: Joann Schwarberg
Stone Mason: TG Construction
Concrete Slabs and Spa Recess: LM Concrete
Electrical: Jason Wright Electric
Lighting: Purusa Studios
Plumbing: EW Plumbing
Railing + Iron Details: Austin Iron Works
Irrigation: Pro H2O
Planting: New Beginnings Landscaping
Fencing: Burge Fence
Stone Supply + Fabrication: Sturgis Materials
Structural Engineering: Bob D. Campbell & Co.
Excavation + Drainage: Perez Landscape