These Kansas City philanthropists built a private lake for family, friends and charity

Deanna and Greg Graves built a guest cottage on a private lake in Drexel, Mo. Their second home is under construction nearby.
Deanna and Greg Graves built a guest cottage on a private lake in Drexel, Mo. Their second home is under construction nearby.

Greg Graves has always wanted to own a large piece of land. But for years, his wife Deanna didn’t see the appeal.

“No, no, no,” was her response to the idea. “Why?”

Only after visiting friends with acreage did Deanna finally understood the allure. The Graveses purchased 700 acres of a 4,400-acre cattle ranch about an hour south of Kansas City.

A place of gathering — not only for family and friends, but for the community — was always at the heart of the couple’s grand vision. Philanthropy is a lifestyle for the Graveses, who wanted to give back in a unique way by donating the use of their buildings to organizations for events and galas. (Fashion for a Cause was photographed in their barn.)

“Being able to share this gives us joy,” Deanna says.

From the onset, the couple was not up for an agricultural lifestyle like their parents had. Their vision was more of an upscale manor that was as low-maintenance as possible.

“We’re not afraid to have things nice; we are afraid they will take up our time,” Greg says. “We love working out here, but that can’t be all we do.”

“There has to be time for a glass of wine or scotch,” Deanna adds.

The couple approached the land management holistically, with conservation in mind. They worked with the Missouri Department of Conservation to eliminate non-native species and reintroduce native grasses, wildflowers and trees.

Many diseased and poor-quality trees were thinned out, but “we replaced 1,500 seedlings to give back what we took,” Deanna says. The couple planted 11 oaks — one for each of their kids and grandkids.

The first major construction project was a retired engineer’s dream. As the former CEO of Burns & McDonnell, Greg had a large-scale project in mind that would become his hobby for the next two years: the excavation and building of a dam for a 62-acre lake.

“The dam is an iceberg — you see less than 10 percent of it unless you’re behind it,” Greg notes.

Using topographical maps and tools, he pushed the boundaries as far as he could to create a lake large enough to support skiing and tubing. Later, the couple built a two-bedroom guest cottage, boathouse and a barn on the property.

It took a year and a half for the lake to fill up. With this spring’s record-breaking rain events, it came right up to capacity — and within four inches of entering the main level of the guest house.

The lake has several arms that make for quiet fishing coves. Three hundred trees and 12 rock piles line the bottom to act as habitats for the stocked bluegill, walleye, sunfish and bass.

He also built up a limestone platform with a sand bottom for playing volleyball in four feet of water right off the cottage’s patio.

Early in the process of land contouring, the Graveses brought their longtime architect, Rick Jones of NSPJ Architects, into the fold.

“They’re particular; we are, too,” Rick says. “It’s a good match.”

With fellow principal and landscape architect Katie Martinovic, they devised a master plan. The approach from the road into the property is nuanced, with a rustic entry gate and winding tree-lined road.

“Gentle curves are important for that country feel,” Rick says. “You glimpse a building, then go through some trees, then you see some more.”

The first building you see is the Craftsman-style timber frame building the Graveses call the “party barn.” The couple’s annual gathering of friends and family, Beers on the Deck, is now called Beers at the Barn.

The barn has been used for many private events in its first year. The two-story space is open and unfurnished on the main level, with lots of wooden beams and an upper balcony for people-watching from above.

“The grandkids think it’s such a fun place because they can chase each other in a continuous circle,” Deanna says.

Tables and chairs are brought in for events, and a full caterer’s kitchen is available for easy setup and serving. Giant custom doors open to a covered patio with two hanging swings so that even when it’s raining, guests can breathe fresh air.

“They like things informal and comfortable but designed with a lot of character,” Rick says of Greg and Deanna. “The details are simple, but there are a lot of them.”

Rick utilized the same timbers, stone and roof lines on the property’s other structures. Across a field are the boathouse and cottage, two independent structures attached by a terrace that conforms to the shoreline.

“They are rotated to make the best possible view across the lake,” Rick explains.

The garage on the water is a boat owner’s dream, with automatic doors and lifts for the family’s jet skis, pontoon boat and ski boat.

The adjoining two-bedroom cottage is the perfect getaway destination, with the lake’s peaceful waters at the edge of the patio. Built with similar materials as the barn, its decor is less Western, more nautical, with a whitewashed tongue and groove ceiling, a ship wheel-style sink fixture, striped navy furnishings and a custom, upside-down canoe chandelier in the living room.

“I had fun decorating this; it’s completely different than what I have at home,” says Deanna, who worked with DyAnn Stilley of Decors by DyAnn.

A larger residence big enough for the whole family is under construction. It will include multiple suites as well as two bunk rooms that each sleep 12.

Greg acknowledges that the jet skis are a big motivator for kids to come to the property, but he’s seen them have more fun fishing and catching frogs.

“The best moments happen outside,” he says. “It’s good to have them off the iPad for a little bit.”

Neither Greg nor Deanna lived a lake lifestyle before, nor experienced this level of privacy and freedom, but they are quickly settling into it. They get out to the property a couple of times a week to enjoy the land they call La Dolce Vita.

“If anything is sweeter than this,” Greg says, “I don’t think it exists.”