The modern makeover of an historic Georgetown row house respects its architectural past
Traversing the streets of Georgetown, even harried passersby can’t help but pause to admire the neighborhood’s charming homes. Row houses steeped in period detail harken back centuries. But today, there’s no telling what awaits behind those quaint façades. While district regulations protect exteriors, many Georgetowners take their interiors in entirely new directions.
Consider, for example, the new owners of an historic 1820 row house. The couple with three grown children decided to leave their long-time residence in DC’s Wesley Heights in favor of Georgetown, where they could walk to restaurants, movies and the riverfront. Avid art collectors, they were drawn to the Federal-style home’s generous proportions. “The high ceilings and great wall expanses created space for larger-scale art that we never had before,” explains the husband, a real estate executive.
But the property also presented conundrums. The front living room segues back to the dining room and the kitchen at the rear. The two latter rooms—part of a previous addition tacked onto the original, four-story volume—felt dim and claustrophobic. What’s more, the kitchen was blocked by stairs to a second-story study that was otherwise cut off from the rest of the house.
The owners tapped architect Robert M. Gurney to remedy these drawbacks. “We wanted to honor the historic fabric of this 200-year-old home and make it compatible with our modern life and taste,” says the husband, who’d worked with Gurney on a commercial project. Also on board: landscape architect Kevin Campion and New York-based designer Sybille Schneider, who decorated the owners’ Cape Cod vacation retreat.
Gurney and project architect Kara McHone explored ways to improve circulation and connect the front and back of the 120-foot-deep main level both physically and visually. The architects turned a small, throwaway space between the living and dining rooms into an open stairway leading down to the basement and up to the office and master suite on the second floor. Above this dramatic steel-and-wood structure, new clerestory windows illuminate the center of the home. “We took the most awkward space and made it one of the better ones that ties the whole project together,” Gurney observes.
A bridge between the new stairway and the husband’s office meant the old office stairs could go, allowing extended sight lines from the living room to the kitchen and rear patio.
As the plan progressed, the designers focused on comprehensive upgrades, articulating a modern vocabulary into the home’s classic framework. “We did more than meets the eye,” Gurney reflects.
Two off-kilter fireplaces in the living room made furniture placement a challenge. So Gurney clad the fireboxes with elongated marble surrounds that lend symmetry to Schneider’s seating arrangements. “Since the living room is very large, we needed to interrupt it by making it two living rooms,” asserts the designer. A pair of mid-century Gio Ponti chandeliers purchased at auction in Paris defines the two sections, furnished with new and vintage finds. “I liked the idea of bringing back a little of the old, mixing a bit of antique with contemporary,” she says.
Large, pivoting interior doors screen off the kitchen during soirées; made of steel and fluted glass, they’re a nod to the industrial era. Similar custom doors enclose the entry vestibule and the wife’s office.
The owner’s art collection—which includes work by Yayoi Kusama, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd—was also a driver. For example, Schneider explains, she kept rug choices “quiet and still because I wanted the art to be the most powerful part of the room.”
The designers developed a simple material palette that they applied throughout the project. Though existing floors on the second level were an uneven patchwork of heart pine and Douglas fir, they were retained for authenticity. “I like them because they look historical,” says Gurney. “We stained them dark and carried the idea to the main level, where new, quarter-sawn white-oak floors were stained dark to match.” The floors informed other choices, from the gray millwork in the master bedroom to the marble in the master bath.
The question of whether to retain or relinquish period detail popped up often. “We decided to keep a lot of the molding because the proportions were good,” explains Gurney. “The difficult part was finding where to start and stop.”
A minimalist vibe prevails in the kitchen. Though timeless, materials such as leathered granite, marble and acacia wood define the central island, floors and cabinet wall in expansive, unadorned slabs. The hand-glazed, brick-tile backsplash plays off the home’s façade and brings the outdoors in—as do new steel-framed windows and doors.
Landscape architect Kevin Campion put a modern spin on an existing terrace and revamped the side garden, which is now visible from the main entry. “Our goal was to catch people’s eye at the front door and draw them back to the garden,” he says.
Working with builder Peterson + Collins, the design team infused the home with a high degree of form and function. The upgraded lower level now encompasses a gym, media room, all-new mechanicals and copious storage. The only spaces to receive just minor tweaks were the third- and fourth-floor bedrooms—one for each of the owners’ adult children—plus a TV lounge.
The family is pleased with their reimagined urban abode—as is Robert Gurney. “We wanted be sure, at the end of the day, that it was a really good synthesis of architecture, art and furniture,” he says. “I like the fact that the historical and modern can coexist.”
Architecture: Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, principal; Kara McHone, project architect, Robert M. Gurney, FAIA Architect, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Sybille Schneider, Leroy Street Studio Interiors, New York, New York. Landscape Architect: Kevin Campion, ASLA, principal; Nick Ries, project manager, Campion Hruby Landscape Architects, Annapolis, Maryland. Contractor: Ted Peterson, Peterson + Collins, Washington, DC.
Audio/Visual: atlcontrol.com. Millwork: solidhardwooddoors.com and affinitywoodworking.com. Steel Windows & Doors: hopeswindows.com. Wood Windows & Doors: parrettwindows.com. Paints & Stains: benjaminmoore.com. New Flooring: Classic Floor Designs: classicfloordesigns.info. Steel & Glass Door Fabrication: akmetalfab.com.
FRONT LIVING ROOM
Living Room Fireplaces: abcworldwidestone.com. Rug: edwardfields.com. coraggio.com. Two Chairs: Dangles & Defrance, Vintage. Chair Fabric: pierrefrey.com. Divan: Custom. Divan Fabric: hollandandsherry.com.
REAR LIVING ROOM
Rug: edwardfields.com. Coffee Table: Vintage Ferando and Humberto Cambana. Gold Chairs: Vintage Melchiorre Bega. Gold Chair Fabric: pierrefrey.com. Blue Sofa: lemardeley.com. Blue Sofa Fabric: coraggio.com.
Stair Rail Fabrication: masterstairbuilders.com; metalspecialties.biz. Suspended Light Fixture: semeurdetoiles.fr/en.
Chandelier: Vintage Angelo Lelli. Tables: Custom. Chairs: Vintage Giuseppe Scapinelli. Rug: armadillo-co.com. Sconces: Vintage Gio Ponti. Drapery Fabric: hollandandsherry.com. Drapery Fabrication: ecrobinsonupholstery.com. Chest of Drawers: eggcollective.com.
Flooring & Stone: abcworldwidestone.com. Hand-glazed Brick Tile: urbanarchaeology.com. Cabinets: boffi.com. Hanging Shelves: amuneal.com. Kitchen Faucets: waterstoneco.com. Kitchen Sinks: julien.ca. Pendants: ericschmitt.com. Backsplash Tile: cletile.com. Stools: thomashayesstudio.com.
Cast Concrete Fireplace Surrounds: concreteworkseast.com. Chandelier: gabriel-scott.com. Rug: edwardfields.com. Chair: ritzhansen.com. Chair Fabric: hollyhunt.com. Drapery Fabric: osborneandlittle.com.
Faucets: kallista.com. Master Bathtub: boffi.com. Sinks & Tub: lacava.com. Frameless Glass Doors: riverglassdesigns.com. Shower Stone: abcworldwidestone.com. Flooring & Field Stone Walls: stonesource.com. Countertop: concrete-collaborative.com. Stool: modernlivingsupplies.com.
Chairs: Albini. Chair Fabric: hollandandsherry.com. Chandelier: lemardeley.com. Rug: altforliving.com.
Firepit: brownjordan.com. Urns: ore.design. Steel Panels Fabrication: KSI. Outdoor Lighting: nature-unlimited.com Ceiling Light: structura.com.