In a typical version of a family’s evolution, when the kids grow up and move out, the parents embark on a downsizing mission. In the case of a couple in Washington, D.C., whose children had just flown the nest, however, reimagining their life involved undertaking an ambitious adventure: rather than scaling back, they transformed a stodgy 200-year-old townhouse in Georgetown into an airy, modern home.
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The couple had raised their family in a large, traditional house in the city’s leafy Wesley Heights neighborhood, but the husband, who grew up in D.C. and runs a real estate management and private equity firm, had always loved Georgetown. “We were looking to change our lifestyle through a more urban, walkable living situation,” he says, noting that the historic precinct struck the right balance, with its neighborhood feel and urbane sensibility. But the old housing stock was not without challenges: much of it does not easily accommodate contemporary needs, and preservation restrictions are stringent.
The family’s years-long house hunt ended when they took a fresh look at a residence they had earlier rejected—a stately four-story redbrick Federal-style townhouse dating to 1818 that is one of five comprising Cox’s Row, built by Colonel John Cox, who would later serve as the mayor of Georgetown. It was not easy to see past the heavy furnishings, chandeliers, and draperies, and, as townhouses are wont to be, it was dark at its center and chopped up by additions at the rear (a two-story extension trailed by a one-story one), resulting in a fractured flow and awkward circulation. But the couple was captivated by the house’s bones—in addition to its robust original structure, the building had been well tended over time, undergoing numerous renovations and infrastructural updates. And they were enamored of the unusually grand scale of the high-ceilinged rooms on the first floor, which would be ideal for displaying their extensive modern and contemporary art collection and for entertaining—two things that were critical in the vision for their future. “Boy,” the husband recalls thinking, “if you could figure out a way to make this house fit our modern aesthetic, that would be a neat trick.”
To pull off the stunt, the client turned to D.C.-based architect Robert Gurney, whom he had hired previously to work on some of his commercial properties and who has decades of residential experience in the city and its environs. He admired Gurney’s pragmatic approach and knew that his deep knowledge of the Old Georgetown Board’s priorities (as well as those of myriad other local governing bodies) would be an asset. Visiting the property, Gurney immediately saw the potential for respecting the historic architecture while transforming the residence into a 21st-century home that would meet the clients’ goals, including enough bedrooms for each of their three grown children when they came to visit. The couple purchased the house in 2015.
“The house’s biggest flaw,” recalls Gurney, “was this lack of connectivity.” The kitchen at the back was severed from the rest of the interior by a narrow stair that was the only point of entry for a second-level office. In the middle of the main floor was a double-height parlor-like space, linking the dining and living rooms, an odd passage with a corner fireplace and—curiously—a superfluous and cheesy balcony leading off the office upstairs.
In a seeming sleight of hand, the architectural team addressed both the disjointed circulation and flow as well as the lack of light with one major gesture: transforming the no-man’s land of the middle parlor into a beautiful steel-and-wood stair hall that has become a show-stopping centerpiece for the house. Rising from the basement level, where there is a gym, media room, and laundry, the stair travels up through the main living level to the master suite one flight up (the two floors of children’s rooms above are accessed by the original, front stair). At the top, a light monitor pushes out through the roof, throwing daylight deep into the heart of the building. A bridge at the second level connects the master bedroom, stair, and office, eliminating the need for the narrow stair at the back. Removing this element resulted in the reinvention of the main level as one large, contiguous space. Though the 119-foot length is defined by the parameters of the rooms—living, dining, and kitchen—you can see clear through from front to back. The effect is stunning. While enough of the original elements—moldings, columns, and pilasters—have been preserved, anchoring the house’s unique place in history, the introverted nature and fustiness have been replaced with an open, forward-looking sensibility. Modern finishes and fixtures, as well as furnishings and soft goods carefully selected or designed by Sybille Schneider of New York–based Leroy Street Studio (LSS), imbue the large spaces with sophistication and intimacy. All the walls are painted white, an apt backdrop for the family’s exquisite art, including work by Donald Judd, Josef Albers, Yayoi Kusama, and Sol Lewitt.
To bring in additional light, the team added windows on the west facade, which looks out to a long, narrow yard with a seating area and fire pit, as well as enlarging the openings in both the dining room and kitchen with tall casement windows. The front of the house, not surprisingly, could not be touched.
The questions that the architects kept coming back to, says Gurney, were: “How much do we intervene? And how much historic fabric should we preserve? What is the right balance?” What guided their decisions, beyond regulatory restrictions (which extend to interiors), was the quality of the preexisting elements. Deep moldings would stay. Lesser moldings and baseboards were more likely to be eliminated. The original heart pine and Douglas fir flooring on the upper levels had a pleasing character, but it was a quilt-work of pieces and patches with wide gaps between. So the team wire-brushed it and stained it dark, carrying the idea downstairs to the new rift and quarter-sawn white oak floors laid in a chevron pattern, which replace the inlaid cherrywood flooring from an earlier renovation. Historicism was not an option. New and old stand in bold but respectful contrast, as with the steel-framed corrugated-glass doors that punctuate thresholds and signal that this house, despite all the history that defines it, will not be beholden to what was. Instead, it has fearlessly entered a new chapter as it travels through time.
Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Architect
5110 ½ MacArthur Blvd, NW
Washington, DC 20016
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect: Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Architect
Project Architect: Kara McHone
Architect of record:
Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Architect (see above)
113 Hester Street, New York, NY 10002
United Structural Engineers, Inc.
21495 Ridgetop Circle, Suite 104
Sterling, VA 20166
Campion Hruby Landscape Architects
26 South St., Annapolis, MD 21401
Atlantic Control Technologies
626 Admiral Drive
Lighting & Electrical:
New Age Electric
8850 Brookville Rd
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Harvey W. Hottel, Inc.
18900 Woodfield Road
Gaithersburg, MD 20879
R.L. Voight & Son
Allegheny Wood Works
5170 Lawrence Place
Hyattsville, MD 20781
Affinity Woodworking, Inc.
5715 Industry Lane
Frederick, MD 21704
Peterson & Collins
2332 Ontario Road NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 234-4500 (ph)
(202) 234-3637 (fax)
5185 MacArthur Boulevard, NW
(202) 364-9306 (ph)
(202) 364-9337 (fax)
Structural System by General Contractor
Masonry: Existing brick with repaired stucco
Wood: New Charred Wood Siding on existing Fence
Metal: Standing Seam and Flat Seam Copper
Tile/shingles: Slate Tile
Steel Windows & Doors: Hope’s Steel Windows and Doors
Wood Windows & Doors: Parrett Windows and Doors; existing windows repaired & refurbished by The Craftsmen Group
Glass: New 1” Clear, Insulated, Low-E, Argon Filled, typ.
Skylights: Custom by General Contractor
Entrances: New exterior Doors by Hope’s and Parrett
Metal doors: Interior Steel & Glass Doors by AK Metals
Wood doors: Interior Wood-Veneered Doors by Allegheny Woodworks & Interior Painted Wood Doors by General Contractor.
Locksets: by FSB
Security devices: provided by Petitbon Security
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Custom Millwork by Allegheny Woodworks (all first and second floors); Custom Millwork by Affinity Millwork (all Basement and 4th Floors); Kitchen Cabinets by Boffi.
Paints and stains: by Benjamin Moore
Wall coverings: All Wall Paper provided by Interior Designer
Paneling: Custom Grey Stained Oak + White Lacquered Millwork throughout
Solid surfacing: Natural Stone Slabs on Kitchen countertops; Custom Natural Stone Vanity in Entry Powder Room, Custom Cast Concrete Vanity (by Concreteworks East) in Basement Powder Room, and Custom Cast Terrazzo Countertops (by Concreteworks East) in Master Bathroom.
Floor and wall tile: Natural Stone Tiles on Kitchen Floor and Entry Hall floor, Natural Stone Slab at Living Room Fireplace Surrounds, and ‘accent walls’ in Master Bathroom. Cellador 2.0 Engineered Stone Floor slabs and field Slab on walls in Master Bathroom; Porcelain Tile in Basement Hall/Bath.
Hardwood flooring: New 5” Rift & Quartered White oak (Stained Dark & Wire Brushed) and Existing Heart Pine (Stained Dark & Wire Brushed)
Carpet: by Interior Designer
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Bronze Stair Stringers and Balusters at New Stair; Hot Rolled Steel at Dining Room Fireplace Surround and Side Panels; Cast Concrete Fireplace Surrounds (by Concreteworks East) in Master Bedroom and Master Sitting Room.
All furnishings by Interior Designer
Interior ambient lighting: All decorative light fixtures provided by Interior Designer.
Downlights: Recessed LED fixtures by DeltaLight (throughout first and second floors) and recessed trimless fixtures by Eurofase (Basement, 3rd and 4th Floors)
Tasklighting: Liminii linear LED strip lighting
Exterior: Restoration Hardware (front entry wall sconces), Delta Light (Rear wall Sconces)
Dimming system or other lighting controls: by Lutron
Kitchen Faucets: Waterstone
Kitchen Sinks: Julien
All Bathroom Lav Faucets & Master Shower Setup: Kallista
Master Bathtub: by Boffi
Master Vanity Sinks: Lacava