Home & Design

A Change Artist

Interior Designer Nestor Santa-Cruz revamps a 1910 Adams Morgan row house with a nod to tradition and a bold, modern twist.

A Change Artist

Santa-Cruz counters the original oak paneling with
mid-century-modern furnishings and a shag rug in the vestibule.

There are times when an interior designer needs to play the role of disappearing artist. That was the case when Nestor Santa-Cruz overhauled his clients' 1910 Adams Morgan row house.

Full of historic charm, the home nevertheless presented a mixed architectural heritage. Original English oak paneling clads the entry vestibule and dining room in Arts and Crafts style. Imposing neoclassical columns flank the vestibule. And the adjacent living room boasts ornate moldings evoking a more formal Adams-style motif. "It was custom-designed for somebody," says Santa-Cruz. He knew he needed to tone down these disparate styles in order to make the housework for his clients.

Light streams into the vestibule of the 1910 row house.
A William Morris wall covering in a pattern of tiny leaves is
a subtle nod to the Arts & Crafts style.

He had actually just finished a home for the couple in the very same neighborhood. They were perfectly content—until this larger home a few blocks away went on the market. Unable to resist its location on a quieter street or its enviable two-car garage, they bought it on the spot and then asked Santa-Cruz to make it theirs.

"It looked like it had not been touched for a long time," he says. "The plan was to bring what they had done in the previous house. But having more rooms and a larger entrance, we also knew we had to get some new furniture, rugs, lighting, and accessories."

As one of the homeowners recalls, "The house was in pretty good condition but, cosmetically, it wasn't our taste. We had worked with Nestor before on the other house and he's just a phenomenal change artist. The previous owners had played up the Victorian-ness of it. We wanted to kind of tone it down a little bit."

Santa Cruz's challenge was to counterbalance the home's stylistic dichotomies and create a serene look that would masterfully blend his clients' antiques and family heirlooms with mid-century modern furniture and art. "We knew the house would have a sense of tradition," he explains, "but it would be a modern house."

He also knew the existing peach color scheme, the faux-marble treatment on the vestibule columns and the overabundance of ceiling fans had to go. But his clients intervened when he proposed that they paint the vestibule paneling, convincing him that it would be a mistake to interfere with the original oak millwork.

So Santa-Cruz just cleaned up the paneling and refinished the fireplaces and moldings, toning down their busy colors so that they became architectural elements. "We took a much more uniform approach," he explains. He painted the walls in soft, muted grays.

In a nod to the vestibule's Arts and Crafts style, he and his clients chose a William Morris wallcovering from J. Lambeth; its tiny leaf motif in green and beige blends well with the oak paneling. Santa-Cruz had the French parquet floors restored to their natural honey tone and selected Oriental rugs from Timothy Paul in soft shades that would complement his color scheme. "The rugs created a grounded element on which all the furniture could float in the space," he says.

In his quest to replace lighting throughout the house, Santa-Cruz s
elected the early 20th-century Fortuny silk chandelier as another
reference to the Arts & Crafts period.

To retain the formal ambiance in the living room, Santa-Cruz let his clients' grand piano take center stage and also played up their French 18th-century chairs, which he upholstered in a pale linen fabric. Art, accessories and a Venini Murano glass chandelier add a modern sensibility. "It's a marriage of old and new, traditional and modern," says Santa-Cruz. "There's a lot of play with dark and light, color and no color. It's always about visual comfort and physical comfort."

Santa-Cruz refinished the living room's ornate fireplace surround
and moldings, transforming them into clean, architectural elements.

"At the end of the day," says Santa-Cruz, "it's a Washington home. There's so much construction in Washington that wants to be New York or a pastiche of the past. This house can deal with tradition in a Washington sense, or it can be the Washington of tomorrow."

In the dining room, another original fireplace—one of seven in the house—creates a cozy backdrop for intimate gatherings. Klismos-style chairs by John Saladino surround the rosewood table by Keith Fritz. The early 20th-century Fortuny chandelier is another bow to the Arts and Crafts movement.

In the dining room, a fireplace creates a warm backdrop for
intimate dinner parties; the abstract painting above it lends
a modern touch.

Says the homeowner, "One of the things I've most learned from Nestor is lamps and lighting and how important they are in making a statement." She points out the bold Yamaguchi chandelier in the adjacent den to make her point. This former dining room, which leads to the kitchen, is now a casual hangout for the homeowners, where they can enjoy a quick meal or unwind over a book or TV show after work.

Santa-Cruz spruced up the main floor of the house in less than two months. He says he and his clients liked the "immediate gratification" of buying floor samples and making discoveries in antique stores like Sixteen Fifty-Nine and Gore Dean. They also collaborated on buying mid-century modern art to help reinforce the contemporary look. "Because they were making such an investment throughout the house, to get art quickly, we collected anonymous abstract pieces from the '50s,  '60s,  and '70s," says Santa-Cruz. "Art is a very personal thing. It's about liking a piece of art and not about provenance or quality if you like the quality of the design. We got into a very harmonious interplay."

A modern Venini chandelier plays off the formal grand piano
and antique French chairs in the living room.
The finished result is a refreshingly modern space that respects its historic past. "At the end of the day," says Santa-Cruz, "it's a Washington home. There's so much construction in Washington that wants to be New York or a pastiche of the past. This house can deal with tradition in a Washington sense, or it can be the Washington of tomorrow."

With the main floor completed, the owners have set their sights on creating a new master-bedroom suite on the second floor. In the meantime, their third-floor bedroom is nicely furnished with a reproduction four-poster bed and Santa-Cruz's signature mix of modern and traditional accouterments. He especially likes the way the small modern bedside table plays off the large New England-style bed. An antique Turkish throw is juxtaposed with a Pucci bud vase. The contrasts and references go on and on.

A velvet panel hung behind the four-poster bed creates a
"cocoon feeling" in the master bedroom.

Santa-Cruz has said that he learns something from every project. In this home, he reflects, the lesson was "not to hate English oak paneling. I wanted to paint it and one of the owners said, ‘Absolutely not.' I learned that sometimes my first instinct is not necessarily the right one. Sometimes, the status quo is not a bad thing."

Photographer Erik Johnson is based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Interior Design: Nestor Santa-Cruz, IIDA, SKB Architecture and Design, Washington, DC

An Oriental-style rug from Timothy Paul "creates a grounded
element on which all the furniture could float in the space,"
says the designer.

In the den, Santa-Cruz combined a Moroccan-inspired rug
with a down-filled sofa in the baby-blue fabric.

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