Modern Hideaway

A design team transforms servant's quarters into a contemporary family retreat.


Designed in 1914 by renowned architect John Russell Pope, the brick house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Old mansions often come with formal rooms full of elegant architectural details, where the trappings of contemporary life—televisions, computers and exercise equipment—look out of place. A Baltimore couple met the challenge of preserving their historic home while carving out casual living space by converting their attic into a modern retreat. Once divided into tiny cells for servants, this top level has been opened up to create an airy recreation room for both the owners and their two young kids.

Its clean-edged design, created by architect Benjamin Ames and interior designer Catherine Hailey, is a complete departure from the traditional chambers on the main floor with their Corinthian columns, filigreed ceilings and decorative moldings. The stately brick house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed in 1914 by renowned architect John Russell Pope for James Swan Frick, son of a prominent attorney and businessman. Pope was just beginning his career as a Neoclassicist and would go on to design some of country’s most treasured landmarks: the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives Building and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.

With reverence for Pope’s classical proportions and details, the current owners redecorated the lower two stories of the home while preserving most of the original features, including the door hardware and dumbwaiter. But few such elements existed within the partition-sliced attic. Moreover, this third story is set back from the building perimeter and shielded by parapets, so it isn’t visible from the street. That allowed the owners, with the approval of local preservationists, to take more liberties with the renovation on this level and create a lounge, an office, a playroom, an art studio and a gym.

Accommodating all of these functions was challenging for Ames and Hailey, who were confronted with a long, narrow room with sloping ceilings. “It is a low space with no views out the windows,” says the architect. Though he and Hailey injected a big dose of modernism into the 2,275-square-foot aerie, they also approached the project with respect for Pope’s carefully ordered architecture. “We admire his proportions, materials and spare details,” says Ames, who researched several of Pope’s buildings before tackling the design.

Reinterpreting the symmetrical layout of the Baltimore residence with its central drawing room flanked by dining room and library, the architect similarly divided the attic into three bays, bisected down the middle by a post-and-beam pergola made of aluminum

channels. “This hallway is an extension of the floor plans below and allowed us to slice into the roof,” says Ames, pointing to the skylights that funnel daylight into the highest point of the space.

Inspiration also came from Pope’s National Gallery of Art, where sunshine is filtered through glass laylights in the ceiling of the galleries. Ames translated that idea into frosted-glass panels fitted into a wooden canopy over his metal colonnade. Elegant materials characteristic of Pope’s buildings also inspired the choice of marble flooring within the corridor and mahogany applied to the cabinets projecting from the sides of the metal posts. These wooden pedestals, topped by light-reflective glass, are used to display sculptures collected by the owners on their frequent trips abroad.

Spaces on either side of the colonnade are separated by more mahogany cabinets that allow for visual and verbal connectedness. “Everyone can do their own thing and we can still talk to each other,” says the wife. Tucked into the front corner is her art studio with a stainless steel-covered work table, a potter’s wheel and shelving and cabinets for supplies. The adjacent children’s play area is arranged next to the chimney jutting up through the room, its back surface covered in chalkboard. From this space, steps lead up through a window to a newly created roof deck lined in îpe, a Brazilian cousin of mahogany. Centered on a bench built over two vents that couldn’t be moved, the outdoor room offers south-facing views of the city and the distant harbor.

Back inside, a TV lounge with a gas fireplace built under a countertop occupies the rear corner, opposite a kitchenette in the husband’s office. Next to his desk and seating area, the exercise room is enclosed in frosted glass to provide privacy during work-outs. A guest bedroom with its own entrance and bathroom is sequestered behind the fitness room. “It’s become our home away from home,” says the wife of the multi-functional retreat where lighting, music, TV and window coverings are operated by a single, remote-controlled system.

Hailey, who frequently collaborates with Ames on residential projects, furnished the spaces with streamlined sofas, tables and benches in varied textures of velvet, wood and leather that soften the minimalism. “I tried to keep everything low so when seated you feel like the eight-foot-tall ceiling is higher,” she says. “This is a very ordered space and I wanted to keep that order in the shape of the furniture, while still making it comfortable.”


The modernized attic, hidden behind the parapet, centers on a colonnade made of aluminum channels. Mahogany cabinets serve as pedestals for the owners’ collection of Asian art.

To focus the eye inward and make the narrow space appear open and light, the slanted ceilings and walls are painted white. Floors are finished in light-colored bamboo and straw-colored matting. Tan leather tiles cover the walls over the countertops in the rear lounge and kitchenette to give “a warm, crafted look,” says Hailey. Ivory honeycomb shades cover the evenly spaced windows around the perimeter.

Popping against this neutral background are the mahogany cabinets and dark furniture. Rugs in vivid hues clearly define the different functions in the room: red-and-green-striped carpet tiles in the play area, a scarlet and purple felt rug in the TV lounge and a deep burgundy carpet in the seating area next to the office. The fiery colors are also repeated on the sofa pillows, bench and ottoman in the lounge.

“We wanted to create the feeling that the elements were floating in the space to draw attention away from its limitations,” says Ames. “This is our own version of modern architecture without its stereotypical cold, austere feeling.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is the editor of Waterfront Home & Design. Photographer Paul Burk is based in Baltimore.


In the media lounge, low-slung velvet sofas from Minotti and a Holly Hunt wenge bench with leather cushions are arranged on a felt rug custom-designed by Catherine Hailey.


The children’s play area is paneled in chalkboard.


The lounge is an office for the husband with a seating area and a kitchenette at the back. The colonnade filters light into the space through frosted-glass panels.


The wife’s corner art studio incorporates cabinets and shelving for supplies and a stainless-steel work table.


In the children’s play area, a window swings open to a new rooftop deck finished in ipe.