Home & Design

House of Glass

A thoroughly modern penthouse reflects its historic surroundings

House of Glass

Built atop a 1940s apartment building in Washington, DC,
the new penthouse embodies modern architecture with
spans of glass, planes of stucco and a fin wall clad in
oxidized copper.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. But maybe they should get curtains. At least that is the lesson learned by real estate professionals David Klimas and Kurt Rieschick, owners of an amazing, nearly transparent structure that appears to be floating atop a renovated World War II-era condominium in a booming section off downtown Washington DC’s Massachusetts Avenue. Their penthouse, designed by Bonstra | Haresign Architects LLP and integrated onto the older building in 2003, is surrounded by other high-rise residences and has expansive windows in its main space that run up some 19 feet.

“We finally decided to put up the sheers after we caught people with binoculars looking back at us,” Klimas remembers, smiling. “A client of mine who lives within peeping distance even knew what our cat looked like!”

As both their rare hairless sphinx Rocco and this one-of-a-kind home attest, it’s a property all about thinking outside the box. Or, maybe it’s about living inside a box—“a glass jewelry box,” as architect Bill Bonstra describes it. “The original building is like the dresser it sits on.”

In terms of design, this 1,600-square-foot, five-story walk-up embodies the contrast of modern style against the traditional stature of the 1940s foundation beneath it. “There’s nothing else like it as a problem to solve,” Bonstra observes, reflecting on his approach to the design. The idea was to orient what he calls the “view corridors” toward the three historic churches surrounding the penthouse and to reference at least one of them specifically. The patina of the home’s outer copper “fin walls” emulates the greenish antiquing of the spectacular oversized spire crowning the nearby 19th-century Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes. The fin walls also serve as a kind of visual strap, which appear to “hold down” the retrofitted addition. And, according to Bonstra, “the split, butterfly roof adds interest to the volume, corresponding to the need for higher ceilings in some parts of the place and not in others.”

The owners, who both work for the real estate sales firm of McWilliams/ Ballard and also have homes together in Montreal and Miami, wanted nothing more than to honor the project’s thrilling architecture in the way they outfitted the interior. When the handsome thirty-something couple came across the property, they couldn’t resist it. “The high ceilings, the light and glass—we saw so many condos every day in our work and this was so different. The work of the developers was of such good quality, too,” says Rieschick, who served as chief decorator.

One of his greatest challenges was more logistic than aesthetic: Every item had to be hand-carried up five flights of stairs since the building has no elevator. Another challenge? Rieschick is color blind.   “Maybe that’s why we’ve made it so monochromatic,” he jokes.   Most of the statement pieces in the open public space of the unit’s first floor are white: a white leather sofa and lounge chair from Poltrona Frau; white leather dining chairs and a white cowhide rug from Timothy Paul positioned atop the Brazilian cherry hardwood floors.

With the warm neutral of Benjamin Moore’s Nantucket Gray as a backdrop on the walls, furniture was chosen for its scale—large enough not to get swallowed up by the dramatic sweep of the main living area, but not so large as to overcrowd the space. The floor plan layout was all about respecting the exterior views. Clutter was verboten.

“I’m not a fan of tchotchkes,” Klimas notes. “We kept the furniture angular, pretty boxy and square to echo the angles of the house. The decoration needed to take a back seat in order to draw the eye to the architecture.”   A two-sided raw steel fireplace helps maneuver the transition between the imposing indoor space and the 180-square-foot terrace. Clean-lined Smith & Hawken furniture and unfussy plants from Garden District on 14th Street, along with a “Rear Window”-like view of neighboring buildings, confer a citified flare to the outdoor refuge.

The kitchen, with cherry cabinets, Viking stainless-steel appliances, funky metal pendant lights by Chiasso and Ubatuba gray- and gold-flecked granite countertops, is tucked beneath the condo’s staircase. An uncommon touch to match this most uncommon place, the stair is a custom-crafted metal flight, crafted and hand-signed by local sculptor Robert Cole—as much a work of art as a functional element. In fact, all the art pieces in the home were carefully chosen to reflect not only the shared taste of Klimas and Rieschick, who’ve been together for nine years, but also to resonate with the penthouse’s larger motifs.

Four of the pieces are by DC artist Mike Weber, including Seascape, a blue and white painting in the dining area that Klimas describes as “sparse and soothing. It puts you in another place.”

As one walks upstairs, the first visual wallop comes from Weber’s huge ink print on canvas, a reproduction by Weber of one of Gustav Doré’s illustrations for “Don Quixote” that Weber tinted a passionate red. A special bit of architectural excitement comes from the adjacent catwalk, which hovers above the first floor and leads to a tranquil little nook with a cozy reading chaise. The couple’s pedigreed feline resident Rocco—who happens to be the grandson of Mr. Bigglesworth, the feline star in the Austin Powers movies—favors this secluded spot in particular. A painting called Hill by Lisa Blas hangs cattycorner to a stunning view of St. Agnes. The picture is a hot- pink and yellow rendering of a stately church in Prague, which nods to the neighboring parish just out the window.

Back across the catwalk, the second floor’s loft-like private space also includes two bedrooms. The guest room serves double-duty as a comfy media room. The master suite is appointed with a sleek, maple-stained bedroom set. Richly toned Santa Cecilia marble, in mottled shades of black, beige and gold, lend the master bath a similarly pure, modern appeal.

The owners couldn’t be happier in their chic urban skybox. They both especially appreciate the interaction of the space with the outside world. They talk about lying in bed at night and hearing the sound of rain on the copper roof. Or sitting on their sofa and being able to look up to see the full moon or a beautifully fierce lightning storm. “Or, the fact that we have so much sunlight; we have the eastern, southern and western exposures. The house changes, even the colors change, as the sun moves across the sky,” Rieschick observes.

Klimas adds, “Really, it’s the whole package. This is my dream home.”
Architect Bonstra, too, is pleased about the final product. “This was a success. It is a well-regarded project that met the needs of the client, conformed to zoning codes, and yet is a really interesting and unique creation.”

Sally Kline, a Washington-area arts and culture writer for 17 years, is a regular contributor to Home & Design. Photographer Kenneth M. Wyner is based in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Architect William Bonstra oriented the property’s “view corridors” toward three nearby churches, including the 19th-century Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes.  Stevens, Asbury Park. Patchwork Cowhide Argentinian Rug: Timothy Paul, Washington, DC. Floors: Brazilian sand-and-stain cherry.

The main living space, with its 19-foot-high windows, interacts
with its surroundings as the light changes throughout the day.

Above the kitchen, the metal staircase was custom-crafted
by local sculptor Robert Cole. A catwalk leads to a tranquil,
glass-enclosed sitting area.

The open kitchen boasts stainless-steel Viking appliances,
funky metal pendants by Chiasso and gray- and gold-flecked
granite countertops. In the adjacent dining area, Seascape,
a blue and white painting by DC artist Mike Weber, “puts you
in another place,” says David Klimas.

A reproduction by Mike Weber of a work by Gustav Doré
makes an impact at the top of the stairs, which were crafted
by local sculptor Robert Cole.

The catwalk leads to a tranquil nook with a cozy chaise for reading.

Filled with plants, the 180-square-foot terrace is a green refuge
above the bustling streets.

The patina of the outer fin walls emulates the greenish antiquing
of the spire of the nearby church.

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