Home & Design

Luxury Redefined

A design team collaborates to create a stylish custom home on a small lot in downtown Bethesda

In the library, a reproduction of an 18th-century equestrian
painting hangs over an antique chest. Designer Michael Keith
commissioned the artwork in Italy.

Jay and Dottie Martin were thinking about downsizing from their 10,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom home in Chevy Chase when Dottie spotted a for-sale sign on a house in Bethesda. The small 1940s home was in walking distance of everything downtown Bethesda has to offer: theaters, restaurants, book- stores and boutiques. “I wanted to be urban… to walk around,” explains Dottie. She and her husband knew that a teardown was inevitable, but could the house they wanted be built on this miniscule lot? Dottie Martin immediately rang up builder Laurence Cafritz, who had built their Chevy Chase home.

This call set in motion an ambitious plan to design and build an urban-style home of just under 7,000 square feet on a 5,700-square-foot parcel of land—an amazing feat and a story of reinvention and renewal.

From the beginning, the house evolved through the collaboration of a design team that included Cafritz; the Martins; architect Martin G. Yantis of Sutton Yantis Associates Architects; and New York-based interior designer Michael Keith, who had designed two of the Martins’ previous homes.

The couple’s program was ambitious. It required guest rooms for visiting adult children and grandchildren, separate living space for their housekeeper, an elevator and space for four cars plus the usual living room, dining room, great room and master suite and an astonishing abundance of closet space for the fashionable and stylish Dottie.

The challenges were significant with tight tolerances and complicated logistics. With a mere seven feet on either side yard, just digging the foundation required careful planning. As Cafritz explained, over-digging was necessary to get the forms up to pour the foundation, plus there had to be room between the dirt and the hole for a man to walk. “We were really right on the edge,” he emphasizes.

A rick-rack curb line designed to control speed on the narrow street also limited parking. So work by the trades had to be tightly sequenced, not simultaneous. Pre-fabricated roof trusses are usually trucked in. “Larry didn’t have room for these big manufactured trusses on-site, so we did it the old-fashioned way—stick-building we call it,” explains Yantis, who sloped the roof downward on either side to minimize the height impact on the adjacent homes.

Although the neighborhood sits in the shadows of high-rise condominiums and commercial establishments, this vertical, urban-style house is radically different from the mid-century homes on the block. Apprehension about mansionization is rampant in this changing suburb, so Cafritz thwarted concern by sending letters to the neighbors. “Larry and I met with our neighbors and showed them the plans,” says Jay Martin.

To accommodate up to four cars, a cobblestone auto court replaces an expanse of lawn in front of this Georgian-style home. The Martins wanted a large dining room for family gatherings but requested a smaller living room. Yantis deftly modified the traditional symmetry to increase the size of the dining room, offsetting the front door to the right of the true centerline of the house. On the left side of the house, a recess and an oval window add interest and help establish a visual centerline for the front door and its façade.

To the rear, a great room encompasses a kitchen, a casual dining area and a library with a cast-limestone fireplace, coffered ceiling and stained cherry built-ins. The space spans the entire width of the home. French doors reveal a flower-adorned privacy wall punctuated by stone columns, reiterating the fabrication and the solidity of the foundation. Three steps down from a narrow terrace lead to a walkway culminating at a pergola—the perfect spot for a morning cup of coffee or an evening cocktail.

Upstairs, there is a master bedroom and bath intricately tiled with Jerusalem Gold stone and green onyx accents; it features a steam shower and whirlpool tub. There are also two closets for Dottie and a dressing room-cum-den for Jay alongside his closet. Two additional bedrooms provide ample space for visiting family and friends.

An additional guest bedroom, now occupied by the Martin’s son, a recent college graduate, is located on the third floor along with Jay’s office and Dottie’s office/wrapping room. Her office boasts a 12-foot arched window overlooking downtown Bethesda. On the lowest level of the home is a separate entrance with a bedroom and kitchenette for the housekeeper along with a family room large enough to accommodate a billiards table, an exercise room and more storage space. An elevator traverses all four stories.  Interior designer Michael Keith finished the interiors of the Martins’ previous home just six years ago. So in their new home he largely worked with existing furniture, repositioning, reupholstering and resizing as needed.

Architect Martin G. Yantis sloped the rooflines of the Georgian-style home so it would not overwhelm the original homes in the neighborhood. The front door, centered on the façade, was actually moved to one side to accommodate the clients’ request for a smaller living room and larger dining room. 

In the living room, he introduced a dramatic window treatment of black draperies over natural reed blinds, lending the traditionally furnished room a contemporary feel in contrast to the formal “dips and curves” of their previous home, he notes. “They give a beautiful classic appearance with a modern twist,” Keith says. Carrying the drama into the dining room, he employed drapes with broad horizontal stripes of black and celadon. A Chinese-style cabinet from the couple’s former living room now resides amidst dining furniture passed down from Jay’s family. The Stark carpet that delineates this seating area was resized: Originally installed wall-to-wall in one house, it was cut and framed with a border for the next house and then cut down again for this project. “It still looks new,” says Dottie. Keith deftly painted the walls a warm brown, using pigments of yellow—not red, which could have fought with the cherry, he notes—to achieve the desired heat and harmony.

Completed in late 2006, the Martins’ new home not only met the clients’ rigorous needs, but it also won a 2007 Custom Builders Award of Excellence “Silver Award” from the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association. Despite the challenges of building on such a limited space, the couple’s new light-filled home brings them all the comforts they wanted in the heart of downtown Bethesda—without overwhelming the neighboring homes.

Contributing editor Barbara Karth resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in Arlington, Virginia.

Architecture: Martin G. Yantis, Sutton Yantis Associates Architects, Vienna, Virginia. Construction: Laurence Cafritz, Laurence Cafritz Builders, Bethesda, Maryland. Interior Design: Michael Keith, Michael Keith Design Group, Ltd., New York, New York.

Keith added a contemporary touch to the living room by selecting
black drapes over natural reed blinds instead of a more formal

Carrying the drama into the dining room, Keith employed drapes
with broad horizontal stripes of black and celadon. A Chinese-style
cabinet from the couple's former living room now resides amidst dining
furniture passed down from Jay Martin's family.

The great room/library is part of an open space in the rear of the
house that encompasses the kitchen and morning room. Stained
cherry built-ins, a coffered ceiling and a cast-limestone fireplace
create a warm and cozy space.

In the kitchen, Keith designed a hearth-style mantel around the stove
to mimic the fireplace in the facing library. The backsplash is mosaic
tile. Keith offset the island by glazing the millwork a rich wheat color,
utilizing a lighter shade of granite on the countertops and lowering the
ceiling above it to create a more intimate feeling in the seating area.

A four-poster bed, a chaise and Koplavitch & Zimmer drapery make the
master bedroom a stately retreat.

The luxurious master bath features a steam shower, a whirlpool tub and
Jerusalem gold stone with onyx accents.

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