Home & Design

Urban Refuge

Suman and Scott Sorg transform a 1970s Kalorama house into a retreat filled with daylight and flowing space

Urban Refuge

In the living room, the fireplace is faced in dry-stacked
granite with a slot allowing for air circulation. The sofa
and lacquered coffee table by Montis were purchased
through Mobili. Slots in the wall behind the sofa allow
light to enter the dining space on the half-level below
the living room.
Photo by Greg Staley

On a Sunday afternoon, when most Washingtonians are kicking back after a hectic work week, architect Suman Sorg is turning out sketch after sketch of an elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her drawings are spread out on the glass-topped dining table at the back of her renovated Kalorama house. With a view of the garden patio and swimming pool through tall glass doors, this space feels like a refuge from the city. It explains why Sorg prefers to catch up on her project at home rather than at the office, only a few blocks away.

“One of the biggest surprises in living here is that it’s so peaceful and quiet,” says the Indian-born architect who heads the District firm, Sorg and Associates. “I like that the house is open yet the rooms are private. We can all be here doing different things but there isn’t that feeling of being cut off from one another.”

While she mulls over the design of the school, her husband Scott, the chief financial officer of the firm, works at his computer in the basement office just a few steps down from the entrance foyer. The spaces are connected by an open steel staircase winding up through the center of the house. From each level, the floors above and below are partially visible and without the separation of doors, the entire house feels interconnected. “If you see it, you use it,” says Suman Sorg of the open plan. “Every part of the house gets used.”

Creating the flowing interior took about a year and a half of renovations, “twice as long as we thought,” notes Suman. Drawn to the 1970s rowhouse designed by local architect Francis Lethbridge, who created it as his own residence, the Sorgs began transforming it in 2004. In the 1980s, the home was purchased by publishers and real estate developers Bill and Renay Regardie, who expanded the kitchen and remodeled the foyer into a mother-in-law’s suite.

“Despite the fact that it was painted in various shades of brown and the stair was closed in, we could see that it had a lot of potential to become much more open and contemporary,” says Scott. “We liked that it is within walking distance of the office.”  The Sorgs left the basic layout of the original house intact with rooms spread over four half-levels and a partially above-ground basement. By removing walls and doors, they lessened the apparent division between floors to create the uncluttered, modern feeling of a loft. “We didn’t want it to be unrecognizable from the Lethbridge design, but we also didn’t want it to look like it was from the 1970s,” says Suman.

First on the couple’s remodeling agenda was to erase all traces of tradition, including rounded archways and some smaller windows. In their place came tall openings in the living and dining rooms, and flush-mounted and frosted glass doors in the bedrooms and bathrooms. At the center of the house, the walls around the stair hall were removed and the conventional stairs replaced with a skeletal design of open risers and steel treads inset with stone. This vertical slot of space, connected by the spine-like staircase, allows daylight and a sense of openness to fill the house.

Sunshine also streams through the south-facing windows at the front of the house into the living room. From this space, the light filters through slots carved into the lower portion of the back wall to the dining room on the half-level below. Convex mirrors set along the fence in the backyard bounce more light into the dining space. A glass panel at the top of the two-story living room wall supplies more sunshine to the upper-level master bedroom.

In furnishing the rooms, the Sorgs jettisoned traditional pieces from their previous townhouse and purchased new contemporary designs from Mobili and B&B Italia. “When we moved, just about everything was donated or sold,” says Scott. Among the keepers is the Warren Platner-designed dining set with its sculptural chairs and table base outlined in metal rods. The couple purchased the grouping from Knoll decades ago.

Sculptural sofas, chairs and tables are judiciously placed within the living room and library like pieces of art in a gallery. The original oak floors are left bare to emphasize the continuous flow between rooms. In the living room, the fireplace is framed by a smooth surround of dry-stacked granite. The walls of the adjacent library are fitted with floor-to-ceiling, sleek shelves from Poliform, the same company that supplied the kitchen cabinets and storage units throughout the house.

On the walls, all the big, colorful abstractions were created by Suman, who rubbed the paint onto the canvases with her fingers and palms. “In my architecture, the color palette is much more restrained,” she says. “The artwork is a release from that.”

Several of the pieces are based on her memories of India: a vivid pink and red painting in the dining room was inspired by sari fabric; in the bedroom, a sheet of corrugated metal adorned with a pink-cheeked starlet’s face is meant to represent “Bollywood,” the nickname for the Bombay film industry.

As the creative force behind one of the city’s few female-owned architecture firms, Suman Sorg juggles a growing portfolio of international projects, including embassy buildings in Afghanistan, Nepal, Barbados and Indonesia demanding long hours of work and travel. Cooking is left to her husband and their grown daughter Nikki, a frequent visitor who handles marketing for the firm. When the couple entertains in warmer weather, they extend a long table on the patio off the dining room for candlelight dinner parties.

Private spots for reading and relaxing are also an integral part of the house. Off the living space and bedroom at the front are wisteria-draped balcony terraces upgraded with new decking and modern steel railings where the couple can unwind. A lounge at the top of the house provides a place to watch television or listen to music.

“There’s a fine line between wanting privacy and having too much of it,” says Suman. “Here, all the level changes create enough privacy without the feeling of being too separated. It’s a good balance.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is editor of Waterfront Home & Design.

Suman Sorg sits on one of her Warren Platner-designed dining chairs.
Photo by Matt Houston

Sorg created the painting in this space and the large, blue canvas in the library.
Modular seating, made by the German manufacturer Cor, was purchased from
Mobili; the bookshelves are from Poliform. Photo by Roger Foley

At the back of the house, the dining space centers on a table and chairs
designed by Warren Platner in the 1960s. Openings above the Poliform
sideboard emit light from the living room. Visible above the open staircase
is the library. Photo by Roger Foley

In the kitchen, stainless-steel appliances and countertops add shine to
the charcoal-gray cabinets from Poliform. Photo by Roger Foley

The steel staircase is finished with honed granite treads and an oak railing
to match the floors.
Photo by Roger Foley

Suman Sorg’s painted panel of corrugated metal rests on the wall
of the master bedroom.
Photo by Roger Foley

Scott Sorg’s office is furnished with a Charles Eames chair pulled up to a
desk by Italian designer Rodolfo Dordoni. Above-ground windows bring
daylight into this basement space, which is connected to the entrance
foyer by the new steel staircase. Photo by Roger Foley

Architecture: Suman Sorg, AIA, Sorg and Associates, Washington, DC. 

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