Step by Step

For Meditch Murphey Architects, a small remodeling job grows into the modern makeover of a house in McLean



The renovation started with revamping the living room
fireplace with a granite mantel and surround, cherry
paneling and matching windows. To create an airier
space, oak floors were bleached, a ceiling beam
concealed and windows regrouped. Jeffrey Bernett’s
Metropolitan chairs and Antonio Citterio’s Charles sofa,
both from B&B Italia, and a travertine-topped coffee table
designed by the architects are arranged on a
custom-made wool rug.

Like a lot of homeowners, two attorneys slowly renovated their late 1960s rambler on a cul-de-sac in McLean, Virginia, as their budget allowed. They started with a few improvement projects after buying the house in 1984, remodeled the kitchen and added a master suite and exercise room in the 1990s and three years ago, decided the living spaces needed an upgrade.

“It was a classic case of one thing leading to another,” says John Dennis Murphey of Meditch Murphey Architects. “Their tastes had evolved over time to a more modernist sensibility and they wanted the house to reflect that.” The couple originally hired the firm to redo the living room fireplace and by the time the project was finished, the main wing of the house had been completely overhauled. “If we had an idea, they would listen,” says the architect. “They were fantastic clients in understanding what could happen if we pushed the design in a certain direction.”

In the living room, Murphey and project architect Lael Taylor fulfilled their original assignment by reworking the fireplace wall with a long sill of black granite over a surround of lighter, rougher stone. “The owners wanted the fireplace to be special so we lowered and spread out the mantel to create more of a presence,” says Taylor. A new window was added to the left of the chimney to match an existing opening to the right so the two now symmetrically frame the Venetian-plastered wall above the fireplace and draw the eye to this end of the room.

The combination of the vertical windows and low mantel makes the eight-foot-high space feel taller. To increase the sense of spaciousness, an exposed beam was concealed within the ceiling and oak floors bleached to a lighter color. Windows, once divided by mullions into many panes, were reconfigured into larger openings to contribute to the airy feeling. In the dining area to the side of the fireplace, a picture window was inserted to center the space and make it feel separate from the living area.

The main level was opened up further with a slotted partition in the entrance foyer, allowing for a view of the living space from just inside the front door. This wall is fitted with an etched-glass panel, black-granite countertop and cherry paneling and shelves to mirror the fireplace mantel and its cabinetry on the opposite side of the living room. “The clients wanted us to tie everything together so the scope of the job kept getting bigger and bigger,” says Taylor.

That meant the architects also worked as interior designers in creating furnishings to harmonize with the proportions and finishes of the renovation’s more contemporary look. “The owners’ furniture was dark and heavy and didn’t fit in at all,” recalls Murphey. Wool rugs in colors matching the light oak floors and furniture upholstery were made in Indonesia for the foyer, living space and dining room. Creamy travertine-topped coffee and side tables were also custom-designed to fit the low height of an L-shaped sofa and chairs from B&B Italia in the main sitting area. Once the living room was furnished, the husband and wife noticed a large blank wall and asked Meditch Murphey to come up with a solution. The architects designed what they call a “wavy armoire” for the couple’s growing collection of art glass in the same cherry as applied to the fireplace and foyer wall. To unify the space further, the architects convinced the owners to open up the hall staircase and rebuild the treads and risers in cherry to match the cabinetry.

Another request from the homeowners was to upgrade the bedrooms occupied by their twin teenage sons, leading Murphey and Taylor to line the small rooms with space-saving, built-in beds, dressers and shelves. Adjacent bathrooms were remodeled with showers enclosed by sandblasted glass partitions set into teak sills. In the guest room, the architects designed a cherry platform bed incorporating storage and reading lights. And they customized the wife’s office by extending the desk with a linoleum-lined work surface along one wall.

The assignment to upgrade the fireplace in the basement rec room led to the transformation of the entire space into a family room and entertaining space. “This used to be dark, chaotic space with wood paneling,” recalls Murphey. “Now it is the sons’ favorite place for hanging out.” Around most of this open space, floor-to-ceiling glass and picture windows bring in abundant daylight to banish any sense of being in a basement.

This contemporary space focuses on a fireplace flanked by narrow windows and built-in cabinets. A large curving sofa faces a flat-screen television hung on the chimney wall; cherry panels can be slid over the windows to darken the room for watching movies. On the back wall, the architects extended a kitchenette with maple cabinets and sliding glass doors. A long cherry bar runs along the side of the room and is paired with custom-designed maple stools. At the far end of the walk-out basement, a sitting room in the glassed-in porch provides another place to enjoy company and views of the back yard. It centers on a table designed by the architects in travertine to match the coffee table in front of the fireplace.

Their house has been renovated top to bottom, but still the attorneys want to pursue more improvement projects. Standing in the foyer, Murphey points to a modern grandfather clock near the front door. “Our next project is to recess it into a specially designed niche,” he says. For these discerning homeowners, an architect’s work is never done.

Deborah K. Dietsch is editor of Waterfront Home & Design. Maxwell MacKenzie is a Washington, DC-based photographer.

Architecture & Interior Design: John Dennis Murphey, AIA, and Lael Taylor, Meditch Murphey Architects, Chevy Chase, Maryland Contractor: Accent General Contracting, Rockville, Maryland.


Both the built-in curving armoire and staircase are finished in
cherry to visually connect the living area and hallway.

The walk-out basement now serves as a lounge and
entertaining area, focused on the flat-screen TV above
the fireplace. Wooden shutters can be pulled over the
windows to darken the space.

New windows and doors turn a formerly dark corner into a
light-filled spot for games and enjoying views of the backyard.

To save space in the son’s bedroom, architects Murphey
and Taylor designed built-in shelving and a dresser with
room for a laundry hamper.

Cherry wood was applied to vanities and storage in the son’s
bathroom as viewed from the porthole in the shower.

Along the back wall of the basement rec room, a new
kitchenette is fitted with maple cabinets and drawers, and
etched-glass panels. A cherry bar along one side is paired
with custom-designed maple stools for dining or doing
homework.