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Vaulted Modernism

A careful restoration revives the modernist spirit of a 1960 house designed by architect I.M. Pei in Cleveland Park

Vaulted Modernism

Architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen designed the cypress-framed sofas
and table in the living area. On the wall, New York artist Chuck Closes's
portrait of fashion model Kate Moss is a Jacquard tapestry woven in Belgium.

Tucked among Cleveland Park’s Victorians and Colonials is one of Washington’s hidden modern gems. The 1960 house designed by famed architect I.M. Pei sits behind a brick wall so that only the tops of its three barrel vaults can be seen from the street. This private precinct only adds to the allure of the glass-fronted pavilion, which is among the very few houses designed by the now-91-year-old Pei over his long career. Struck by the uniqueness of the home, public relations consultant Dan Snyder spent four years trying to buy the property after spotting it in an architecture book. He and partner Tom Breit, a teacher, had already amassed a substantial collection of mid-century modern furnishings and wanted a period-perfect setting to complement the vintage designs. “You don’t have a lot of options in DC when it comes to a modern house,” says Snyder. “I liked that this was a site-specific design by a highly respected architect.”

The house was built by William Slayton, the Urban Renewal Administration Commissioner, who had worked with Pei on the redevelopment of Southwest Washington. “It was this exposure and experience that led me to want to have a house designed for just [wife Mary Louise] ‘Bug’ and me,” Slayton wrote in a diary on the project. The couple purchased a “disappointing” parcel in Cleveland Park after Pei told them, “I can build you any kind of a house here. This is the lot you should buy.”

The Slaytons lived in the house for nearly 40 years and after they died, Snyder convinced the couple’s daughters to sell him the property. He and Breit signed a contract before ever stepping inside the house. “From the interior photos and floor plans in the book,” says Snyder, “I knew the house could be renovated into something of importance.”

Important, indeed. Pei’s design represents a phase of postwar modernism when architects became interested in stripped-down classicism, as similarly reflected in Philip Johnson’s vaulted Kreeger house-turned-museum. Instead of floating free of the structure, the spaces inside the Cleveland Park house are arranged within the three vaults running in a north-south direction.

The living area stretches across the front behind south-facing windows so it is flooded by daylight in the winter. The vaulted roof projects beyond the glass so during the summer, the interior is protected from direct sunlight. “It’s a very smart house,” says Snyder. Down the center staircase, the lower-level dining area is sandwiched between the kitchen in the east vault and a study in the west vault. On the second floor, a bedroom originally occupied each bay with a third in the center. Two bathrooms were set to either side of the stairs.

In renovating the house, Snyder and Breit made every effort to respect Pei’s orderly architecture by hiring noted Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, a close friend of the Slaytons, to oversee the changes. “Respect,” says Jacobsen, was the principle behind the seven-year project. “The worst thing you can do for a significant piece of architecture like this is to overpower the original concept.”

Renovations were undertaken slowly and cautiously, beginning with repairs to the leaky roof. “We wanted to enhance Pei’s original concept and do things the Slaytons couldn’t afford at the time,” says Snyder. “We didn’t need a third bedroom and getting rid of it opened up the living room.”

Demolishing the center bedroom at the top of the stairs gave way to an airy library lined by Jacobsen’s signature egg-crate bookcases. Opening this space also provided a straight shot through the house, from the living room to a floor-to-ceiling window at the rear of the library. The interior was further expanded visually with the removal of a bookcase dividing the living area; Snyder has stored the shelving in the basement should another owner want to put it back in its original place.

Guiding the selection of new finishes were William Slayton’s written descriptions of discussions he shared with Pei. The architect wanted to cover the living room floors in marble or teak, for example, but “Bug” Slayton preferred carpet. Jacobsen suggested unfilled travertine, a Pei favorite, as a replacement. It now extends throughout the house and adjacent terraces to connect indoors and outdoors. The light-colored stone also lines the bathrooms, remodeled with Philippe Starck fixtures.

On the lower level, the kitchen was refitted with new appliances and Corian countertops in white to match the original Formica. Birch doors and drawer fronts were recycled and attached to new cabinets of the same wood, and a breakfast bar was added to the end of the room.

More recently, Snyder and Breit have transformed the home’s front courtyard and back patio into entertaining spaces with the help of landscape architect Jay Graham. Raising the back terrace now allows for a smooth transition between the kitchen and outdoor dining area. Behind the wall at the street, the front yard has been turned into a dramatic, formal garden centered on a reflecting pool. “We tried to create a spatial quality that builds on the axial architecture of the house,” says Graham. Crepe myrtles frame the pool and low plantings of monkey grass, lenten roses and Japanese painted ferns supply a mix of textures.

Like the architecture, the interior décor has been a work in progress. Vintage mid-century pieces have been replaced by cedar-framed furniture designed by Jacobsen. A tapestry portrait of fashion model Kate Moss by New York artist Chuck Close now hangs near mid-century abstractions. Snyder and Breit frequently entertain and they appreciate the large, open spaces just as the Slaytons did. “The house has great circulation,” says Snyder. “There are two ways in and out of every room.”

Deborah K. Dietsch’s latest book is “Live/Work: Working at Home, Living at Work.” Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia.

Architecture: I. M. Pei, FAIA, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, New York,
New York. Renovation: Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Architect, Washington, DC. Landscape Architecture: Jay Graham, FASLA, Graham Landscape Architecture, Annapolis, Maryland.

The living room stretches across the front of the house to
face the new reflecting pool.

The living room fireplace repeats the exterior brick to anchor
the seating area.

Jacobsen designed the bookshelves on the sides of the skylighted
room, next to Barcelona chairs and a vintage edward Wormley desk.

The lower-level dining area, newly paved in travertine, centers
on a glass-and-metal table designed by Italian architect Carlo
Scarpa and Mies van der Rohe's Brno chairs. "Black Watch"
prints by the late Washington artist Gene Davis reinforce the
modern theme.

In the travertine-lined downstairs bathroom, sculptural weights
by Philippe Starck are arranged on the Dunbar table next to a
Starck-designed toilet for Duravit.

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