A FAMILY AFFAIR

At home with MSNBC correspondent Norah ODonnell and chef/restaurateur Geoff Tracy

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2009


Norah O’Donnell and Geoff Tracy relax at their limestone topped kitchen island.

It’s no surprise that the kitchen is the heart of the Wesley Heights home shared by chef Geoff Tracy and his wife, Norah O’Donnell, chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC. “We spend 98 percent of our time in here—watching TV, feeding the kids, drinking wine,” says Tracy, leaning against the limestone-topped island.

As the cook in the family, Tracy had carte blanche to create the space of his dreams. He runs two eponymous eateries, one near American University and the other in downtown Washington, plus Lia’s in Chevy Chase. Tracy also has plans to open another Chef Geoff’s in Tysons Corner by mid-2009.

In the remodeled 1932 house the couple bought in 2005, the tranquil décor is a complete contrast to their hectic lives as working parents of three young children. In 2007, they became proud parents of twins Henry and Grace, and in July they welcomed daughter Riley to the family. Despite her busy schedule covering the presidential campaigns for MSNBC and serving as a contributing correspondent for NBC’s top-rated “Today” program, O’Donnell didn’t skip a beat. “I took seven weeks off after Riley was born and then went right to the [Democratic and Republican] conventions,” she says.

The couple remodeled their center-hall Colonial thinking it would be a home for just the two of them, but it has proven to be spacious enough for family life. Tall doorways and five-inch-wide oak plank floors connect the living and dining rooms with the kitchen to create an easy flow around the staircase. Furnishings blend into the light bluish-gray walls and gray taffeta draperies so nothing jars the eye. “It’s a soothing place to be,” says Tracy.

The pale-on-paler look is the signature of Washington designer Frank Babb Randolph, who met O’Donnell several years ago while she was house-hunting in Georgetown. “We have the same aesthetic—no tschotkes or clutter. I like traditional décor as well as clean, unfussy lines but I didn’t know how to translate that combination into a design,” O’Donnell says.

The news correspondent had not worked with a designer before and admits she was “a bit intimidated” by the idea of consulting Randolph, who decorated the vice presidential mansion for Dick and Lynne Cheney. But the two immediately hit it off and began shopping for smaller-scale furnishings suited to the four-bedroom home. “It doesn’t have the larger proportions of a house in Potomac or McLean,” notes O’Donnell. “So we had to be really discerning in our choices. A good designer brings discipline to the project.”

Randolph made the interiors appear larger by removing built-in bookcases and china cabinets, and raising the height of the doorways. “We practically gutted the house,” he recalls. But streamlining the architecture wasn’t the only trick he used to establish the feeling of expansiveness. “We kept the materials and colors consistent throughout and made sure the furniture was in proportion to the scale of the rooms.”

In the living room, Randolph replaced the fireplace mantel with a lower, simpler design to make way for a starburst mirror found on a trip to Boston. He created a seating area in front of the hearth by grouping brocade-upholstered armchairs and vintage ceramic garden stools around an ottoman of his own design.

On the back wall, a tufted sofa covered in a durable, indoor-outdoor fabric is paired with a refurbished coffee table from the couple’s previous row house.
“We recycled some of the furniture they already had to different rooms,” says Randolph, pointing to the sofa in the study, now revived in hand-painted linen.
Artwork in the rooms was chosen to complement the light colors of the fabrics and wall paint. In the living room, two abstract paintings flanking the doorway to the study were commissioned from Georgetown artist David Bell. A pair of late 18th-century pastoral reliefs above the sofa adds a patina of age to the newly furnished room. “It took a leap of faith on my part to buy them,” notes O’Donnell of the peeling plaster pieces.

Across the foyer, the dining room extends the symmetry and subtle color scheme. Randolph-designed Klismos chairs encircle a round mahogany table in front of the French doors leading out to the garden. Mirrors on both sides of the doors reflect the light and views.

To make the space feel larger, Randolph intentionally left out a rug and a ceiling light fixture. “Even the most beautiful chandelier would not enhance such a small room,” he says.

Next to the dining space, the kitchen was doubled in size by designer Karen Hourigan of Kitchen and Bath Studios. She collaborated with Tracy to organize preparation, cooking and clean-up areas and unify them with white-painted cabinets and limestone counters. Across from the seven-foot-long island, a leftover, six-inch-deep space on mirrored backsplashes reflect light from windows and skylights flanking the cooktop. Electrical outlets are hidden in the cabinets to maintain a clutter-free look.

Chef Geoff, of course, picked out all the appliances and, inspired by a Food Network show, inserted a slot in the countertop for his knives. O’Donnell leaves most of the cooking to her husband, but has recently expanded her culinary skills from making banana bread and BLTs to roasting chicken with vegetables. The couple is now collaborating on a cookbook of recipes for infants, based on homemade purées they make for their baby.


A prep sink is set into the island with a view to the window across the room.

one wall was turned into a pantry with floor-to-ceiling shelves.

So how do their pale, elegant rooms survive the messes of three young children? “The house isn’t always picture perfect,” admits O’Donnell. “Accessories get moved high up on the mantel when the kids are around. But it is surviving pretty well.”

Reflecting on the six-month effort it took to remodel their house, the couple maintains their decision to hire Randolph and Hourigan saved them money in the long run. “Karen found us space we thought we didn’t have. Frank prevented us from buying furniture that was too big or too small,” says Tracy. “A good designer is totally worth it.”

Washington, DC-based Deborah K. Dietsch
is author of  Live/Work: Working at Home, Living at Work.
Interior Design: Frank Babb Randolph,
Frank Babb Randolph Interior Design, Washington DC. Kitchen Design: Karen Hourigan, Kitchen and Bath Studios, Chevy Chase, Maryland. 


Tracy cooks on a viking range set between two skylights. More light is reflected by the mirrored backsplashes. Outlets are tucked under the painted cabinets to reduce clutter. The leather Allegro stools are from Design Within Reach.


In the living room, Frank Babb Randolph redesigned the fireplace mantel to accommodate a starburst mirror. Armchairs from John Rosselli are upholstered in Summerhill brocade and paired around an ottoman designed by Randolph for David Iatesta.


The late 18th-century plaster reliefs purchased from Georgetown antiques dealer Marston Luce are mounted above a Baker sofa covered in a DeLany & Long outdoor fabric.


In the dining room, the “Minoan” chairs designed by Randolph for David Iatesta are clustered around a mahogany table. Mirrors from Niermann Weeks flank French doors leading to the garden. The painting of Key Bridge is by Washington artist Robert Rea.