Setting the Scene

Like a stage set, a simple stone façade greets guests outside this Northwest DC home. Curious passersby might assume the structure is a museum or an embassy—until they enter and discover an expansive living room decked out with palm trees and a gold shag rug. Beyond, a wall of glass overlooks the pool, complete with fountains and a pool house awash in white drapes.

This is a modern custom home where the vibe is decidedly more Delano than DC. It was built for serious entertaining by a single, 40-something real estate developer who refuses to take himself too seriously. Humor and political innuendo create a common thread in the pop art and sculpture thoughtfully placed throughout the home. A sci-fi fan, the owner even designed a logo for his new abode—a rocket ship—and commissioned an outdoor sculpture and dozens of monogrammed pool towels to reinforce the playful theme.

But there is more behind the project than sleek design and pop culture. The owner was compelled to build the home during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I was so upset by the condition of our country. I thought I could create a venue where people could meet to talk about things and to raise money for change.” Though he often hosted fundraisers for 80 or 90 guests at his former DC home, he wanted to go even bigger.

So he bought an infill lot on a street of Victorians and Colonials and started talking to architects. Though he wanted the home to have a formal façade that would blend into the neighborhood, he sought a modern interior with large rooms that could be used for multiple purposes. “The original concept I wanted is a stage set. I wanted a façade that was very serious. But you open up the curtain, and it’s actually playful,” he says.

After two “big-name” architects drew up concepts that he felt did not reflect his vision, the owner was ready to throw in the towel. Then mutual friends introduced him to John Sage and John Coplen, two young architects who had recently launched their own firm, Alter Urban LLC, in Baltimore. The homeowner scheduled a meeting with both the architects and Josh and Emily Rosenthal of Rosenthal Homes, the custom building firm he was close to hiring. “John Sage sketched out exactly what I was talking about in front of us on a napkin,” the homeowner recalls. “Emily Rosenthal said, ‘That will work,’ and we salvaged the project.” He hired Rosenthal and Alter Urban on the spot. Also on board were Christopher Rice, who was involved in the concept stage and acted as architect of record; DC lighting designer Scott Guenther; DC landscape designer Thorne Rankin; and interior designers Sam Ewing and Gail Winn of Winter Park, Florida-based Ewing Noble & Winn. (Ewing and Winn had designed three previous residences for the client, who also owns a home in Florida.)

The project would be a collaborative effort among all the members of this group. “The team was excited by the chance to create something young and fresh and embraced Alter Urban’s outside-the-box approach,” says the homeowner. The architects embarked on a design program that would satisfy a number of requirements. As the scope of the structure grew to encompass 9,500 square feet, they wanted to downplay the size of the house from the street. They were faced with creating the volume their client wanted on a half-acre, wedge-shaped lot. With neighboring properties on all sides, establishing privacy presented another challenge.

Sage and Coplen sited the main, rectangular part of the house parallel to the street. They carefully scaled the façade so that the second story housing the master suite would be barely visible from the front. “Although the house is seemingly tall, the façade is still only one story,” says Sage. “It helps bring down the scale of the rest of the house behind it.”
To fit the oddly shaped lot, they angled a guest wing from the west side of the main house toward the rear of the property and added a free-standing pool house at the same angle on the east side. The structures form a triangular perimeter, screening the pool and courtyard from neighboring properties.

From the façade inward, the house progresses from formal to casual to intimate. The most formal spaces—the dining room and office—are located along the façade, their walls faced with the same cast stone used on the exterior. These spaces spill into the open living room and kitchen, which in turn lead to the bedrooms and the pool and courtyard beyond.

Dark-stained bamboo kitchen cabinets and inked-maple floors in the kitchen and living room offset a colorful array of art and furnishings. The kitchen leads to a mudroom and a caterer’s kitchen. With the two kitchens combined, the house is equipped to handle elaborate affairs with the countertops serving as stylish buffet and bar stations and the catering kitchen reserved for food storage, prep and clean-up.

From the great room, a corridor housing an Andy Warhol series on the JFK assassination and a Keith Haring sculpture leads to a formal powder room, a large open stairway and the guest wing. With luxurious bathrooms, custom closets and access to the pool courtyard, the two guest suites rival any five-star hotel. Upstairs, far removed from the action below, the master suite boasts custom furniture, a dressing room by Poliform and a large bathroom with a steam shower and an oversized Italian tub hand-carved from a single block of marble.

The home’s lower level was designed to accommodate guests in style. A fully stocked bar, polished concrete floor and cascading “Mr. Bubbles” chandelier create a glamorous effect in the game room. It leads to another luxe powder room, a plush home theater and a gym.

Throughout the interiors, a clean-lined, minimalist sensibility prevails. A premium was placed on top-of-the-line lighting, appliances and finishes, from the glass-beaded Maya Romanoff wall covering in the main powder room to the crystal-orb chandeliers in the dining room. “It’s important that the house have a solid textural feel,” says the homeowner, who also had the property wired with a state-of-the-art Lutron lighting system and audio-visual automation.

The design team reviewed countless magazine clips and photographs their client collected to hone in on selections that would complement—and not compete with—the overall interior scheme. Says John Coplen, “There was a very conscious choice to make sure there was a simplified palette throughout the house. You’ll notice that his furniture is very bright in color. It was really all about dimming the background and letting the furniture speak for itself.”

The client wanted to be sure that the interiors didn’t come off as cold, as is the case in some ultra-modern spaces. Designer Sam Ewing says they achieved a warm feel through the liberal use of color and texture. “Putting those huge trees in the living room totally changes the mood of the room,” he says.

“There is a continuity in the feel of everything we did that flows through the house. You don’t feel disjointed when you go from one room to the next,” says Gail Winn. “There’s a certain whimsy to it, too, that makes it comfortable, even in the artwork. It doesn’t look forbidden. It looks like you’re meant to have fun.”

Part of the reason the project was such a success is that all of the players were involved from its inception. “It was definitely a democratic process,” says John Sage. “A lot of decisions were kind of thrown out there at meetings…In the end, whatever decision was made was never far askew from the original concept. It was an unusual situation in that the builder was included from the very beginning conceptual design, which was really nice because when we actually got to construction, there were no surprises.”

The builders also made a concerted effort to be sure everything would come together seamlessly. “Rosenthal was very good about taking a very educated look at materials and putting the time into doing that,” says John Coplen. “A lot of contractors don’t want to deal with that.”

The fruits of this collaboration are most apparent in the kitchen. The architects devised and roughly sketched the concept of a kitchen “in the round,” with a large center island. Knowing the client’s plan for entertaining on a large scale, Emily Rosenthal and kitchen designer Jerry Weed of Kitchen and Bath Studios in Chevy Chase drew up detailed plans that would function efficiently whether a meal was underway for two or 200. In turn, Ewing and Winn helped specify the finishing touches, such as the colorful bar stools and the stainless-steel cabinet hardware.

One of the team’s priorities was to make the house as green as possible without compromising its aesthetic qualities. It features spray-in Icynene insulation; Energy Star-rated appliances; low-VOC paints; double-insulated, argon gas-filled windows; and basement floors made from recycled rubber. “We always try to bring it [green design] to the forefront,” says John Coplen, “not so much to push clients but to educate them. Hopefully, when this client does his next project, it’s not a question, it’s a direction.”

Their client is, in fact, contemplating his next DC project—an Indonesian-style glass house with a pool on the roof. When he’s ready, he says, he’ll be using the same design team. “If you have a strong vision of what you want to do, it’s very important that you deal with people who want to realize it and not people who want to fit you into a box,” says the homeowner. “I wanted something unique. It’s not a new house built to look like an old house with all the chopped-up rooms that people used 100 years ago. It’s a contemporary house with contemporary flow, which I think makes it stand out.”

Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia.

ARCHITECTURE: John Coplen and John Sage, Alter Urban LLC, Baltimore, Maryland. ARCHITECT OF RECORD: Christopher Rice, AIA, Austin, Texas. CONTRACTOR: Rosenthal Homes, Rockville, Maryland. Interior Design: Sam Ewing and Gail Winn, Ewing Noble & Winn, Winter Park, Florida. LANDSCAPE DESIGN: Thorne Rankin & Associates, LLC, Washington, DC.