Call her the quintessential party girl. Georgetown real estate investor and manager Karen Snyder regularly hosts a crowd in her suburban Alexandria, Virginia, home on 1.5 wooded acres abutting a creek.
“I love to throw big holiday parties, and smaller dinners for three or four couples,” Snyder says. “The house is a nice showcase for entertaining because there’s an easy flow from the kitchen to the great room and out to the deck.”
However, her home wasn’t always so gracious. The previous owners had expanded the original 1930s structure by adding a wood-paneled family room and an indoor swimming pool, but according to Snyder, “they had ignored the most important spaces—the kitchen and the master bedroom and bath.”
After living in the home for several years, she decided to renovate the interior and make it a more hospitable setting for herself and her guests. “I knew I wanted an uncluttered, modern design, but I wasn’t sure what to do.”
A local magazine article led Snyder to Alexandria architect Benjamin Ames, who specializes in contemporary residential design. “Karen is bubbly and outgoing, but her house didn’t reflect that,” says Ames. “It was dark, closed to the outdoors and you couldn’t find the front door.”
His strategy was to improve the existing layout, starting with the demolition of the basement stairs in the center of the home and a spiral staircase in the family room. “That opened up everything in the house,” says Snyder.
Ames rebuilt both staircases within a new structure off the existing living space. Only eight feet deep, the addition illuminates both levels of the house through huge panes of glass framed in steel and aluminum. “Light was the inspiration for the renovation,” he says.
While contemporary, the two-story extension respects the existing architecture of the house with a gable mirroring the adjoining pitched roofs.
Ames designed a glass façade for the addition with a small tower for the stair landings that is sheathed in fiber-cement panels similar to the siding on the rest of the house.
At night, the addition glows with light to welcome guests through a new front door. They are greeted in the foyer by panels of rice paper sandwiched between sheets of glass. Just past this threshold, Ames connected the addition to the living room and kitchen by demolishing walls and installing maple flooring throughout, along with beech-veneered cabinets that lighten the spaces.
By moving the basement stairs, he was able to expand the kitchen and join it to the dining room, which has been turned into a breakfast nook. Long granite countertops in both areas provide plenty of space for food preparation and party buffets. A stainless-steel trough sink between the kitchen and living room makes entertaining a breeze; it can be filled with ice to chill bottles of wine usually stored in a refrigerator below the counter.
Smaller dinner parties are held in the family room-turned-great room. New pendant lights hang from its slanted wood ceiling to shine on a glass dining table big enough for eight. In winter, Snyder and her friends cozy up to the corner fireplace, refurbished in aluminum and granite, while during summer months, cocktails are enjoyed on the newly built screen porch adjacent to the pool house. A deck off the great room provides more space for gatherings and barbeques overlooking the trees at the back of the property.
Throughout the main level, furniture was selected with entertaining in mind. Snyder consulted Alexandria interior designer Catherine Hailey, who often collaborates with Ames, in choosing sleek designs complementary to the pieces she already had.
In the living room, glass cocktail tables on wheels are moved around leather sofas, which can be folded down for extra seating. Ultra-suede-upholstered sofas are paired in the great room to form a conversation pit. “Everything is durable and low-maintenance,” says Hailey.
Finishes throughout the spaces are varied in texture and color to enliven the minimalism. “People think of modern design as a cold, white box,” Hailey explains, “but both Ben and I try to mix different materials to create luxury and richness.” Standing in the kitchen, she points out the blue flecks in the granite countertops, the frosted glass in the Ikea cabinets, the stainless-steel appliances and the backsplashes of painted glass.
Upstairs in the converted attic, the carpeted master bedroom is designed as a cozy retreat from the outside world. “I wanted a cave,” says Snyder, who covered the skylights in the ceiling with wine-colored silk shades. In one corner, a large sofa layered with pillows provides a place to curl up and get away from it all.
Ames had dressers built into the walls to provide storage and make the space under the slanted ceiling feel larger. The drawer fronts are finished in dark brown wenge wood to match the cabinetry in the adjoining bathroom, which was built as part of the addition.
In contrast to the dark bedroom, the master bath is filled with daylight filtered through a glazed wall set behind the addition’s glass façade. The lowermost panels are made of frosted glass to shield the space from the neighbors. “One of the windows swings open so I can sit in the tub and see the tops of the trees,” notes Snyder. Limestone countertops and floors, and a shower covered in iridescent mosaic tiles accentuate the light, airy feeling. Above the bowl sinks in the center vanity, Ames designed a pair of freestanding, aluminum-framed mirrors with integral light fixtures and faucets. The tall panels double as partitions to divide the vanity from the whirlpool tub next to the windows. “It’s like the kind of bathroom that is part of a cool hotel,” he says.
Although the renovations have turned the house into an entertainment center, there is still space for Snyder to work. Ames remodeled the second-floor balcony overlooking the great room into an office with a built-in desk.
“Ben really took the time to talk to me about the way I live,” says Snyder. “I use every room now. This is a design that absolutely works.”
Washington, DC-based Deborah K. Dietsch is author of Live/Work: Working at Home, Living at Work. Photographer Paul Burk is based in Baltimore, Maryland.
RENOVATION: Benjamin Ames, AIA, Amestudio Inc., Alexandria, Virginia. CONTRACTOR: Simon Ley, The Ley Group, Washington, DC. DESIGN: Catherine Hailey, Hailey Design, Alexandria, Virginia.