Former U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth once called Georgetown home. From 2002 to 2006, the couple and their children lived in a grand 19th-century house flanked by a two-story wing, a large yard and a carriage house—a rare sanctuary in the historic neighborhood.
They spruced up the rooms with minor renovations and cheerful paint colors before selling the house and hitting the campaign trail. After Edwards lost the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the couple returned to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they built a compound on 102 secluded acres.
Today, the Edwardses might not recognize their former Washington home. Inside the front door, the once small hallway soars upward and outward to provide abundant daylight and a view clear to the newly designed garden at the back of the house. Large archways open to remodeled sitting rooms, while the kitchen and family room have been combined at the rear. Even the basement has been completely overhauled by the current owners, cofounders of a company specializing in communities for the elderly.
“We always wanted to move into the city and this home has so many advantages,” says the husband. “It’s one of the few detached houses in Georgetown on a huge lot in the middle of everything.”
Now empty nesters, he and his wife raised their three children in a McLean, Virginia, house designed in the early 1990s by Anthony “Ankie” Barnes of Barnes Vanze Architects in Georgetown. When it came time to overhaul their new property, the owners tapped the South African-born architect to tackle their ambitious remodeling project.
“The [Georgetown] house was so impressive from the street, but inside, it felt old and tired,” recalls Barnes. “Our strategy was to maintain respect for its history and bring the interiors into scale with the outside.”
At his suggestion, the couple hired interior designer Therese Baron Gurney to develop contemporary settings within the reconfigured historic architecture. “We wanted a hint of clean, contemporary design and Therese is known for that,” says the owner. “We ended up with a great team that collaborated on every aspect of the project.”
The centerpiece of the renovation is a boldly designed staircase connecting the main floor with the upper-story bedrooms and basement. “It’s a juxtaposition of the clearly old and the clearly new,” says Barnes. Walnut treads, open risers and a support curving up to a second-floor landing transform the utilitarian structure into a piece of sculpture. Behind the stairs, a wall of exposed brick extends from the basement to the upper floor in recognition of the home’s history.
Across the hall, the front and middle parlors were gutted to create two spacious living areas connected to a smaller dining space. New moldings and revamped fireplaces provide a traditional backdrop to streamlined leather armchairs and chenille-upholstered sofas arranged on subtly patterned Tibetan rugs. Tables in dark woods by renowned furniture designers Dakota Jackson, Wendell Castle and Matt Decell inject a crafted elegance into the spaces. The browns and earth tones of the furnishings serve as a backdrop to an offbeat mix of antique clocks and colorful contemporary art.
“This was a refreshing departure from what I normally do,” says Gurney, who typically favors a more hard-edged modernist aesthetic. “It opened my eyes to the possibilities of an Arts-and-Crafts feeling.”
On a tour of the house, the designer points out the practical purpose of the open floor plan and comfortable seating. “The owners do a lot of entertaining, from hosting intimate dinners to large groups, so it was important to have the spaces flow one to another and yet let each have its own personality,” she explains.
At the rear of the house, the combined space of the kitchen and family room spills into the hallway where French doors lead to the garden. Within the L-shaped yard, Annapolis landscape architect Jay Graham replaced the remnants of a formal boxwood garden with a sequence of interconnected outdoor rooms. “It was important to integrate both traditional and contemporary elements to complement the designs inside the house,” says Graham. “We also needed to instill a feeling of historical appropriateness as if the gardens had been there for quite some time.”
Now the owners and their guests have their choice of gathering around a fire pit next to a fountain or on a lawn framed by hornbeam trees. They can also dine on an outdoor terrace planted with dogwoods, hydrangea and jasmine.
In addition to entertaining spaces, the garden offers privacy in what Graham calls the spa terrace. A hot tub in this recessed space, the lowest level in the yard, is nestled next to the walk-out basement and screened from view by a boxwood hedge and magnolia trees.
Inside the house, the owner can retreat to his wood-paneled study across the corridor from the living spaces. Shelving, ceiling beams and wall paneling in this room are finished in walnut, which is repeated throughout the house in floors, stair treads and furnishings. “It’s one of the owner’s favorite materials and one of the few woods that can appear both modern and traditional,” notes Barnes. In the kitchen, an unusual burled version of the wood is applied to the cabinets.
Renovations continue downstairs where the rambling, above-ground basement was remodeled into a family getaway. A rec room was upgraded into a home theater, a laundry reconfigured into a wine cellar and a space below the office turned into a billiards room. Inspiration for the bar in the game space and the brick-paved floors came from the Tombs, the owners’ favorite hang-out during their student years at Georgetown University.
Should the owners want to exercise, they climb the staircase to a gym on the third floor down the hall from their bedroom and his-and-her bathrooms.
“We really use every bit of the house and garden,” says the owner. “It is a lot different than when the Edwardses were here, but it suits the way we live.”
Washington, DC-based Deborah K. Dietsch is the author of Live/Work: Working at Home, Living at Work. Anice Hoachlander is a principal of Hoachlander Davis Photography in Washington, DC.ARCHITECTURE: Anthony Barnes, AIA LEED, Barnes Vanze Architects, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: Therese Baron Gurney, ASID, Baron Gurney Interiors, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: Jay Graham, FASLA, Graham Landscape Architecture, Annapolis, Maryland. RENOVATION CONTRACTOR: Recom Services, Easton, Maryland.