The brick exterior at the rear end of the house was replaced with glass to supply daylight to the contemporary interior.
The street facade of the attorneys' historic row house was preserved intact.
In the lower-level living area, a chair and sofa are arranged around a gas fireplace with a built-in TV cabinet.
The kitchen features quarter-sawn white oak cabinets and stainless-steel countertops.
Translucent glass panels filter light into the master bedroom. A built-in desk flanks the bed, which abuts the oak wall rising through the center of the house.
Light penetrates the center of the house through glass bridges set into the floors.

City Cool

Behind its historic facade, an urban row house opens to contemporary spaces filled with light

City Cool MAY/JUNE 2010

About 10 years ago, two attorneys bought a home in downtown Washington to be close to work and their favorite theaters and museums. Soon after moving into their century-old brick row house near Mount Vernon Square, David Tarler and Leah Lorber felt like they were living in a no-man’s land. “There were empty lots filled with trash, empty buildings that had caved in and lots of boarded-up windows,” says Lorber, a public policy director of a healthcare company. “Sometimes we asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to stay here?’”

Fast forward a decade and the urban neighborhood is now home to new condominiums, businesses and institutions such as the Walter Washington Convention Center just a few blocks away. “It’s completely changed for the better,” says Tarler, who works for the National Park Service.

So, too, has the couple’s house. After deciding to stay put, the two tapped DC-based architect Robert M. Gurney to transform their dark and dreary residence into a cool, contemporary pad filled with planes of color and texture. Open spaces lined in wood and glass take the place of the compartmentalized rooms typical of the city’s row houses, providing plenty of daylight and dynamic views through three levels. “Light is so important in these types of houses because they are inherently dark,” says Gurney. “I judiciously removed pieces of walls and floors to gain more light and allow you to sense the volume of the house.”

The architect not only gutted the interior down to the floor joists, but he also replaced the exterior brick wall at the rear with huge sheets of glass to increase the amount of light inside. Glass panels set into the wooden floors allow daylight to penetrate through the middle of each floor, from a large rooftop skylight clear to the lowest level. 

Steel staircases positioned next to the glass bridges are fitted with aluminum treads and slatted risers to let in more light from the skylight overhead. Walls finished in blue Venetian plaster and quarter-sawn oak rise to either side of the open stairwell to connect and unify the spaces on each floor. “Bob uses materials that are contemporary but he is able to bring in warmth through the plaster and wood,” Tarler notes. “The spaces don’t feel sterile.”

Functionally, the house is almost as unconventional as its form. Gurney moved the kitchen and dining area from the basement to the main floor off the entrance, while sequestering the living area and a guest suite on the lower level. The living area is small, even cozy, and well lit from the window wall at the rear. Seating is arranged around a gas fireplace with a shiny metal flue and a built-in cabinet housing a television. An adjacent garden patio serves as a warm-weather retreat and outdoor living room. Enclosed by walls covered in wood slats and fiber-cement panels, and a tall, steel planter filled with bamboo, the space feels completely private and far removed from city traffic.

On the top floor, the couple’s bedroom and bathroom form another sanctuary. Next to the bed, a built-in desk extends into a nook overlooking the staircase to provide a place for a computer and books. 

“It’s a small house and we wanted to make sure we would use all of the space,” says Tarler. Custom-built cabinets lining the sides of the living and dining rooms provide ample storage for the couple’s belongings, including a colorful collection of Fiestaware, so that the interiors remain clutter-free. 

“We were into collecting a lot of different things—too many for the space we had—and the house was unfocused and cramped,” says Leah Lorber. “So the less-is-more look of modern design was very appealing.”

Furnishings were selectively chosen with the help of interior designer Therese Baron Gurney, who often collaborates with her husband. “I enjoy working on Bob’s projects because they are so architecturally rich,” she says. “Here, the furniture has its own integrity in being more fluid than the geometry of the architecture.” Softening all the straight lines are curvy chairs set around an oval dining table, a comfy, rounded swivel chair and plenty of cushions on the sectional sofa in the living area. 

“We are still getting accustomed to living in the house,” says Tarler, who has left the spaces largely free of personal touches, including artwork. As he notes, “The architecture is the art.” 

Washington, DC-based Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to HOME & DESIGN. Photographer Paul Warchol is based in New York.


ARCHITECTURE: Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, lead architect; Brian Tuskey, project archiect; Robert M. Gurney Architect, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: Therese Baron Gurney, ASID, Baron Gurney Interiors, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: Prill Construction, Bethesda, Maryland. 

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