Tackling the kitchen and bath renovation of a historic Georgetown row house seemed straightforward enough to Daniel Steinkoler, president of Superior Home Services, Inc. Until demolition day, that is, when his team started pulling down walls and discovered extensive termite damage throughout the entire 1865 property. “The minute we put a hammer to something we saw daylight on the other side of the house,” he recalls.
Steinkoler had to break the news to his clients that, despite recently passed home and termite inspections, the second home they had just purchased needed more than a cosmetic fix. “It was a disaster,” he says. “The house was in danger of collapse. The whole thing was held together by flooring and trim.” His team immediately braced the house with temporary walls while his clients figured out a course of action.
With damage beyond repair, the owners decided to rebuild. But because of the home’s historic pedigree, this was far from simple. Any changes made to the exterior of a historic Georgetown home are subject to the scrutiny of three independent organizations. Regulations stipulate that original elements of the structure in good condition must be preserved and new construction must match the original down to the very last detail. Teardowns are simply not tolerated.
“The challenges of this property were enormous,” Steinkoler recalls. “You’re not allowed to tear it down because it’s historic. But you have to rebuild the entire house. So what do you do?”
First, the owners hired architect Thomas French to draw up plans that would replicate the home’s exterior style down to the siding, shutters and trim, using its neighboring “twin” house as a guideline. Project requirements dictated several presentations to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, before they finally received a DC building permit.
Thus began a painstaking restoration. “Basically, it was a case of shoring and bracing as we moved to deconstruct and rebuild at the same time,” says Steinkoler. “There were no nails, screws, fasteners or joists in the original house. Everything was hand-cut with axes and knives and built with mortise-and-tenon joinery. It posed a lot of challenges because everything had to be slowly braced and taken apart.”
During the process, the crew had to salvage all remnants from the original structure that were still in good condition. As a result, some 30 to 40 pieces of hand-sawn North Carolina heart pine dating back to 1865 now float inside the new framing on the front and side of the house. Serving no structural purpose, they are hidden remnants of the building’s past. The original cornice and dentil trim at the home’s roofline, also in good condition, stayed in place during the entire two-year project. “Everything from the new roof to the new framing was replaced without taking it to ground level,” Steinkoler marvels.
When the team began work on a new bathroom on the basement level, they unearthed additional red flags. They discovered that the home’s concrete slab was badly cracked. “A little more exploration uncovered a brick foundation wall that was lacking footers,” Steinkoler says. “The house was sitting on a brick foundation on a dirt base. If you don’t have footers, you basically have no support for the kind of weight that would go onto those brick foundation walls. Structurally, we couldn’t rebuild the house unless we underpinned the existing foundation.” Another building permit was granted for this phase.
With such a major project underway, the owners decided they might as well excavate the basement to increase its existing ceiling height—which averaged only about six feet, five inches—to a more comfortable eight and a half feet. In the limited quarters of the narrow row house, this entailed digging up and removing tons of dirt by hand through an alley window.
During the process, crews discovered another surprise under the foundation: a three-inch-thick bed of oyster shells, probably used to prevent moisture from seeping into the foundation.
Now that construction is finally complete and the owners have settled in, plans call for one of these oyster shells to be affixed atop the newel post as a finishing touch to the new stair rail that connects all three stories of the home. Works of art themselves, the stair rail and banister are a testament to the level of craftsmanship found throughout the home, inside and out.
While its façade conforms to period style, the interiors lean toward modern, with a nod to the past. Interior designer Cyndy Alsaif carefully blended traditional elements such as moldings, trim and quarter-sawn oak floors, with modern lighting, kitchen cabinetry and millwork. On the main level, the fireplace (a converted coal-burning stove) now boasts a sleek cast-stone surround. The space opens into a dining area and the kitchen—complete with glossy cabinetry by Mouser, a stainless-steel, six-burner stove and a built-in microwave drawer. Whole-house lighting, sound and security systems deliver the latest 21st-century amenities.
A far cry from the cramped original, the basement level has morphed into a cozy living area with a floating wood-burning fireplace—which was at floor level prior to the excavation. A built-in bar with an Italian tile backslash and granite countertop houses dual wine refrigerators while an adjacent desk area serves as a study for the husband. A guest bedroom features a full period-style bath complete with a clawfoot tub. Basement floors are heated with a hydronic system that can be set to heat the whole level or each room individually.
Upstairs, the master bedroom houses an ethanol-burning fireplace flanked by touch-latch cabinetry concealing storage behind the walls—a smart space-saving strategy. French doors open to a second bedroom where the owners’ children may stay during visits. Beyond this room, an îpe deck overlooks a patio and parking pad accessed via automated gate.
Given its breadth and complexity, it’s no wonder that Superior Home Services won six 2010 Contractor of the Year awards for the project, including the Grand award for Historical Restoration. (The news came after the firm was named one of Remodeling Magazine’s “Big 50” nationwide.)
The success was even sweeter because of a personal connection Steinkoler has with the property. “When I started in this industry 21 years ago, the first project I ever did was the paint job on this house for previous owners,” he recalls. “I’d just graduated college and since then I’ve learned enough to restore this gorgeous, historic property. It was really a labor of love.”
Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in McLean, Virginia.
ARCHITECTURE: THOMAS FRENCH, AIA, Thomas French Architect PC, McLean, Virginia. INTERIOR DESIGN: CYNDY ALSAIF, Thomas French Architect. CONTRACTOR: DANIEL STEINKOLER, principal, MIKE MARTIN, senior project manager, Superior Home Services, Inc., Washington, DC.