In the struggle to define domestic space, battle lines often wobble between modernists who love lofts and traditionalists who occasionally like to close doors behind them. In a clean-lined town home in Cathedral Heights, contemporary-spirited owners illustrate a third option: Spaces are framed, but never closed in.
From the street, the duplex villa on “Alban Row” exudes tradition appropriate to its setting on Mount Saint Alban, where Gothic Revival remains a revered style. The couple had chosen a three-story city residence with underground parking and an elevator, an ideal choice for visiting parents. But despite 11-foot ceilings and windows on the east, west and north exposures, the loft-like first floor was dark; a 10-foot-long granite countertop protruding from the kitchen into the center of the house was also a problem. Moreover, the undefined layout that suited its previous occupants was unworkable to the new owners. “We don’t entertain large groups,” the new lady of the house pointed out. “We wanted something more fitting to our lifestyle.”
The couple began a year-long retrofit to transform the vast space into an intimate home—without taking a single step backward in time. They turned to Cunningham | Quill Architects to reclaim traditional functions—living room, dining room, kitchen and library—without building walls. Principal architect Ralph Cunningham enlisted project architects Maria Casarella and Michael Day, along with Angela Yu as project designer. “It was a bowling alley space,” recalls Casarella of the original floor plan. The team drew on an array of architectural devices to re-establish order and still retain the open quality of the space.
The home’s interior was, and still is, anything but traditional. The architects devised cabinetry to shape views, with big open frames atop storage consoles. Ceilings were dropped slightly to create a sense of intimacy in the living and dining areas. Trim was installed over doorways to draw the eye upward. To unify spaces and add sophistication to plain woodwork, patterns were scored on walls, floating ceilings and doors.
Today, the interplay of ebonized wood, cream surfaces and white trim is as fresh and relaxed as the couple’s vintage Donghia chairs and collection of Mid-Century Modern classics. The serene ambience gives little hint of the scope of change. Windows on the long north wall were enlarged and are now adorned with chic rolling screens. Casarella also upgraded a series of hidden service spaces—a closet, a powder room and a butler’s pantry—along the home’s shared south wall. By encroaching on 12 inches of prime floor space, she realigned a powder room door (it no longer opens into the living room), tucked a gas fireplace into the living area and turned a closet off the dining room into an occasional bar and workstation.
The new cooking area is a sleek maple box, with emphasis on efficient storage. As for dismantling the oversized, professional-style kitchen with its seating area and fireplace, the owner reasons, “We didn’t need two dishwashers or a 48-inch fridge.”
Casarella attributes the success of the project to an observation she made about her clients: “They are architects at heart.” Years ago, the owners had experienced the power of architecture, having built a house from scratch with Washington architect Heather Cass. That light-filled, frankly contemporary retreat had floor-to-ceiling glass fronting the Potomac River. Three moves later, Cass directed the couple to Cunningham and Casarella—both former colleagues—for their latest project.
Casarella worked long distance on the design, receiving photos and furniture dimensions from the owners, who preferred to retain cherished pieces rather than jettison them. The dining room was calibrated to fit a rectangular glass-topped table from a house in Norfolk. The sofa in the library, to the right of the foyer, was reupholstered. The Donghia chairs date back to the Cass riverfront house. The bed and armoire were acquired for an Atlanta condominium. Surrounded by these familiar possessions, the owner explains, “It’s not like you’re in a totally new place.”
The remodeled house seamlessly blends indoors and out, making the interior seem far larger. The landscape team of Jay Graham and Sarah Trautvetter of Graham Landscape Architecture in Annapolis replaced a conventional wrought iron gate with an enclosure of dark-stained îpe, offsetting the panels to frame glimpses of a secret garden at the end of a lush passageway while still blocking views from the street. The garden itself is a composition of dark-stained îpe, slate and evergreens. A floating fence of horizontal boards echoes the interior partitions while also disguising a high brick boundary wall. The dark wood backdrop sets off a gleaming steel sculpture and a small, mirrored water wall, visible through double doors from the kitchen. A wood seating wall surrounds raised beds where a paper bark maple, masses of coral bells and a few boxwoods are taking root.
“We were playing off the interior,” says Jay Graham. “We borrowed ideas from inside. The garden became another room.”
Upstairs, Casarella continued the scoring of walls and doors to lend “comprehensive touches throughout the house.” The second level is essentially a master suite. An office enclosed by maple cabinetry has a lowered ceiling over the work area. A window wall admits daylight through an adjoining television room. The third floor serves as a guest suite, but the owner has taken the west-facing sitting room for a home office. Atop Mount Saint Alban, her choice makes perfect sense. “It has the best view in the house,” she says.
Linda Hales, former design critic at The Washington Post, writes about architecture and design. Bob Narod is a photographer in Herndon, Virginia.
ARCHITECTURE: RALPH CUNNINGHAM, FAIA, principal in charge; MARIA CASARELLA, AIA, and MICHAEL DAY, AIA, LEED-AP, project architects; ANGELA YU, AIA, project designer, Cunningham | Quill Architects, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: JAY GRAHAM, FASLA, and SARAH TRAUTVETTER, Graham Landscape Architecture, Annapolis, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: MACON CONSTRUCTION, Kensington, Maryland.