In the dignified Northwest Washington enclave of Wesley Heights, the weight of tradition is no trifling matter. Azaleas and antiques have long ruled and charting a modern course can require courage. In a renovation of their Georgian-style house, Christopher and Richard Cahill took pains to embellish the past while bringing fresh sensibilities to bear.
For starters, they dared to paint their living room black. “The only way you can do it is to have big windows,” cautions Christopher Cahill, owner of an eponymous design-build firm and the landscape company Botanical Decorators. As he speaks, his living room is bathed in morning sunlight. “Black reflects light,” he explains.
Over the past year, the Cahills updated every square foot of their four-level, five-bedroom house. They refreshed the stately gray brick exterior, which presides over a neat border of boxwoods. Indoors, walls and wallpaper, including an elegant chinoiserie, came down. Acres of white solid-surface kitchen counters were supplanted by green granite. In the breakfast room, a 1980s-vintage Palladian window was replaced with a rectangular transom. The second floor master suite got a reconfigured dressing room and a luxurious bathroom, both with garden views.
The Cahills, who like large-scale entertaining, installed a catering kitchen on the lower level, steps from the garage. Christopher and spouse Richard, who works in financial services, have also prepared for the arrival of an infant, who will bring a lively new dynamic to the home. In anticipation, the owners took down a wall on the first floor, blending the former dining room with the kitchen and breakfast room. The result is a relaxed family room as the new nexus of the house. French doors provide easy access to the garden. A former study has been co-opted as a dining room. “We wanted a home that felt comfortable; the goal was light and cheery,” says Christopher Cahill.
The Cahills also tackled the two-tiered garden, which rises steeply behind the house. Crucial retaining walls were rebuilt and steps to the upper lawn redesigned. The patio was expanded to make space for a fireplace—a move that required carving out part of the hillside, where two mature trees established themselves decades ago. Cahill estimates that his crews removed 72 tons of earth, old stone and plant material before bringing in 115 tons of new materials—all transported by wheelbarrow. Cahill saved the trees and a hammock now swings between their massive trunks near a round of turf just big enough for a swing set.
“We use the fireplace all the time,” Cahill says.
In his previous home, the designer luxuriated in a glass-walled contemporary townhouse with a black leather-and-steel Bauhaus vibe. His Web site still lists Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as the architect he most admires. The new home’s interior is notable for a softer zeitgeist, with natural materials and a palette ranging from sea green to mushroom to sandstone in much of the house. The living and dining rooms do bring a punch of black and white, and there is plenty of glass and steel. But 1920s Modernism has matured into 1960s sophisticate.
The style note is appropriate. The house was built in the 1960s on land carved from a neighboring lot. The living room décor echoes the manner of David Hicks, the legendary English designer who popularized black walls in the 1960s. Furnishings also lean to a Hicksian blend of contemporary and vintage pieces with abstract art. The simple panels of harvest-gold-and-white printed cloth at the windows recall Hicks, but also the playful textiles of the American Mid-Century designer Alexander Girard.
The dining room is a cooler blend of black, white and silver. Contemporary lacquered chairs share the setting with a blown-glass centerpiece by Dale Chihuly atop a dining table with 18th-century French accents. The soothing backdrop is a stencil-like wallpaper pattern of acanthus leaves in black on white. Cahill delights in mentioning that the paper cost just $95 a roll. “I’m frugal,” he says.
However, he admits to splurging on rugs—antique in the living room, Tibetan wool in the halls and master bedroom. But he declined to invest in hand-woven fabrics. “You can’t really tell the difference,” he contends. What’s more, spending less on decoration at the outset makes it easier to alter the décor when he tires of it. “It gives you the freedom to change,” he says.
The house came with eight-foot, four-inch ceilings, so Cahill added layers of crown moldings and topped windows and doorways with broad bands of white trim to “lift the eye upward.” The enhancements also add to the feeling of being in a historic house.
As Cahill pointed out the architectural details, daylight played tricks with the living room walls, shifting the color from black to anthracite to something else entirely. “In summer the walls appear green,” the designer says. “At night, people ask if they are navy blue.”
He seems especially happy to share the effect, and he promptly explains his reason: “It’s the first home that I’ve done exactly as I wanted it done.”
Linda Hales, former design critic at The Washington Post, writes about architecture and design. Stacy Zarin Goldberg is a photographer in Olney, Maryland.
RENOVATION, INTERIOR DESIGN & CONSTRUCTION: CHRISTOPHER CAHILL, Cahill Design Build, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE DESIGN: BRIAN HAHN, Botanical Decorators, Olney, Maryland.