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The big fieldstone house occupied a quiet Arlington side street, a stalwart reminder of a time when men went to work in suits and wives awaited their return holding cocktails. Designer Frank Babb Randolph met the current homeowners at a party and came over to survey their house after they suggested it might be a true test of his talent. The house needed Randolph’s reductive touch—a penchant for simplifying spaces that he honed years ago under his mentor, the great New York designer Billy Baldwin.
He started in the living room. “I substituted some of their heavy mahogany furniture for pale Swedish pieces, reupholstered others in lighter fabrics and replaced the carpet with a sisal rug,” he says. “That’s when [the owner] realized how much lighter everything looked and decided she wanted the same minimizing approach for the second floor.” In short order, Randolph had opened the rooms to light the couple never knew they had and adorned them with his signature pale, neutral palette. It was a cosmetic fix, though, and the designer knew in-depth work would be necessary to really transform the house.
The homeowners were empty nesters, long transplanted from their hometown of Richmond to the DC area where the husband works as a trial attorney. However, with three adult children descending frequently with their growing broods, he and his wife were looking to do more than refresh a home of 20 years. They didn’t shy away from the magnitude of work Randolph proposed, which included completely revising the bedrooms and baths upstairs. “You need an architect,” he told them. “We can open up the house, but let’s do it right by moving walls and stairs and whatever else we need for a better flow.”
The designer introduced the couple to Christian Zapatka, a Georgetown-based architect trained in the classical elements and proportions Randolph likes as a backdrop for his work. “Christian has an eye for the good bones often hidden in older houses and knows how to bring them out,” explains Randolph.
Touring the house from top to bottom, Zapatka reimagined an exterior architecture shed of its country-mouse demeanor. “I saw a smart center hall Colonial inside this Pennsylvania-style stone farmhouse,” he recalls. Some of his exterior changes, such as adding dormer windows and remodeling the front entry and side porch, use classically ennobling details and deliver more sunlight to formerly dark interiors. They achieve an update more appropriate to the home’s proximity to DC. “Basically,” says Zapatka, “we teamed up to distinguish the house.”
Inside, the architect reconfigured the second floor to create a spacious master suite, replacing a bath and a closet at either end of the hallway with windows that admit light to the whole upstairs. He also expanded the home’s usable space to the attic and basement, which were wasted on storage. Now, the attic houses an exercise room and the wife’s office—both well lit by two new dormers. Remodeling the basement revealed that the foundation had settled and its concrete-slab floor had become unstable. They lowered the floor 18 inches, exposing one long fieldstone foundation wall as a focal point to an informal family room.
Randolph and Zapatka brainstormed ways to ensure that the newly finished levels would feel accessible to the rest of the house. “We opened up three staircases that were enclosed or blocked by old, outmoded rooms,” says Zapatka. “This simplified the circulation and afforded views down halls and to windows throughout the house. We also lifted the height of the doorways and windows and added new, classically inspired millwork.”
The old screened porch off the living room got a new foundation and was transformed into a glass-enclosed space with a classical triglyph frieze along its cornice. Sunlight and a feeling of airiness broke through. And Randolph now had the broad canvas he needed for his pared-down, whitewashed style.
“I brought in a scrubbed look for the whole house,” he says. He applied a matte, off-white hue from Farrow & Ball to the walls and pickled the floors to create a bleached effect. The upholstery, in combinations of all-white tweeds, textures and subtle patterns, is easy on the eye and reflects light. “A pale room feels like it has more space and lets in more seating,” Randolph explains.
In the sunroom, the mix includes a shimmery silk-and-wool area rug. Randolph selected Swedish antiques from favorite sources Tone on Tone in Bethesda and David Bell in Georgetown; their distressed, whitewashed finishes add to the lustrous lightness that permeates the house. Floors in the breakfast area and dining room are bare. “A puzzle pattern of rugs would break up the flow from room to room,” Randolph observes. “I like the cleanness of furniture legs dancing on the pale wood.”
Randolph treated color as a captivating top note. “Colors pop on a neutral canvas,” he says. “I like bringing in select colors as accessories and then changing them out again as the mood suits.” Trays, bowls, and baskets hold decorative and useful objects, and pillows, artwork, flowers and fruit provide other pops of color. These elements add personality, moving in and out with a season, a party or a whim.
With those finishing touches, the house finally entered the 21st century. Zapatka’s bold presentation of classical architectural elements feels modern. Randolph’s sunlit interiors convinced the wife that she never wants curtains. “She likes seeing cleanly through the house,” says Randolph. “I call it living lighter.”
Susan Stiles Dowell is a writer in Baltimore. Photographer Geoffrey Hodgdon is based in Deale, Maryland.
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE: CHRISTIAN ZAPATKA, AIA, FAAR; Christian Zapatka Architect, LLC; Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: FRANK BABB RANDOLPH, Frank Babb Randolph Interior Design; Washington, DC. RENOVATION CONTRACTOR: Mauck Zantzinger & Associates, Washington, DC.