Good “bones” convinced interior designer Martha Vicas and her husband Robert, a financial consultant, to buy a stately 1925 dwelling in the District’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. “We love the scale of the rooms, the high ceilings and big front porch,” says Martha Vicas. “It has an intimacy so we knew we’d feel comfortable here after our three teenagers leave home and we embark on the next stage of our lives.”
While drawn to the sound skeleton of the stone-and-stucco house, the former New Yorkers found the interiors to be run-down and unsuited to their family life. So they embarked on a major renovation with the help of Georgetown architect Merle Thorpe, who revived and expanded the Four Square home in a sensitive and seamless manner.
“The idea was to keep the original features center stage and continue them through the new work,” says Thorpe. He maintained the sense of discrete rooms but also introduced a spatial flow from the front to the back of the house. The central hallway leading from the front door now reaches all the way to the rear garden through a spacious kitchen addition.
On one side of this corridor, the architect extended the enfilade of living and family rooms with a new office wing and an outdoor courtyard at the back. On the opposite side, he moved the staircase leading to the basement and second floor bedrooms so it sits closer to the front of the house and brings in daylight from an upper story window. Upstairs, a new master suite was created by adding a bedroom above the kitchen and converting the adjacent bedroom into a bathroom centered on a freestanding tub.
While the house was torn apart and rebuilt to accommodate modern systems, many of its new elements are now indistinguishable from the old. “We tried to be as authentic as possible in our treatment of the architecture so it would be in keeping with the era of this neighborhood,” says Thorpe.
The new staircase features an elegant balustrade that continuously winds up from a simple newel post to the second level. Original pocket doors still slide to close off living spaces from the hallway. New floors made of smoked and stained rift-sawn oak unify the first and second floors. Replaced windows and reinstated moldings look like they always belonged.
Within this historically responsive setting, Vicas furnished the rooms in what she calls her “collected” style of decorating. “I use creative sourcing to design spaces that blend found objects with both new and vintage furniture from different periods,” she says. “Texture and careful use of color support this purpose and add further interest to the room.”
In the living and dining rooms just off the foyer, Vicas created the most formal settings, but an unexpected mix of antiques, Mid-Century Modern finds and contemporary furniture and artwork keeps them from feeling staid. The living room is symmetrically arranged around the fireplace with club chairs pulled up to a coffee table designed by Vicas. The homeowner also designed the walnut dining table and based the dining room décor around the unusual horn chandelier hanging above it.
Her eclectic taste is even more evident in the family room where the walls are covered in sheets of bark paper to create a subtly textured backdrop to 1950s chairs and a boldly patterned rug and fabrics. In the adjacent office, a Womb chair covered in velvet upholstery adds a note of luxury to the Mid-Century classic. Walnut bookcases and desks are built-in to save space and open the view to a small outdoor courtyard beyond the window.
Visible through this garden retreat is the spacious porch extending across the back of the house that serves as a second living and dining room. “We use the porch 10 months of the year, for entertaining and just relaxing,” says Vicas, who hosts guests nearly every weekend. Drapes made of mosquito netting can be pulled across the porch to keep out summer pests. A large fireplace at one end provides a source of warmth during colder months.
Thorpe designed the porch as a garden pavilion, allowing vines to climb up its paired columns and disguise the structure. The roof and top of the adjacent office addition are covered in a green carpet of sedum to insulate the structures and absorb rainwater. Their planted surfaces provide an attractive view of nature rather than a scene of bare roofs from the second floor.
One step down from the porch, the rear yard is designed by landscape architect Gay Crowther as another outdoor room. Evergreen trees and boxwood shrubs around the perimeter screen the property from the neighbors. A lap pool on one side serves as both a reflecting pond and a place to cool off during hot summer days.
Both the garden and porch are strategically located off the kitchen where the Vicas family spends most of its time. “This is where we drink a quiet cup of coffee at 6 a.m. and have guests gather for dinner at 6 p.m.,” says Vicas.
The large room centers on a long, marble-topped island and incorporates separate areas for sitting and dining. Closest to the porch, a mahogany dining table set with 1960s Milo Baughman chairs adjoins an inglenook for cozying next to the fireplace. As Vicas notes, “We have a crazy, busy life so it was important to create a calm place to be.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to Home & Design. Tony Giammarino is a Richmond, Virginia-based photographer.
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE: MERLE THORPE, AIA, Merle Thorpe Architects, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: MARTHA VICAS, M.S. Vicas Interiors, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: GAY CROWTHER, G.P. Crowther & Associates, Annapolis, Maryland. BUILDER: Peterson and Collins, Inc., Washington, DC.