Bethesda architect Stephen Muse, principal of Muse Architects, has earned a reputation for sensitively renovating and expanding houses so that his designs feel like they have always been there. “I try to respect the history of a house and play up to the best parts of its architecture,” he says. His own remodeled home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, well reflects his skills in its elegantly proportioned rooms filled with unusual furnishings and artwork collected over more than two decades.
The 1923 dwelling is atypical for Washington in its Spanish Colonial Revival style, a melding of design influences seen by Muse as symbolic of his family. “Renovating and living in this house has allowed us to represent our blending of two cultures,” he says. While the architect is a native Washingtonian, his wife Farideh, who works at Muse Architects as the office administrator, was born in Iran. The couple has two children, daughter Mercedes and son Arman, both now in their 20s.
The Muses bought their home in 1990 after deciding they needed more space for their family. They had long admired the Spanish-influenced house in their neighborhood and when it went up for sale, the couple bought it without hesitation. “It was a great opportunity to move into a house with so much character,” says Farideh, standing in the high-ceilinged living room. “You don’t often see details like this fireplace carving or these moldings.”
The original house was designed by Washington architect Reginald Geare, who is best known for the Knickerbocker Theatre in the District’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. (Tragically, the movie house collapsed in 1922 under the weight of snow from a blizzard, killing 98 people). Geare’s well-proportioned architecture of stucco walls, arched openings and red tile roofs creates the romantic feeling of a Mediterranean villa.
Inside, the homeowners changed the choppy floor plan to establish a better flow between the rooms. The front door now opens to a spacious foyer created from part of the original dining space. Two ground-floor bedrooms were transformed into a library and a new dining room. Doorways were shifted to create a view straight through the house, from the living room at the front to the dining room windows at the back.
Before undertaking these renovations, the Muses remodeled the walkout basement so they could live in its rooms while the upper floors were overhauled. Part of this transformation required shoring up the basement guest room ceiling with cross-braced wooden beams bolted to the floor joists. “We liked the look and that’s when we decided to introduce similar designs in the rest of the house,” recalls Stephen Muse.
Ceilings of oak timbers, terracotta-tiled floors and iron chandeliers in most of the main-floor rooms reinforce the home’s Mediterranean flair. New moldings around doorways and windows were designed by Muse “to be consistent with the detailing of a Spanish Revival house,” he says.
Within this framework, the homeowners created a charming, European-style look with furnishings carefully selected for each space. “We don’t buy a major piece unless we both agree on the purchase,” says Farideh Muse, recalling how a settee purchased by her husband was sold after she nixed it.
Years of scouring shops and galleries have yielded unexpected finds, from bookends shaped like miniature buildings to paintings purchased on trips to London, Paris and Venice. Antiques are mixed with new upholstered chairs and sofas, and symmetrically arranged to convey a sense of balance and order. “Everything here is very personal,” says Stephen Muse. “It’s important to me that it is eclectic. I don’t like to walk into a home and see a uniform look by a decorator.”
In 2004, the homeowners decided to extend the back of the house with a three-story addition that included a basement expansion. The family room in the new wing is reached from the kitchen, which was remodeled with pine cabinets and marble countertops. Its pale colors, reclaimed oak floors and furnishings were inspired by the French painted panel hanging over the fireplace. “I often say it was the most expensive antique we ever bought because we had to build a new room to accommodate it,” jokes Stephen.
The space provides a dining nook and a desk, as well as club chairs for watching TV. Windows fitted with hinged screens were based on similar designs Muse created for a home on the Eastern Shore. “It’s my favorite room because it is lighter and cozier than the living room,” says Farideh.
On the second floor of the addition, the master bedroom rises to a tray ceiling to emulate the shape of the living room. Down the hall is the original master bedroom, reassigned to son Arman, and an enclosed sleeping porch converted into a bedroom for daughter Mercedes, who now lives in Paris. The Muses admit they have more room than they need, but have no plans to downsize or move. Notes Stephen Muse, “It is important to us that we stay in this house so our children will always be able to come home.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to Home & Design. Erik Kvalsvik is a photographer in Washington, DC.
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE & INTERIORS: STEPHEN and FARIDEH MUSE, Chevy Chase, Maryland.