At a time when the rest of DC seems awash in the chaos of new construction, Capitol Hill is an oasis of calm. In the sprawling neighborhood of late-Victorian row houses, historic designation makes new construction virtually non-existent. As a result, homeowners who want to update have to be creative: Front façades must remain unchanged, but interiors and back façades are definitely fair game.
Located a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol on stately East Capitol Street, one-row house combines charm and character with ingenious design elements that bridge eras and impart a modern touch. Owned by a DC journalist and her attorney husband, the four-story, the 5,000-square-foot house was built in 1870 and measures 25 feet wide (a typical Capitol Hill row house is 18). It was converted to apartments after World War II, then reconverted to a single-family abode in the 1980s during a renovation tailored to suit homeowners without children.
The house felt both dated and inconvenient. As soon as they bought it, the couple contacted Brooklyn architect Cynthia Wright to begin the remodeling process. A close longtime friend, Wright had renovated several other properties for them and understood what they wanted. “We’ve been working together for many years,” she observes. “My client has great taste and she’s decisive.”
The goal was “to restore the traditional detailing and create a light-filled, modern home for a family with two children,” explains the journalist. The wish list included overhauling the kitchen and three bathrooms; rejuvenating the outdoor spaces; and creating a strong connection between the backyard and kitchen. On the second floor, the master suite needed a more functional layout; both the husband and wife have a home office on this level. The third-floor houses kids’ bedrooms, a bath, common rooms and a guest suite.
The existing kitchen encompassed an area for food prep and a breakfast nook with an awkward spiral staircase. An over-large opening to the backyard included sliding French doors and an arch-top transom. The effect “was not aesthetically pleasing,” Wright recalls. “We wanted it to look modern, but fitting.” Since the owners envisioned a spacious farmhouse kitchen with plenty of natural light, Wright employed an unusual idea: She replaced the dated sliding doors with an aluminum storefront window. “I had never used one before,” she comments. “It was an experiment and turned out great—and very cost-effective.“ The curved frame of the opening mimics an already-existing arch in the brick exterior wall.
The result is a modern, industrial look that complements its Victorian context. In the kitchen, wenge and white-painted custom cabinetry and shelving, Absolute Black granite counters and cork floors convey warmth. A modern take on a farmhouse table, designed by Wright in walnut, centers the room.
Replacing a ramshackle deck out back, a new one made of Japanese-style horizontal cedar slats with cedar walls contains niches for plants along its sides. Stairs down to a concrete-slab play area and driveway are part of the deck construction; wisteria envelops a pergola overhead in summer.
A major goal was to bring in light without altering the home’s original footprint. Wright did this by raising the heights of the doorways in the front hall to emphasize the open line of sight from the foyer all the way through to the backyard beyond. Upstairs, the master suite—complete with bedroom, bath, and two closets—is now “an apartment inside the house,” says the journalist. Wright also designed walls of bookshelves in the husband’s front-facing, second-floor office.
Original moldings, ceiling medallions, and a curved marble fireplace had survived the previous renovation and the wife consulted New York-based color guru Donald Kaufman before selecting a palette of warm, earthy tones that would further reflect the home’s Victorian era. She also called on Brooklyn-based interior designer Karen Mauersberg for help sourcing furnishings and accessories throughout the house that would blend with what they already had. “She likes Mid-Century Modern classics and her husband inherited some antiques,” Mauersberg says. “My job was to combine the family heirlooms while mixing in interesting fabrics, textures, colors and floor coverings. The house encompasses what they love, without being a hodgepodge.”
It’s been some years since the renovation was completed and the family is still thrilled with it. “Cindy made my Victorian house full of little rooms and doors light and airy without blasting it apart,” the journalist observes. “I really feel her work will stand the test of time.”
Photographer Paul Burk is based in Baltimore.
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE: CYNTHIA J. WRIGHT, AIA, Cynthia J. Wright Architecture, LLC, Brooklyn, New York. INTERIOR DESIGN: KAREN MAUERSBERG, Karen Mauersberg Design, Brooklyn, New York.