As anyone who’s been there knows, home renovations can be overwhelming. Myriad choices, from footprint to finishes, put many homeowners in a state of stress, assailing ordinarily decisive people with doubt and confusion.
This was not the case for government attorney John Coleman and his wife Katherine, who purchased a dated 1950s house in Chevy Chase with the idea of completely overhauling it. In part, they happen to be people who know what they want. But their goals were unwavering for another reason: They needed a house that would work for their disabled child, then three years old.
The Colemans’ son was born with spina bifida, which left him paralyzed from the hips down. Now four, Johnny handles his small wheelchair with dexterity and enthusiasm, keeping up with his sisters, eight and six, while navigating his home like a pro. This scenario would not have been possible in the family’s previous abode, a Colonial in Northwest DC that could not be made entirely wheelchair-friendly.
When they saw the nondescript brick residence in Chevy Chase’s Somerset neighborhood, “we thought it was perfect,” says Katherine. “It had a very horizontal floor plan, main-floor bedrooms and a fairly flat lot. And there was not a steep incline into the house.” Another plus: It had a carport. “I had asked a mother I knew with a son in a wheelchair how important a garage or carport was,” Katherine explains, “and she said, ‘Think of wet bicycle tires on your floor when it rains.’”
However, they knew the house would need a lot of work to bring it up to speed. The Colemans were only its second owners and it hadn’t been altered since it was built. They enlisted architect Chris Snowber for the job, giving him one main directive. “The Colemans wanted their son to be able to participate in every activity of family life,” he says. “Sleepovers upstairs with his sisters, cooking and, eventually, teen parties in the basement rec room.”
A secondary wish list also took shape: an open plan; an updated, functional kitchen and baths; and a mudroom. In addition, the couple wanted to embrace the mid-century style of the house with modern interiors—a change that would require almost all new furnishings.
Snowber retained much of the original floor plan, adding universal design elements. “It’s hard to change fundamentals like stairways and fireplaces,” he observes, “so if you can work around those things you feel like you’re improving the house rather than fighting it.”
Door sills have been eliminated. From the central foyer, an elevator goes to the basement rec room and second-floor bedrooms—one a guest room/office, the other the girls’ bedroom—which can also be reached via the staircase. The foyer leads to the living/dining room; Snowber removed the wall separating it from the kitchen so the spaces could flow together. Johnny’s room is on the main level just beyond the stairs, and two bedrooms off the living area have been reconfigured to create a master suite.
Adjacent to the dining room, the existing sunroom was rebuilt with an airy, vaulted ceiling. A couple of steps down, an adjoining mudroom—the only addition to the home’s footprint—houses cubbies for the kids’ stuff. The mudroom is level with the carport, so a lift was installed for easy access to the rest of the house. “Johnny can come in, dump his backpack like the girls are doing, then press a button to lower the lift and get into the house,” Snowber explains. A button in the sunroom calls the lift, which is behind a sliding door. As a safety measure, it opens only once the lift is in place.
Other universal design elements in the house include showers with roll-in entries and linear drains—even the girls’ shower. “Johnny doesn’t use that one now,” John explains. “But we want him to be able to if he ever wants to move upstairs.” In the kitchen, a microwave drawer opens from the top, and a table-height counter contains a sink so “when I say, ‘Wash your hands for dinner,’ everyone can do it,” says Katherine.
To convey a modern aesthetic, Snowber replaced the dated staircase with a new one of wood and stainless steel. Walnut paneling surrounds the limestone fireplace, extending into the hall and upstairs, where a wide dormer brings in the light. A dropped ceiling delineates the dining area and mahogany-framed windows and doors in the living/dining area overlooking the deck.
Snowber brought in designer Christie Leu to assist with the interiors. “I needed someone to help me narrow things down,” Katherine says. “But Christie’s scope expanded. She was so helpful and efficient.”
Leu refined the kitchen plan and selected fixtures, finishes and midcentury-style furniture throughout. “The Colemans’ style changed to accommodate the style of the house,” she comments. “And they were open to everything.”
The finished house does everything the Coleman family needed it to do. “We use every part of it,” says Katherine. “We live in every room. It really works.”
Stacy Zarin Goldberg is a photographer in Olney, Maryland.
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE: CHRISTOPHER R. SNOWBER, AIA, principal, MICHAEL P. ROUSE, AIA, project architect, Hamilton Snowber Architects, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: CHRISTIE LEU, Christie Leu Interiors, Chevy Chase, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: MICHAEL CARR, CarrMichael Construction, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE DESIGN: THORNE RANKIN, Thorne Rankin & Associates, Washington, DC.