Nestor Santa-Cruz designed an airy, eclectic dining room with an emphasis on art.
The owners’ collection of figurative paintings is grouped salon-style in the dining room.
In the entrance, the railing was painted black for elegant contrast to lightened oak floors.
Gilded Florentine screens add sparkle in the living room.
The living room mixes formal and informal elements.
An aura of comfort and calm prevails throughout.
A view of the front entry from the stairs.
In the dining room, red accents appear in artwork and dishware.
Slate-blue paint updates dark paneling in the family room.
Exposed beams and Waterworks tiles add dimension in the kitchen.
The screened porch is used year-round.
Mid-century rattan chairs lend comfort around the dining table.
The sunlit bedroom boasts yellow velvet stools from Timothy Paul.
A mellow green chest strikes a colorful note in the bedroom.

Hidden Gem

Nestor Santa-Cruz deftly transforms a faded 1950s split-level in Forest Hills

If ever Cinderella came back as a house, this enchanting beauty would be it. Once upon a time, not long ago, this same dwelling sat on the market looking drab and dreary in DC’s Forest Hills neighborhood. No one recognized its potential—that is, until Ann Roddy and Jill Johnson came along. They realized it would take all the powers of their longstanding interior designer, Nestor Santa-Cruz, to bring the home’s charms to light.

“It was truly hideous before,” Roddy says bluntly of the outmoded 1950s split-level they first encountered. Still, it held some appeal. “We were looking for a more open floor plan and fewer stairs than in our Colonial house. And from the description, it sounded like a lot of space.” The large, finished basement promised an extensive play zone for their three children, ages 10 to 13. Having worked with Santa-Cruz on two earlier houses, they were ready to consider another renovation. “We thought that with Nestor’s help, we could definitely turn it around,” explains Roddy, the founder, and director of an elementary school chorus program.

Enter Santa-Cruz, as if packing a magic wand. “I walked through space and knew what needed to be done,” he remembers. “We would not need to move anything major. All the assets were there.”

Within three months, the family moved in. The original floor plan remained. Yet throughout, a serene sense of comfort and elegance had emerged.

“It’s always a balance between visual and physical comfort; though, I admit, often the visual part wins,” says Santa-Cruz, who heads his own interior design firm. With a master’s degree in architecture, three decades as an interior designer and a lifetime studying design history, he is recognized for his ability to align classic principles and contemporary design. “Every building has assets and negatives,” he says. “If the assets are not very good, we need to turn them around.”

His solution seemed simple: Enlarge all windows and doorways to open up the house to light and nature. Gone were the small, awkward aluminum windows and shutters dotting the red-brick façade. In their place, large wood-casement and nearly full-height windows bathe the house in light. Interior doorways were raised, widened and in some cases moved, creating symmetry and stunning vistas through the main living spaces and accentuating the high ceilings on the main floor.

“This is a modern house from the ’50s,” explains the designer. “But before, it was just a series of rooms—not successful as a modern house where the rooms flow and open up. Now that’s possible, while still keeping the concept of the individual, separate rooms.”

The dining room also changed dramatically. Once “dark, claustrophobic and sad,” Santa-Cruz recalls, it is now an inviting space at the center of an enfilade sweeping from the living room in the front to a screened porch and garden in back. The year-round porch and an adjoining pantry are the only additions to the home’s footprint.

In the dining room, Santa-Cruz blended casual and formal elements with unexpected touches. Philippe Starck Ghost chairs mingle with Directoire-style seating covered in luxurious velvet. Overhead, a Mondrian-esque ceiling treatment accents the architecture—a custom touch that required only a can of Benjamin Moore gold paint. Paintings of nude figures, two by sisters Cynthia and Leslie Packard, are grouped on the wall in an unconventional placement. “Even though the female form might be considered more appropriate in a bedroom or private quarters,” notes Santa-Cruz, “I thought ‘these women’ would be spectators, like the classical female figures in Salvador Dalí’s Surreal and enigmatic landscapes.”

The owners are delighted with the transformation. Roddy, who calls the living room “a special jewel,” observes, “The light is magnificent there and on the whole first floor.”

They are also pleased that Santa-Cruz was able to slip their existing furnishings into new positions. “We used everything we had,” cheerfully reports Johnson, a retired nonprofit director.

Trust between the designer and his clients helped foretell the happy ending. When Roddy first requested built-in bookcases in the living room, Santa-Cruz hesitated. He wanted to preserve the few remaining walls for art, yet he relented. “Now it’s cozier,” he concedes. “I’ve learned you have to listen, and it will make the project better.”

Similarly, it took some convincing when the designer recommended bleaching oak floors to brighten the house. “We’ve always had ebony floors and adored them,” says Johnson. “But Nestor was right. His ideas really stand the test of time.”

Even though the project is complete, the designer returns regularly as a friend. “When I’m in this house, I think I’m on vacation in L.A. or the Hamptons,” he beams. “It has urbanity and casualness, and a connection to the exterior. It’s also a Washington house that respects its locale.” Reflecting on the transformative magic of renovation, he continues, “Is this a small house, or is it big? It fools you. This isn’t about size. You don’t need to tear down a house and build a big house. This is about how the character can be achieved without destruction.”

Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Photographer Angie Seckinger splits her time between Potomac, Maryland, and Spain. 

INTERIOR DESIGN: Nestor Santa-Cruz, NCIDQ, IIDA, LEED AP, Nestor Santa-Cruz Decoration, Washington, DC.