Home & Design
Living room - Interior Design Services
Living room - Interior Design Services

The owners’ collection of figurative paintings is grouped salon-style in the dining room.

Floor - Wood flooring
Floor - Wood flooring

In the entrance, the railing was painted black for elegant contrast to lightened oak floors.

Living room - Floor
Living room - Floor

Gilded Florentine screens add sparkle in the living room.

Living room - Interior Design Services
Living room - Interior Design Services

The living room mixes formal and informal elements.

Interior Design Services - Living room
Interior Design Services - Living room

An aura of comfort and calm prevails throughout.

Ceiling - Interior Design Services
Ceiling - Interior Design Services

A view of the front entry from the stairs.

Dining room - Interior Design Services
Dining room - Interior Design Services

In the dining room, red accents appear in artwork and dishware.

Interior Design Services - Room
Interior Design Services - Room

Slate-blue paint updates dark paneling in the family room.

Kitchen - Interior Design Services
Kitchen - Interior Design Services

Exposed beams and Waterworks tiles add dimension in the kitchen.

Living room - Window treatment
Living room - Window treatment

The screened porch is used year-round.

Table - Interior Design Services
Table - Interior Design Services

Mid-century rattan chairs lend comfort around the dining table.

Living room - Interior Design Services
Living room - Interior Design Services

The sunlit bedroom boasts yellow velvet stools from Timothy Paul.

Interior Design Services - Design
Interior Design Services - Design

A mellow green chest strikes a colorful note in the bedroom.

Nestor Santa-Cruz designed an airy, eclectic dining room with an emphasis on art.

Hidden Gem

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

Hidden Gem 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.

You may also like:

A Sense of Proportion
Interior designer Therese Baron Gurney infuses a traditional Maryland home with symmetry and modern style
Grand Openings
Three local home-furnishings showrooms make their debut
Product Watch
Style and innovation converge in the latest furniture finds
HOME&DESIGN, published bi-monthly by Homestyles Media Inc., is the premier magazine of architecture and fine interiors for the Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia region.

The company also publishes an annual H&D Sourcebook of ideas and resources for homeowners and professionals alike. H&D Chesapeake Views is published bi-annually and showcases fine home design and luxury living in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

The H&D Portfolio of 100 Top Designers spotlights the superior work of selected architects, interior designers and landscape architects in major regions of the US.

Stay Connected with HOME & DESIGN Newsletter

Copyright © 2021 Home & Design. All rights reserved. | Back to top
magnifier