Sitting in the living room of his gracious 1891 home, interior designer Josh Hildreth glances out to a crape myrtle in a corner of the garden. In that spot—high above a busy street in Wesley Heights—a well once stood. “The lure that came with the house,” Hildreth relates, “is that Teddy Roosevelt was a friend of the owners. He used to go riding in Rock Creek Park and would come by to water his horse at that well.”
Layers of history burnish every corner of this elegantly mellow home. Adapting it for contemporary living, Hildreth has introduced grace notes in harmony with its heritage. The blend of old and new reflects the interests of the designer—a lifelong devotee of the history of architecture and the decorative arts—and those of his husband, Rick Robinson, the chief operating officer of an association, who favors mid-century and modern design.
In carefully composed rooms, fragments of personal history mingle with antiques culled from auctions and house sales, along with modern art. A color-saturated portrait by contemporary photographer Tina Barney in the dining room stands atop a quirky 1930s Italian commode, inset with historical portrait engravings and flanked by 19th-century candelabras that Hildreth discovered blackened and in pieces at an estate sale. “What drives me is the pursuit of unlikely things that go together in interesting ways,” he says. “To design in a way that’s not predictable, that offers an element of surprise.”
When the couple bought the house six years ago, they realized it suited them perfectly. “We loved its history and how it had evolved,” says Hildreth. Known in the neighborhood as The Old Farmhouse, the property had been remodeled twice. In 1976, modernist architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen had removed the wall separating the double parlor, creating a great room with added light and views of garden greenery through a solarium across the back of the house. Twenty-five years later, a new kitchen was designed in the home’s original farmhouse style. On their first visit, Hildreth recalls, “Rick walked through the ’70s side, and said, ‘This is wonderful.’ I looked at the other side and loved it.”
While they left the layout intact, the great room was a major obstacle. “It had ’70s glamour, but felt oppressively narrow, like a bowling alley with a fireplace coming in at an angle,” Hildreth says. They ruled out removing the fireplace due to cost—a decision that proved fortunate. “Constraints are good because they focus you,” observes the designer, who recognized over time that the great room needed to be divided into two separate spaces and the fireplace provided that divide.
The formal great room occupies the front, anchored by tall, stately mahogany cabinets and a refined satinwood sideboard. The light-flooded back invited a more casual, family-room approach. To unify the spaces, all walls and ceilings were painted Benjamin Moore’s Marble White. That same creamy color, thinned with turpentine, lightened the reclaimed-oak flooring that Hildreth felt suited the home’s farmhouse past.
With shared light and outdoor views, the overall living area now feels like a large, welcoming garden room. Since the couple entertains often, Hildreth selected airy, lightweight chairs and small tables that can be easily moved around to handle groups of different sizes.
One 18th-century armchair with a sculptural presence holds special meaning for the designer. It once belonged to a member of the Buffalo, New York, family, for whom Hildreth’s grandmother worked as a housekeeper in the grand style of “Downton Abbey” after emigrating from Ireland. “She knew how to set a table to perfection, and developed an eye for furniture,” Hildreth relates of his first mentor, who took him to estate sales and taught him what was best. “I was the only six-year-old who turned plates upside-down to see if they were Limoges,” he remembers, smiling.
Hildreth has enjoyed visiting historic houses ever since. While a student at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College, he made pilgrimages to Mount Vernon and Monticello, historic Williamsburg and the great homes of Newport, Rhode Island. But, he states emphatically, he would not want to live in any of these. “They are too stiff and formal, too perfect,” he declares.
Seated in his warm, inviting sunroom, Hildreth looks approvingly at the cracked paint on a lacquered Chinese cabinet, at the chips on a centuries-old Persian vase. “Those imperfections give character,” he notes. In his view, what matters most is not the perfection of a room or the provenance of pieces, but rather “the people who live inside the home, and the experiences of those coming in and having great conversations there,” he says, adding a time-honored coda: “When you create a space, it is about more than creating static beauty within a room. You are creating a catalyst for memory-making.”
Tina Coplan is a Chevy Chase-based writer. Photographer Stacy Zarin Goldberg resides in Olney, Maryland.
INTERIOR DESIGN & CONTRACTING: JOSH HILDRETH, Josh Hildreth Interiors, Reston, Virginia.
GENERAL Floors: Reclaimed random-width oak through cochranslumber.com.
SUNROOM Walls: farrow-ball.com. Sisal Rug: starkcarpet.com. Chandelier: 19th-century French bronze through weschlers.com. Lacquered Cabinet: 18th-century Chinese; tkasian.com. Carved-Wood Floor Lamps: Vintage Portuguese through darelldeanantiques.com. Cane-Backed Barrel Chairs: Mid-century through Maine Coast Exchange. Barrel Chair Upholstery & Sofa Pillows: raoultextiles.com. Sofa: ef-lm.com. Coffee Table: 19th-century French through freemansauction.com. Ceramic Elephant Garden Seats: Mid-century Italian: Brooke Astor estate through sothebys.com. Cast Plaster Tortoiseshell Sconces: westendantiqwuemall.com.
DINING ROOM Wallpaper: Old World Weavers through hinescompany.com. Chandelier: davidduncanantiques.com. Photograph over Cabinet: Tina Barney through sothebys.com. Rug: Bessarabian through dorisleslieblau.com. Cabinet: 1930s Italian through eburytrading.com. Dining Chairs: Vintage Italian. Chair Upholstery: Leather through mooreandgiles.com. Round Dining Table: 18th– century English through rogerwinterantiques.com. Silver Tureen on Table with Malachite Inlay: emiliacastillojewelry.com. China: Dodie Thayer through toryburch.com. Silver Flatware: Vintage Christofle.
FRONT GREAT ROOM Sofa: ef-lm through hinescompany.com. Sofa Upholstery: rosetarlow.com through hollandandsherry.com. Coffee Table: Vintage Phillip & Kelvin Laverne through wright20.com. Moroccan Pouf: Vintage. Leather Upholstery: mooreandgiles.com. Armchairs: Schumacher.com. Upholstery: peterfasano.com. Trim: samuelandsons.com. China Cabinet: 18th-century English through carolinefaison.com.
REAR GREAT ROOM Built-in Sofa: Custom by joshhildrethinteriors.com. Upholstery: champalimauddesign.com. Vintage Kilim Pillows: dransfieldandross.com. Orange Lacquered Stools: megbraffdesigns.com. Ottoman: schumacher.com. Ottoman Upholstery: peterdunhamtextiles.com. Painted Chest: 19th-century French through kevinstoneantiques.com. Mirror: 19th-century Italian, owners’ collection. Lamps on Chest: Tulipieres fitted as lamps through brunschwig.com. Rugby Chest: Vintage.
LIBRARY: Wallcovering: kravat.com. Chandelier: 19th-century carved alabaster from Italy. Rug: 19th-century Oushak. Drapery Fabric: katieridder.com. Trim: samuelandsons.com. Sofa: Antique. Sofa Fabric: Mulberry Home through leejofa.com. Yellow-Wood Chair: English Regency. Chair Cushion: rosetarlow.com. Side Table: 18th century French through sothebys.com. Coffee Table: Owners’ collection.
MASTER BEDROOM Wallpaper: farrow-ball.com. Ceiling Stencil: studioartistica.com. Ceiling Fixture: davidduncanantiques.com. Sconces: visualcomfortlightinglights.com. Sconce Shades: Custom by Madina Upholstery & Drapery; 703-455-3627. Rug: Custom by mitchelldenburg.com. Fabric for Draperies, Bed Alcove and Bed: pennymorrison.com for evansandsheldon.com. Fabrication: gretcheneverett.com. Shades: conradshades.com. Bed Linens: timothypaulhome.com. Burl Veneer Slant Top Desk: 18th-century English. Print over Bed: Peter Doig through phillips.com.