Spectacular views of the Potomac River convinced photographer and human rights activist Betsy Karel to downsize from a multi-story house in Cleveland Park to a one-level condominium in Georgetown. The river’s broad, flowing curves beckon through tall panes of glass and within sight are the towers of Rosslyn, the arches of Key Bridge and the expanding Kennedy Center.
“Walking in, looking out the windows and seeing the Potomac and all that sky was the primary reason for buying,” says Karel. “And the apartment is on a corner and has a lot of privacy.”
The original layout of the three-bedroom unit, however, did not showcase the vistas right away. “When you first came in, it felt like a warren of rooms,” she recalls. “There were a lot of hallways that seemed like wasted space.
I wanted to open them up and simplify.”
To renovate the 3,000-square-foot condo, the owner tapped Muse Architects based on the Bethesda firm’s successful remodeling of her previous home. Principal-in-charge Stephen Muse and project architect Warren Short started by stripping the existing walls, ceilings and floors down to concrete slabs before creating a more streamlined design.
The resulting interior architecture is contemporary but understated, in order to focus on river views and to showcase Karel’s remarkable collection of photographs and library of art books.
“We combined the previous living room, dining room, halls and library into one large, flexible space,” Muse explains. “Now when you enter, the view is immediately apparent and draws you right in.”
From the foyer, a short hallway leads directly into the south-facing main room, where living and dining areas are defined by groupings of furniture. Windows wrap around two sides to open the interior to light and views.
“I wanted a big space so I could have both intimate dinner parties and large gatherings of 70 to 80 people when I entertain,” says Karel. Rather than being part of this room, the kitchen is contained behind the dining area and fitted with German-designed cabinetry and quartz countertops.
Formerly encompassing the library, one corner of the large living space serves as a lounge area with armchairs and a sofa arranged in front of a flat-screen TV and shelves of books. Behind this space, the master suite occupies the southeastern corner with more views of the river. Two guest suites are sequestered at the end of the condo farthest away from the master bedroom and living spaces.
Muse and Short employed new architectural details to reinforce the clean lines of the interior. “We de-trimmed the apartment by removing crown moldings, baseboards, door casings and bulkheads,” says Muse. Fumed-oak flooring in the
main spaces and carpeting in the bedrooms keep the rooms from feeling too austere.
In the living/dining area, ceilings of different heights allowed for the installation of a quiet, efficient heating and cooling system as well as window pockets for drapery and shades. The new ceilings accommodate recessed and cove lighting that respond to the location and size of the photographs displayed on the walls.
Lenses fitted over adjustable halogen lamps reduce ultraviolet light from the fixtures to protect the artwork. The lighting, shades and mechanical system are controlled through a digital keypad, reducing the number of light switches and thermostats for a more minimalist look.
New doors from the kitchen, hall and master bedroom allow for privacy and appear as partitions when closed. These full-height slabs fold back into shallow niches concealed within the thresholds, thus blending into the architecture when open.
The furniture comprises mostly mid-century-style designs finished in wood and neutral-colored upholstery. “I wanted to keep the attention on the art and with this type of furniture, that’s easy to do,” says Karel. Most of the pieces are low-slung and have been arranged so as not to detract from the river views.
Built-in shelving throughout the apartment was designed by Muse and built by woodworker Ivan C. Dutterer of Hanover, Pennsylvania, to hold the owner’s extensive library of books. In the living space, the shelving is white to complement the wall color, while the storage cabinetry in the bedrooms is finished in walnut veneer to look more like furniture.
The owner has been collecting photography since the 1980s; images by notable talents such as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Irving Penn are strategically displayed throughout the rooms to take advantage of limited wall space. “It’s an eclectic collection,” Karel observes.
Two large scenes of oil derricks by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky are prominently displayed in the dining area, while smaller black-and-white images are mounted on the columns in the living area. A seascape by California photographer Richard Misrach dominates the wall of the master bedroom, where more shelving is devoted to the homeowner’s library.
“This sort of renovation refrains from drawing attention to the architecture and instead draws attention to the collections, much like a gallery,” says Muse.
“My photos and books,” adds Karel, “are the soul of my home.”
How do you create modern architecture inside an apartment without a major remodel?
Stephen Muse: Eliminate architectural trim such as door casings and crown moldings, use a neutral color palette and simplify the design of necessary elements like light switches, electrical outlets and door hardware.
What type of lighting highlights artwork on the walls?
SM: Adjustable downlights can be aimed at artwork and fitted with lenses to reduce ultraviolet light and protect the art.
What do you recommend for built-in shelving and furnishings?
SM: Built-ins finished in the color of the walls allow the books or artworks to be visually prominent. Veneered in wood, they create the appearance of furniture.
Why hire an architect rather than an interior designer for a renovation?
SM: An architect brings a view of the project as a whole and works to coordinate all the design elements. The best interior design should never be an afterthought to the architectural design.