Tucked behind brick walls, a diminutive, remodeled carriage house blends with the grand abodes of its historic Dupont Circle neighborhood while holding its own with a modern presence anchored in the past.
The original two-story structure was built in 1910 during the transition from horse-drawn carriages to cars. It provided quarters for a chauffeur on its second floor, before becoming a small townhouse 50 years later. The latest renovation added a third floor to accommodate owners Beth-Ann and Carmen Gentile, both lawyers, who were downsizing from the large Cleveland Park residence where they’d raised their two daughters.
The coach house had been in Beth-Ann Gentile’s family since the 1960s, when her mother bought and furnished it as a rental; one of her first tenants was legendary newscaster David Brinkley. Eventually her parents moved in, and when the house passed to her, she continued to rent it out—until 2015, when her husband suggested they move in. She had reservations.
“If we were going to live here, I wanted it to be completely different from the way it had been,” she says. “My mother loved to decorate in a very traditional Williamsburg style with brass chandeliers and pineapple statues on the corners of the courtyard walls. I wanted to start with a clean slate.”
Enter architects Amy Gardner and Brittany Williams. They visited the Gentiles in their Cleveland Park home to understand how they lived. “Together we forged this idea,” Gardner recalls. “We wanted the house to be reminiscent of its roots—a little bit garage-y, a little bit coach house-y, a little bit modern, a place that would showcase Beth’s eclectic collection of furniture and objects from all over the world.”
Bringing in light was important too, Gentile adds, and expanding the space was essential. “The net leap was how we would ever get permission from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and then the Historic Preservation Review Board to build a third floor,” she remembers.
When the project began, the architects found a sequence of chopped-up rooms on the first floor: a tiny entry with a staircase, a cramped kitchen and a dark living room. A recent inspection had uncovered a second entrance, enclosed in cinderblock and covered with drywall, with a hidden window above it. Both openings on the alley side were restored, letting in more light. And new carriage doors were designed by the architects—in homage to the garage’s history—with a row of high windows for privacy. Painted Chinese red, the doors bring a punch of warmth and color to the bright, open interiors.
As it turned out, the two-story house was gutted and replaced with a single room on each floor. “We looked at what we could keep, and how much of what existed would fall into the garage-y category,” recalls Williams. They concluded there was nothing—except for the floor structure above the main floor’s nine-foot ceilings. That framing was exposed, then roughly painted. A similar assembly with the same painted finish was built of engineered lumber to support the third floor. The new, light-filled master bedroom on top, in neutral tones and natural woods, is intended as a modern sleeping porch, mirroring a traditional one on the attached house next door.
An open staircase links floors and design themes. “In some ways the stair is a microcosm of the whole place,” notes Gardner. “It’s got wood [on the treads]. It’s got glass. It’s got steel. It’s finished; it’s unfinished. It’s exposed; it’s raw. It embodies all the ideas that we had.”
With just 1,400 square feet of living space to work with, Williams compared the renovation process to crafting a jewel box. “Every dimension was precious. It forced everyone to be really conscientious about design decisions and construction,” she observes.
Those decisions worked out well for the owners. “You don’t feel you’re in a tiny house,” reflects Gentile. “My feeling was that I didn’t want it to look fake. Now it’s back to its simplified garage look.” With family furniture around her, “It looks like home to me.” As she says this, a grandfather clock—which came with the house when her mother bought it, moved to the couple’s Cleveland Park home and has returned to the place where it started out—chimes from its industrial-style corner.
DRAWING BOARD: AMY GARDNER
How do you preserve the character of a historic house when gutting its interiors?
We research the history, character and details of the house to understand its core identity, then apply that identity to guide decision-making.
How did you get approval to add a floor in a historic district?
The coach house faces the backs of other houses and was dwarfed by its neighbors. We argued that we were operating in a backyard and adding a third floor would bring the house into scale with the others.
What assets can you play up to make small spaces feel livable, even grand?
Ceiling height and abundant light!
How do you pair design excellence with sustainability?
There are many approaches, but the two that rise to the top are passive-energy strategies and high-performance heating-and-cooling systems. Here, we used a green roof [carpeted with plants] to help manage water runoff. It also looks great to neighbors higher up!
Renovation Architecture: Amy Gardner, FAIA, LEED AP, Brittany Williams, AIA, LEED AP, Gardner Architects LLC, Silver Spring, Maryland. Kitchen Design: Jennifer Gilmer and Meghan Browne, Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Renovation Contracting: Vedad Dedovic and Rod McCoy, Added Dimensions, Takoma Park, Maryland. Landscape Design: Holt Jordan, Jordan Honeyman, Washington, DC.