Looking at the front of the vintage row house Patricio Asfura-Heim and Christine DeWitt recently remodeled, little seems to have changed from a century ago except for the bright coral-colored front door. However, beyond the threshold, modern interiors present a dramatic contrast to this historic façade.
Renovating the home in the Georgetown Historic District was a two-year process—prolonged by the extensive federal and local design reviews required to ensure that any alterations to the exterior would fit with the original architecture and surroundings. “The Old Georgetown Board is very particular about what is visible from the street,” says DeWitt, referring to the federal group responsible for reviewing designs in the historic district. “We had to change some elements. We replaced the asphalt roof shingles with slate and the aluminum gutters with copper. The review covered every detail.”
Working with architect Adam McGraw of StudioMB, the owners faithfully restored the exterior using old photos of the property as a reference. New windows were inserted to match the originals and a wooden porch on the detached side of the house was structurally improved. Wood siding was cleaned and repainted.
“Part of working in Georgetown is using authentic materials, which guided us toward more traditional choices on the outside,” McGraw explains. “On the inside, we wanted open spaces and clean lines along with contemporary finishes. We tied interior views to the centerlines of original windows and bays to bring old and new together into a cohesive, integrated design.”
Beyond the historically accurate façade, 21st-century interiors burst into view. The bright, expansive main level, centered on a minimalist white kitchen, extends from front to back. Light filters into the living and dining areas from bay windows, while streamlined, mid-century furnishings underscore the modern sensibility.
“Our vision was all about family,” observes the Chilean-born Asfura-Heim, who works at the State Department. “We wanted a space where we could all do our thing but be together. I could be cooking, our daughter could be sitting at the dining table and Christine could be in the family room, yet we could all see each other and be in each other’s company.”
The flowing interior transforms what had been separate rooms with the staircase located along one side in traditional row-house fashion. “Even though the house was chopped up, it had good bones and I felt we could do a lot with it,” says DeWitt, an assistant professor of dermatology at Georgetown University who also runs her own practice.
The open plan was achieved by demolishing the original staircase and room partitions and adding more space to the back of the house via a three-level addition. “After looking at several ideas,” McGraw recounts, “we decided on a rear addition in the vocabulary of the original house and added a more contemporary two-story bay to bring in the north light and open the house to views of the garden.”
The addition contains the family room, a library/TV room on the second floor and an attic bedroom for the couple’s young daughter, Victoria. The family room is sunken from the kitchen, dining and living areas, making it level with a new stone patio in the backyard. Along the back wall, glass doors fold open, joining the interior seamlessly to the outdoor living room and accommodating the homeowners’ entertaining style.
“During a party last summer, we left the folding doors open so people could transition between the island and a drinks table on the patio,” recalls DeWitt. “For Victoria’s fifth birthday, we had her friends hang out in the family room and the adults in the living room and kitchen—close enough to keep an eye on the kids but far enough away to give a sense of separation and privacy.”
McGraw maintained the openness of the main level by tucking a new steel-framed staircase to one side of the addition, behind the family room, to connect all the levels. Topped with a skylight, the stairs supply daylight to the rooms at the back and keep the living spaces and second-floor owners’ suite unencumbered by hallways.
The staircase provides visual interest in the kitchen area, where part of its underside peeks out from the ceiling. In the second-floor library/TV room, a wall opening allows glimpses of the stairwell, while tall windows at the back and sides fill the room with light. “We wanted to build in as many vantage points as we could,” says Asfura-Heim.
Furnishings throughout the house are mostly reproductions of Mid-Century Modern classics, including Eames lounge chairs and pieces by Danish designer Finn Juhl. Combined with the owners’ collection of contemporary art, they supply colorful accents and sculptural shapes against a background of white-painted walls and pale oak floors. “We didn’t want the house to be a traditional box,” DeWitt notes.
“The design was all about space, volume and light,” adds Asfura-Heim. “It’s an oasis for coming home.”
What’s your advice to homeowners renovating in an historic district?
AM: They should encourage the architect to talk with project reviewers before the first line is drawn. That’s a much more successful approach than developing a full-fledged design and asking for approval later.
How can you combine modern living and historic charm?
AM: It is important to remember the aspects of the original house that drew you to it in the first place. Whether windows, floors or moldings, those key elements should be maintained and reinforced to achieve a harmonious outcome.
What are some rules for adding onto an historic house?
AM: Most often, it is respecting the original structure and not overwhelming it to the point where you can no longer perceive where old ends and new begins. This can be done so the addition is subservient to the historic house or with changes in materials to differentiate old and new.
Renovation Architecture: Adam McGraw, AIA, StudioMB, Washington, DC. Renovation Contractor: PC Home Remodeling, Silver Spring, Maryland.