Little did Vesper Mei know she’d landed a diamond in the rough when she purchased a Capitol Hill row house in 2002. The 100-plus-year-old, wood-framed structure “was in terrible shape,” she admits. But its period charm, garage and proximity to Eastern Market outweighed its drawbacks. Besides, the price was right.
Over the years, the then-single attorney made minor improvements to the home’s dated kitchen and bathrooms. Later, she married attorney Mark Bellermann, who adopted one of the home’s three bedrooms as his office. By the time their daughter arrived, the 1,360-square-foot residence and its choppy rooms had begun to feel downright cramped.
At the recommendation of a contractor, the couple approached architect Stephen Lawlor and learned that the property was a good candidate for expansion. The lot’s generous, 25-foot width and its rear yard, which housed a ramshackle garage and worker’s shed, provided enough real estate for a significant makeover.
Lawlor envisioned an overhaul that would double the size of the house while respecting its history. To the left of the original structure, he devised a new entry hall and mudroom leading back to a two-story rear addition. The addition mirrors the gabled form of the original abode, housing an open kitchen and family room on the ground floor that spill out to a rear terrace. “They wanted a big, combined room where they can hang out and watch TV—a space they didn’t have in the old house,” says Lawlor.
A new staircase replaced one near the front door in the original plan; it’s located in an airy gallery that connects the front and rear volumes. The architect entirely reconfigured the second floor to include a master suite, the daughter’s bedroom, a home office, a guest room and a hall bath.
On the lower level, Lawlor carved out a new living area by excavating what was an earthen basement with six-foot ceilings. “It looked like a coal mine down there,” he recalls.
After careful study during pre-construction, he and his clients realized that the existing structure was barely salvageable. “The walls had termite damage and were not in a condition you could build on. And the whole house had to be realigned and adjusted,” Lawlor explains. “So everything was gutted and taken down to the studs.” Even the living and dining rooms, which retained their positions in the original structure, boast new walls and insulation.
The owners moved out for the eight-month construction phase. “During excavation,” Lawlor recalls, “the house was supported on four corners and there was a whole story missing below. Digging the basement out and underpinning the structure was fairly challenging, but once we got out of the ground and started moving up, things pretty much went as planned.” In the process, all new electrical, HVAC and data systems were installed, along with radiant-heat flooring and energy-efficient Weather Shield windows and doors.
Despite its modern amenities, period details preserve the home’s architectural legacy. On the exterior, Lawlor specified materials such as painted clapboard and standing-seam roofs that are “sympathetic” to the guidelines of the Capitol Hill Historic District. Inside, Shaker-style kitchen cabinetry and simple oak floors balance furniture that strikes a contemporary note.
Decorator Nicole Lanteri helped the owners feather their updated nest in a way that felt polished but not fussy or formal. “Each room mixes vintage details with modern accents,” she says. A Room & Board sofa in green tufted velvet imparts a classic touch to the living room, while deep-red Cole & Son wallpaper and an antique table lend the dining room gravitas—offset by a modern Marset chandelier. Gray walls warm the light-filled family room, which centers on an Ikea sofa and Room & Board chair.
Mei and Bellermann are delighted with their revamped residence—especially the family room and kitchen.
“Our old kitchen was sort of a box. There was not a lot of work space or cabinets and the counters were always cluttered,” says Mei. “Our new kitchen is twice as big and there’s room for everything. Now we spend all our time in the kitchen and family room.”
Looking back on her 2002 real estate purchase, Mei reflects, “I think it turned out to be the best investment I’ll ever make. We have the same house, but now it’s so much better.”
Renovation Architecture: Stephen Lawlor, AIA, principal; Roberto Ramirez, senior project architect, Lawlor Architects, Washington, DC. Interior Decoration: Nicole Lanteri, Nicole Lanteri Design, Arlington, Virginia. Renovation Contractor: Impact Remodeling and Construction, LLC, Washington, DC.
What are the benefits of gutting a renovation rather than remodeling piecemeal?
Stephen Lawlor: You can install modern amenities that an older house doesn’t have, such as insulation and new heating and cooling. Everything can be done to the current building codes, which foster less energy consumption.
Why should owners live in a home before remodeling it?
Living in a home first almost always yields a better project because the owners understand the light, the neighborhood and the vibe of the property.
What’s your advice on dealing with historic review boards?
There’s always a certain vocabulary that historic districts are willing to let you work within. When the massing and materials are compatible with their rules, they tend to be more understanding.
When does installing radiant-heat flooring make sense?
Since it involves installing pipes in floor-joist cavities and changing the boiler, radiant-heat flooring wouldn’t be appropriate on a smaller job. But if you’re doing a whole-house remodel, it’s a nice way to make your house comfortable—especially in the winter.