Old buildings in a state of decay tend to catch an architect’s eye. Walking through Oxford, Maryland, one evening, Washington, DC-based architect Ward Bucher saw a dilapidated building, known locally as the Downes Curtis Sail Loft, with a “sold” sign out front. A week later, Bucher learned that the property had been listed as a lot—everyone assumed that no one would want the building—and a local had put through a contract to keep the house from being torn down. When that deal fell through, the architect started thinking he might buy it himself and renovate the structure into a summer family home.
Bucher’s vision of what the “great old wreck” might be was matched by his professional knowledge of what it would take to achieve it. Even so, the prospects looked dim. In addition to its poor condition, the first floor of the building stood only two inches above the 100-year-old flood plain. “It was a total disaster,” says Bucher. “But we recognized the possibility that it could have a new life. It only took four times as long and twice as much money as we had planned.”
Bucher and his wife, Lisa Johnson, an administrator for a nonprofit, couldn’t imagine that any lender would finance the purchase, let alone the construction cost. But the building echoed with a lot of history, so a local bank willingly lent them the money, almost on faith. “They asked me, ‘How much will it cost to renovate?’ I gave them a number and they gave me the loan,” says the architect. A Maryland historic tax credit—worth 20 percent of the construction cost—made the project feasible.
The house was originally built in 1899 as a segregated public school for black children. It stayed that way until it closed in 1934. In 1944, a local couple, Nellie Leatherberry and her husband, Elbert Wilson, bought the building for $350. They rented out the first floor as a dwelling. The upper floor, which was never subdivided, was leased to Downes Curtis, a local sail maker who occupied it for more than 50 years and gave the building its name. Leatherberry and Wilson moved a small, wood-frame building, a former ice cream shop, from nearby Market Street and placed it between the sail loft and the street, where they ran a restaurant for local oyster shuckers and crab pickers. When Downes Curtis and his brother Albert retired in the mid-1990s, the property fell into disrepair until the widowed Nellie Leatherberry—who will celebrate her 102nd birthday in January—sold it to Bucher and Johnson in 2001.
The Maryland Historic Trust placed few restrictions on the renovation, other than to require that the original wood siding be restored. Bucher’s first move was to raise both buildings by three feet to get them above the flood plain.
The rear of the old schoolhouse, which faces Town Creek, an inlet of the Tred Avon River, had no doors or windows; Bucher redesigned this side of the house to take advantage of the water views.
On the ground floor he replaced a small single-story addition with a light-filled master bedroom. On the second floor, now converted into the main living space and kitchen, a door and a series of windows open onto a covered porch above the new bedroom, while a French door at the attic level opens onto a deck. Windows, doors and wood siding on the other three sides of the house were restored and the former ice cream parlor-turned-eatery became a guest cottage.
“As it turned out, restoring the house proved to be a great advantage, because it’s taller and closer to the water than what is allowed by current zoning,” says Bucher. “We’re higher than all of the surrounding houses. We get great breezes at the second floor, great cross-ventilation.” He also discovered that the legendary local mosquitoes stay close to the ground. “We had planned to screen the second-floor porch, but the mosquitoes don’t bother us at the second floor, so we left it open.”
The first floor had been divided into a rabbit warren of rooms, which Bucher reconfigured into bedrooms and two bathrooms. Not wanting a “bowling alley” of a hallway, he designed the walls as a wave, a pattern that continues across the ceiling of the master bedroom to conceal air-conditioning ducts. In addition to providing visual interest, the eight-foot-high hallway amplifies the height of the adjacent 12-foot-tall bedrooms and bathrooms, where the original heart pine floors and beadboard ceilings were preserved.
The second floor had seen much more wear and tear during its years as a sail loft, but Bucher elected to repair and restore as much as he could, leaving the marks of age and matching new wood with old wherever the original was beyond repair. Throughout the rooms, the homeowners preserved a sense of the building’s history. An original schoolroom supply closet was restored and used as a prototype for the crown molding, cabinet pulls and beadboard details of the kitchen cabinets. Johnson handcrafted Roman-style shades that gather in the same manner as the square-rigger sails once fashioned by the Curtis brothers in the same room. The kitchen countertops are made of soapstone and butcher-block maple, typical late-19th-century work surfaces. A turn- of-the-century wood-burning stove, a Bucher family heirloom, is topped with a Maytag gas cooktop that raises the old stove to a new height without damaging the original appliance. The only modern intervention is a bar-height counter with built-in shelves and cabinets—designed by Bucher in a wave pattern that echoes the hallway below.
Anchoring the dining space is an old maple table purchased from an antiques store in nearby Cambridge, Maryland, and Thonet bentwood café chairs. Hanging over the table, a 19th-century gas chandelier is wired for electricity, a common turn-of-the-century upgrade, and above the door is a school clock purchased in an antiques store in Lambertville, New Jersey. Says Ward Bucher, “We wanted, as much as possible, to restore the house to its original date of 1899.”
Freelance writer and editor Michael Tardif is based in Bethesda, Maryland. Kenneth M. Wyner is a Takoma Park, Maryland, photographer.
ARCHITECTURE: Ward Bucher, AIA, Bucher/ Borges Group, Washington, DC.
The Washington, DC, chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) also offered a seminar on how to work with an architect as part of “Architecture Week,” its annual public outreach program. As he has for many years, Stephen Vanze, AIA, principal of Barnes Vanze Architects in Georgetown, delivered a lively, informal talk on a recent Saturday morning. He began by recommending that homeowners contact their local chapter of the AIA, many of which maintain a free Client Resource Center where homeowners can review the portfolios of dozens of member firms. Portfolios provide a quick way to get the names and review the work of many architects and get a sense of which ones do work in the prospective client’s preferred style and price range. Following is a summary of Vanze’s discussion.
What is the first step in the design process?
The first step is for the client to prepare a “program,” a written list of the desired rooms, their approximate size and how they will be used. “You want to give the architect as much information as possible.” From that information and an understanding of the building site, an architect will then develop loose sketches of the design that gradually become more definitive through discussions with the client. This stage, known as “schematic design,” is intended to help the architect and the client develop a common understanding of the proposed design. “We will often use [cardboard] models or computer models at this stage as well,” said Vanze. “To help people understand the design.”
When should I consult a contractor?
Vanze recommends that the architect and the client consult a good contractor to develop a preliminary estimate of construction costs based on the schematic design, to develop a budget price within a 10 percent range. “It’s important to do a good job on the initial design and budget,” said Vanze. “You don’t want to pay the architect to develop complete construction drawings, only to discover that the project is way over budget and has to be redesigned.”
When do I need to make decisions on material selection?
During the design stage, a homeowner often has to make dozens of choices about materials, finishes, cabinets and appliances, which many find overwhelming. “It’s not necessary to choose every appliance or select every tile right away,” said Vanze. The architect can work with the client to determine the desired quality level for each item, and include “allowances” in the budget for each. “If, for example, we include an allowance of $15 per square foot for bathroom tile,” said Vanze, “then the homeowners can shop at their leisure for any tile in that price range.”
How do I figure out the final cost of a project?
During construction, the architect acts as the client’s representative, working closely with the contractor to ensure that the project is built in accordance with the architect’s design. As the project unfolds, various factors can affect the final cost. Clients may change their minds about certain details, construction documents may not have described a particular item in complete detail or unforeseen site conditions, such
as a ledge or subsurface water, may affect the design or construction. “We advise clients to keep a cushion of 10 percent of construction cost in mind for changes during construction,” said Vanze.
Freelance writer and editor Michael Tardif is based in Bethesda, Maryland.
Fire Island is barely 60 miles from New York City off the southern shore of Long Island, but getting there can feel—in a good way—like a journey to the end of the earth. Eighty percent of the island is protected public land, and with the exception of Robert Moses Beach at its western tip, the 32-mile-long, one-mile-wide island can be reached only by passenger ferry—no cars allowed. For summer vacationers traveling from beyond the New York area, such as Washington, DC, residents Rich Walker and Frank DeCrosta, reaching their favorite summer place is indeed a journey, one that can involve planes, trains, automobiles—and a final trek by foot or golf cart.
The decelerating pace of successive modes of travel is a big part of the Fire Island experience; even the most stressed-out of city dwellers steps off the ferry onto the island a different person. So when Walker, an executive with Constellation Energy, and DeCrosta, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker, decided to build their own home after renting for many summers on the island, the design had to be a fitting end to the journey. “We thought a lot about the house as a threshold, creating a sense of arrival, and then leading homeowners and guests through a sequence of increasingly private spaces,” says Bethan Llewellyn, project architect at Studio27 Architecture of DC. “That initial experience contrasts with the daily rhythm of life at a beach house—mornings by the pool, midday at the beach, afternoon cocktails.” The long, narrow site, stretching from east to west, enabled the architects to intertwine these two design concepts.
A long, stepped boardwalk stretches out from the front door on the west side to welcome visitors. The house is clad in traditional cedar siding—popular on the island.
As one steps across the threshold, the rough-hewn cedar shell reveals a pristine, modern interior of precise millwork and fine materials, like the pearl in an oyster. The sleek metal stair and handrails, a semi-custom installation by Europa Stairways, seem to float in the entry between the kitchen and dining area on the left and the living room on the right. The living spaces are otherwise completely open, with a view through broad expanses of glass to the pool deck beyond. At the far end of the pool, the wood deck becomes a low wall that screens from view a smaller deck with a Jacuzzi tub.
“We walk in and are utterly amazed,” says Walker. “What Frank and I appreciate most is the openness of house. You walk in, and it feels so expansive. You can see front to back, side to side; the outside comes in.”
The house is two stories tall along the northern side; the second-floor bedrooms screen the living areas from the neighboring properties. “We wanted to take advantage of the solar orientation,” says Llewellyn. “The movement of the sun through the house reflects the daily rhythm.” The master bedroom juts out to the east and has a deck of its own overlooking the pool, creating a covered outdoor terrace for alfresco dining. Early mornings on that east-facing and very private upper deck are a special time. “The tree canopy hangs just a couple of feet above us, with birds hopping around,” says Walker. “It’s like being in a nature preserve.”
The living room juts out from the main volume of the house, separating the private pool deck to the east from the afternoon cocktail terrace to the west. “We just love all the outdoor spaces, and how they are separated,” says Walker. “They are like additional rooms that are outside, separated to give us conversation spaces.”
For the interior finishes and furnishings, the architects and homeowners collaborated on blending high fashion with affordable chic. “We didn’t want to skimp on design,” says Walker. “But there are things you can integrate into the design that don’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money.” The gas fireplace by European Home is set into a wall of white rifted oak, while the hearth and the kitchen counters are CaesarStone. A bright blue Swan Chair from Design Within Reach anchors one corner of the living room, while a leather sectional from Crate and Barrel surrounds a soft pony hair coffee table by Casamilano from Contemporaria in Georgetown. LEM Piston Stools from Design Within Reach face the kitchen bar. An oversize chrome Nur Lamp by Artemide hangs above the dining table by Poliform, which is surrounded by Air Chairs from Design Within Reach. Walker confesses with a chuckle that the lounge chairs on the deck were ordered online from Walmart, while the deck dining table and chairs by Terrazza came from Overstock.com. “There was only one chair left on Overstock,” says Walker with a laugh. “So we found and bought the rest on eBay.”
Architecture: Todd Ray, AIA, LEED-AP, lead architect; Bethan Llewellyn, project architect; Studio27 Architecture, Washington, DC.