A 19th-Century Federal Row Family Home


There are times when a fresh perspective can be a life-changing experience, and for one Washington, D.C., couple, it was an interior design streamline that gave them the opportunity to approach day-to-day living in a new way.

“We wanted something more contemporary without replacing all the existing furniture,” says the homeowner of the four-story, 19th-century federal row house in Georgetown that had served as a family home for some 17 years. “The house was still beautiful but felt cluttered with years of family life, traveling and collecting,” adds designer Barbara Billet, whose firm—which includes her two daughters, Amy Collins Matthews and Kellie Collins Hodges—also specializes in decorative painting and finishes to give homes, including this one, a unique ambience.

Having completed decorative painting in the home nearly two decades earlier, Billet had developed a comfortable friendship with the family through the years, popping in for the occasional touch-up and eventually working on their Nantucket house as well as residences for other family members. “One of the most important aspects of collaborating with a designer is your comfort level with the person,” says the homeowner. “Barbara is wonderful to work with and the entire process got me to say, ‘You know what, we don’t need to hang on to all this stuff.’”

Billet’s main focus was to create a comfortable flow as far as style and palette by updating the couple’s existing furniture as well as incorporating their now growing art collection. “As we mature, many of us begin to appreciate the simplicity of a more modern approach,” she says. To help produce a more contemporary style, the designer injected new life into the owners’ furnishings. This included replacing an ornate demilune console in the entrance hall with a more simplified one—lacquered in pale green to reflect the now fresh color on the walls of the adjoining room, which serves as a library, and dining and sitting area—and reupholstering the tufted backs of the sitting area chairs, giving them crisp corner-pleat, floor-length skirts. However, some pieces did not make the final cut, including a canopy over the bed in the master suite, which was replaced by the simple silhouette of an upholstered headboard featuring fabric by Celerie Kemble for Schumacher.

Fabrics and finishes were chosen for their contemporary look and feel as well. The generally muted palette throughout was brightened with pops of color, such as decorative pillow cushions reflecting artwork carefully chosen for each room. “I wanted a sleeker, fresher look throughout,” the designer says, pointing to the smooth Venetian plaster in a light shade of green that replaced a more intricate pattern on the library walls. Wood floors in the foyer and main hallway feature a painted star motif, referencing those found on many historic federal homes; the kitchen showcases a traditional checkerboard floor pattern; and secondary hallway floors present a faux-pine wood grain to match the others found throughout.

Bathrooms were given a complete renovation by general contractor Dan Blankenship, who also overhauled lighting, carpentry, tiling and plumbing. “Working on old homes can sometimes be a challenge,” explains Blankenship, “but we always work well with Barbara and the final product is spectacular.” The homeowners couldn’t be more pleased with their new simplified space.

Billet’s signature Venetian plasters walls and decorative painting that run throughout the house create unique environments that give depth to the home, and fashion spaces that are not only inviting and sophisticated but intricately done. “Barbara and the design team were all very talented,” says the wife. “They did a wonderful job with the home and we couldn’t be happier. It was a true collaborative effort.”