“There’s a real respect for older buildings in Washington, D.C.,” says interior designer Mary Douglas Drysdale, “and a great desire to preserve them.” But there is also a younger generation inside the Beltway craving spaces that are a little more modern than the ornate neoclassicism of this historic area, and looking for homes that exude a contemporary sense of comfort.
Through the years, Drysdale has often been called upon to impart her particular brand of updated traditionalism to many capital residences, blending fine antiques with soft upholstered furnishings, a lighter palette and less clutter. Such was the case with Barbara Sullivan, a brand development professional, and her husband, Bill, in private equity, who moved to Embassy Row to start a family some 20 years ago. They purchased a neoclassical town house originally built in 1925 and, as it happened, Drysdale had decorated it for the prior owners. The Sullivans liked what she had done but wanted to take it further, and so they turned to the designer for guidance in the home’s renovation.
The family lived in the house for some time before beginning the remodel—something, says Drysdale, that can be challenging because “they become used to it, whether it works or not.” But her clients trusted her instincts and asked her to improve the flow of the spaces and bring in more light.
“The kitchen had a design that didn’t function for these owners,” remembers Drysdale. “We made it larger by moving the laundry room to the basement and doubled the storage capacity.” Drysdale also flipped its working and eating zones and incorporated an entertainment area, which allowed Barbara to indulge her love of cooking while spending time with her kids in the same room.
Other alterations included adding doors to increase separation between public and private spaces—while simultaneously sequestering the noise of their boisterous children—and swapping the old dining room and study to achieve a bigger, more formal dining room for their frequent entertaining needs. In addition, deck space was appropriated on the third floor to push out the master suite.
When it came to decoration, says Barbara, “Mary’s taste and mine are very aligned—traditional through a modern lens—so I didn’t have to give her direction in terms of style and color.” Yet preciousness was verboten. “We wanted it to be a home we could raise our family in,” she adds, “and that the kids would want to entertain their friends in.”
“I extended the recessed paneling around entire rooms and added stepped moldings and other traditional details that respect the historic character of the home,” says Drysdale. But painted sisal carpets immediately strike a more informal tone, and a warm monochromatic palette—from chalky limestone floors to ivory walls and white upholstered furnishings—makes the rooms feel tailored and contemporary. A mix of antiques and new, largely custom pieces creates a sense of modern comfort.
Keeping things clean and spare is a Drysdale calling card. “You can use a very traditional chair or sofa, but it can still feel modern if you don’t clutter it up,” she says. So spaces have just enough furniture to make them feel lived in, but not so much that they feel heavy. Here, an entry hall eschews heavily patterned wall treatments and fabrics and simply pairs a contemporary John Saladino slipcovered settee with English Regency chairs. An ornate gilt mirror sits atop an Adam-style carved fireplace.
Artwork was also appropriately placed. “Mary helped me curate pieces that will retain and increase their investment value, but that also really enhance the rooms,” Barbara says. For instance, a pair of modern Maxwell Mackenzie photographs reside above a voluminous Regency console in the entry hall, while the living room’s Lyn Horton drawings converse with an English secretary swathed in chinoiserie.
The effects go beyond aesthetics, affecting not only the comfort of the house, but also the day-to-day lives of its inhabitants—now just Barbara and Bill, since the children have left for college. “We’ve really reimagined how we’re actually using the house,” says Barbara. “It was great for raising a family, and it’s great now for just the two of us.”