Architect Stephen Muse called it “corrective surgery,” and the result holds true: A 1930s-era home for a couple and their two daughters looks much the same from the street as it did when it was built. But a thoroughly modern renovation and addition, with interiors guided by designer Celia Welch, give it the space, light and comfort necessary for the family’s present-day needs.
After longtime stints in Asia and New York, the couple, who work in media, moved to Washington, D.C., for new postings, and rented for more than a year while they searched for a home in nearby Bethesda. “We really liked the neighborhood, but everything we saw was a center-staircase, low-ceiling Colonial,” says the wife. This house was no different, but it struck a chord. “We just liked the look,” she says—especially its quiet, wooded surroundings. So the couple brought in a team that would preserve that look while transforming it over 18 months with a major, eco-friendly renovation.
“They wanted to make sure they were stewards of the environment,” says builder George Fritz, whose firm orchestrated the construction, “but they also wanted to be comfortable.” With spray-foam insulation behind every wall, geothermal heating and cooling, and new windows throughout, the project satisfied the clients’ green goals, at the same time making it comfortable year-round. “There’s so much stuff in this house that’s eco-friendly,” Welch adds, noting a flat section of roof that can accommodate a garden, low- and no-VOC paint and reclaimed white-oak floors infused with water-based stains.
Another design priority was reorienting the views. Muse moved a small side porch to the front so a new window-filled family room could look out to the expansive parkland beyond the property line. Next, he created taller ceilings, bigger public areas, gallery walls for the homeowners’ large collection of contemporary Asian art—and a showstopping staircase.
To fill those dramatic spaces, Welch started by taking inventory. “We went through to see what things had to stay, and which ones had an emotional connection,” Welch says. Then, it was a matter of placement. A cherished pair of Chinese horseshoe chairs graces the living room; in the library, a wrecking ball bearing the word “freedom”—made entirely of newspapers—holds pride of place, a gift from Chinese artist Tao Xue. The dining room is home to a newly commissioned live-edge dining table and sideboard from Uhuru, a design studio in the Brooklyn neighborhood where the family used to live. The owners already had six Chinese scholar chairs they wanted to use for the table, and Welch found more at a local antiques shop to fill it out.
To get the color scheme right, Welch pinned paint chips to rooms on the architectural plans so colors would flow seamlessly through the house. That’s because Muse designed it so nearly every room is visible at the same time, particularly on the first floor. “You have to make sure the circulation through the house works properly,” Muse says, especially because his clients entertain frequently.
The pie`ce de re´sistance is the “chimney of light,” as the owners describe it, which houses the staircase that runs up through the home’s center.
Light streams down from overhead skylights, illuminating custom stairs and a sinuous banister that was carved to mimic the lines of the antique horseshoe chairs in the living room.
The overall effect of the new design, Welch says, coupled with the meditative spirit of the owners’ Asian art and furnishings, gives the home energy and spirit. “I’m always amazed when I go back. There’s still this wonderful, peaceful feeling in there,” she adds. “The family just looks really comfortable, really at ease in their new space.”