Washington, D.C., has no shortage of distinguished older houses in lovely, leafy neighborhoods close to downtown. Most are worth saving, as they’re generally well designed and solidly built, with high-quality materials that possess their own embedded value. None, however, is without flaws and quirky irregularities. And when their owners are also distinguished, with active professional, social, and cultural lives, the agenda for renovating these older houses can grow even more complex. Such was the case with the Wesley Heights Residence.
Architect Richard Williams, FAIA, had been ameliorating this 1880s house for nearly two decades when his clients finally decided they needed to unleash the big remodel. No more patching and tweaking, they determined; it was time to really sort out the floor plan for maximum utility and delight, and to address some ongoing structural problems, as well.
They wanted the house to facilitate large-scale entertaining and robust careers conducted largely from home. They also had an impressive collection of art and antiques they wanted to showcase. As a result, nearly every part of the house—inside and out—was rethought and redone, but with a keen eye to preserving the character and charm of the original building.
“We pushed doing the house as a very serious extension of what my wife, Kim, who’s an architectural historian, calls a transitional Colonial Revival. The house had great bones and very tall ceilings,” says Richard. “The carriage house in the rear is even older. The property had some real history to it—it had some Victorian and Queen Anne influences—but had been badly colonialized and then kind of Homewooded. That’s when we first found it in the aughts.”
As with many houses of that era, there were foundation and water infiltration problems to solve as well. Those were the low points. But its situation on a high point in the city offers catwalk views of the skyline (including the Washington National Cathedral and Washington Monument). Meanwhile, the ground level is a private oasis and escape from the hustle and bustle. The property held the best of both worlds.
The architects accomplished most of the key changes the clients desired by lengthening the existing house. The important exception to that strategy is a significant new addition—a new conservatory joined to the living room of the main house with a hyphen. From the front elevation, the new building defers to the original with lowered height, pared down detailing, and the connecting hyphen. Those choices allow visitors to take in the older building in its full, individual glory. They also, modestly, permit the new building its own distinct identity.
The conservatory’s front façade creates the suggestion of windows with ironwork that mimics mullioned units, but the wall is paneled against the busy street. (Eventually, vines will espalier up the framework.)
The rear elevation, however, opens wide to the private backyard pool and gardens. Those steps down from the hyphen enable the conservatory to connect almost on grade with the outdoor entertaining spaces. A trio of French doors leads to a patio that segues in perfect alignment to the existing pool.
“We couldn’t help but be influenced by the orangery at Dumbarton Oaks,” says Richard. “We wanted it to be more of a garden folly, but with real honesty of structure. It’s a little rustic and a little raw, with the exposed tension members. And the roof monitor gives it a little bit of stature to hold its own against the original house.”
Although dubbed the conservatory, the room is intentionally undefined. It’s part loggia, part music room, part art gallery—in other words, it’s fully open to reinvention on the fly. “It’s largely unfurnished, but often set up with round caterers’ tables for parties,” Richard explains. “It’s not just another place for a couch.” The art niches, however, were specifically designed for several stellar pieces the clients wished to display. “They fit like a glove, but they certainly caused some sleepless nights,” he says.
Unless you had seen the original house, you might underestimate how much improved it now is. “It was really a gut remodel,” says the architect. Foundation and moisture problems were solved with a new basement that comprises a gym, sauna, steam shower, and new staircase up to the pool. The foundation wall was redone and extended with grapevine joints to accommodate an expanded and reoriented entry foyer with a new fireplace, a larger living room, a tweaked dining room with improved circulation, and an enlarged screened porch off the breakfast room.
Upstairs are all new bedrooms, a study for the husband, and a new bathroom and dressing room for the wife that incorporates her collection of Art Deco furniture. A new small deck off the primary bedroom is a heat sink for the shoulder seasons, giving the couple a private perch overlooking the pool and gardens. A renovated attic holds several guest rooms.
“We added at least another third to the house. We put in a new curb cut and crescent entry drive. And we used the basic rhythm of the fenestration, cladding, and stone foundation to extend the building,” Richard recalls. “We untied a lot of knots and solved a lot of problems.”
All new cladding, roofing, windows, and gutters refresh the home’s faded glory. New bold paint colors enliven the foyer and dining room. And reconceived circulation paths and plantings uplift the gardens.
“Renewing these houses is just as interesting to us as building something modern and new,” says Richard. “They have so many historic materials and embedded energy, and they’re amazingly designed and built. We need to respect them, and honor the city by caring for them.“
Plans and Drawings
Wesley Heights Residence
Architect: Richard Williams, FAIA, principal in charge; Timothy Abrams, AIA, project architect; Kerry Garikes and Justin Donovan, AIA, Richard Williams Architects, Washington, D.C.
Builder: Mickey Mauck, project manager, Mauck-Zantzinger, Washington
Interior Designer: Julie La Traverse Design, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Landscape Design: Katia Goffin, Goffin Gardens, McLean, Virginia
Specialty Finishes: Lenore Winters, Bethesda, Maryland
Project Size: 5,700 square feet (main levels); 2,900 square feet (basement)
Site Size: .43 acre
Construction Cost: Withheld
Photography: Tom Arban Photography
Bathroom Ventilation: Panasonic
Cladding: Western Red Cedar, Robinson Thin Brick at chimneys
Columns: Chadsworth PolyStone (entry portico)
Cooking Ventilation: Broan with custom insert
Door Hardware: Frank Allart & Co.; Von Morris, Emtek, Colonial Bronze
Fasteners: Simpson Strong-Tie
Faucets: Rohl (kitchen); Grohe and Newport Brass (secondary)
Fireplaces: Heatilator wood burning; Monesson Hearth direct vent gas (primary bedroom)
Humidity Control: Aprilaire
Lighting: Lightolier, Bruck, and Lithonia (interior); Hunza and Lithonia (exterior)
Lighting Control: Lutron
Paint: Benjamin Moore (interior); Farrow & Ball (interior and exterior)
Passage Doors: TruStile
Pedestal Lavs: Kohler, Duravit
Roofing: Cedar shingles with Benjamin Obdyke Cedar Breather underlayment
Roof Windows: VELUX
Thermal/Moisture Barriers: Tyvek; Tremco
Thermostat Control: Honeywell
Tubs: Victoria & Albert (primary bathroom)
Windows: Marvin; LePage Millwork