For two condominium dwellers, finding this three-story row house on D.C.’s historic Logan Circle felt like fate. It was one of the few single-family houses that had not been split up into apartments before the once-scruffy neighborhood became the epicenter of Washington’s building boom. The previous owner had lived there a long time, and its front portions were almost touched. On the hunt for a renovation that would become their forever house, the newly married young couple snatched it before it went on the market.
Thanks to Pierre L’Enfant, the French urban planner who laid out the Capital grid and its ripple of traffic circles, the house sits on a pie-shaped lot, and the exterior walls aren’t parallel. Yet such irregularities aren’t uncommon in urban renovations, and the circle theme subtly inspired some of the design decisions. Architect Colleen Healey’s clients had very different tastes, and strong feelings about old versus new. The wife loves a vintage, eclectic look, while the husband prefers living spaces that are more starkly modern. Those conflicting preferences and the house’s best attributes—decorative-glass bay windows, archways at each floor landing, eight fireplaces, and beautiful wood floors and trim—meant that this would not be a gut renovation but a fusion of old and new. It was the perfect scenario, as far as builder John Allen was concerned. “I was able to use all of our bag of tricks,” he says. “We were able to do historic restoration along with modern, loft-like details.”
Colleen’s approach was to preserve as much as possible of the three-story front section facing the circle, with its taller ceilings, while treating the two-story dogleg at the rear as essentially a blank slate.
It’s a tall order to transform old floor plans into spaces for modern living. Yet Colleen took a light touch to the first floor’s front rooms—a living room to the left of the entry hall, and a dining room behind it. The living room was updated with a custom, deco-modern marble fireplace, and a TV above it disguised as artwork. “I didn’t want them feeling like they were only living in the back part of the house,” Colleen says. “We added audio-visual equipment and modern lighting and furniture to draw people into that part of the house.”
In the rear dogleg section, she removed four rooms and a service stair to accommodate a kitchen with a U-shaped island that spills into a seating area. “The husband, who is the cook, loved having a contained space and great working kitchen,” Colleen says. Here, the organizing element is the existing fireplace, now double-sided, gas-fired, and painted white, that partially separates the kitchen from the sitting room and a crisp mudroom with steel-and-glass doors inside the rear entry. “We made the fireplace a foot narrower, and it tapers as it goes up,” Colleen says. In one of the few changes to the rear façade, floor-to-ceiling sliders connect the owners to the outdoors.
As the clients had hoped, the interiors are a blend of elegance and cozy domesticity. The original plaster archway along the hallway spine was elongated 10 feet, using a fiberglass-and-plaster form that makes a tunnel of sorts between the front and back of the house. This extended threshold carved out space for a powder room, and behind that, a pantry accessed from the kitchen. “The change in scale from the triple-height stair hall to this portal gives an instant intimacy to the back of the house,” Colleen says. “You sort of understand that you’re headed into the more private parts of the home, which is probably what those rooms were used for initially.”
These classic interventions play well with modern life, but it is the light-filled circulation corridor that truly transforms this house. The dogleg’s roof was torn off and reframed for a second-story deck and an 18-foot-long skylight above the second-floor hallway. A slot in the kitchen ceiling below was opened, exposing the joists and allowing sunlight to wash down along the brick party wall.
After pricing out a custom skylight, Colleen felt she could make something more interesting and less expensive with standard skylights. The result is a series of individual skylights finished with sculpted “bellies that hang down,” she says. “We thought of it a bit like a ribbon looping along on the ceiling. The rounded portions allow the light to bounce in a different way and reference the archways, the sculpted elements in the bay window, and Logan Circle. These subtle repeats tie a house together, especially when you have a long house and a different front-to-rear feel.”
As with the extended archway, “it’s a fiberglass-and-plaster mold that makes the curve” between the square skylights, says builder John Allen. “We are used to working with plaster, but this was a labor of love because so much light poured onto those curves that any ripple would be apparent. At 8:00 in the morning it looked great, but at noon it looked different.”
Lit with a third-floor skylight, the stairwell ascends to the main bedroom and bath in the front part of the house, with two more bedrooms and a bath behind. “In front were three bedrooms with a mess of closets between them,” Colleen says. “These were turned into one bedroom, closet, and bath.” In back, with the rear staircase gone, the two existing bedrooms were slightly reconfigured to make room for a laundry and bath. And on the third floor, an office, kitchenette, and bath flow out to the roof deck and hot tub.
Reuse played a large role in the renovation; existing elements were reshuffled among floors, satisfying the wife’s love of eclecticism. The powder room wall is lined with nine steel fireplace relief panels that were found in the basement, cleaned up with blackening, and lit by LEDs. The original fireplace in the living room was painted black and moved into the owners’ bath, where it complements the old clawfoot tub that had been in the guest bathroom. And of those eight fireplaces, four remain. The two in the living room and kitchen are gas fueled, and two in the main bedroom and basement are decorative.
“I felt we had a duty to reuse some of these beautiful pieces from 150 years ago,” Colleen says. Many of the grittier items are seen in the full basement, which was achieved by digging down an additional 14 inches. It holds a bedroom, bath, gym, theater, and lounge, where a bar is fitted out with a gold tub filler from the old main bath and a butcher block island with built-in chess set.
Outside, the house’s blue trim was painted grayish black, and the front gate restored using parts of the rear gate. “We took a light touch to the front and rear façade,” Colleen says. “Being in a historic district, we wanted to be respectful. There is a fairly large roof deck on the back, and new metal handrails that you can see from the back elevation and alley.” Plans are in the works for a carriage house clad in ipe and blackened steel.
Functional and intimate, this historic house has hardly changed from the street, but its interior insertions inspire a rich family life. For a couple used to the easy communication of condo living, the house’s vertical connections allow them to “call back and forth,” Colleen says. “They’re a fun couple, and this is a fun place to live.”
Plans and Drawings
Logan Circle Renovation
ARCHITECT: Colleen Healey Architecture, Washington, D.C.
BUILDER: John Allen, AllenBuilt, Bethesda, Maryland
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Norton Consulting Engineers, Washington, D.C.
METALWORK: AK Metal Fabricators, Alexandria, Virginia
PROJECT SIZE: 6,000 square feet
SITE SIZE: .08 acre
PHOTOGRAPHY: Jennifer Horn Photography and Anice Hoachlander
DISHWASHERS: Miele, Bosch
FAUCETS: Newport Brass, Delta, Kallista
INSULATION/THERMAL & MOISTURE BARRIERS: AeroBarrier
LIGHTING: Lutron, Progress
REFRIGERATORS: Sub-Zero, JennAir
SINKS: Elkay, Kohler
TILE: Architectural Ceramics
WINDOW SHADING: Lutron
WINE STORAGE: Whirlpool