The suburbs have long had a certain appeal to Ralph and Shamita Etienne-Cummings – especially since 2010 when their son Blaze was born and Mr. Etienne-Cummings’ mother moved into their 1876 townhouse in Washington, DC
“Space became more and more important,” said Ms. Etienne-Cummings. Her husband, she explained, was “from the Seychelles; I am from india. Culturally, we always have a family that lives with us. “
But the perks of living outside of the city – having a big garden and a bigger house – couldn’t rival the convenience of living in Washington’s Logan Circle neighborhood on a block street coveted for its historic homes and central location.
Credit…Jennifer Chase for the New York Times
“Our son ran around with his grandmother,” said 52-year-old lawyer Etienne-Cummings. “We really wanted to stay in our neighborhood, but we definitely needed more space, and that was difficult in an already overcrowded area.”
By a stroke of luck, the row house next door hit the market in 2016, and they were able to buy it for $ 1.4 million.
Their idea was to merge the two houses into one cohesive whole with bright, open spaces for entertainment. But they knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
The house next door was a bit older, and thanks to strict monument protection regulations, none of the street-side facades could be changed. Plus, the extra space that came with it – just over 2,100 square feet – was on floors that didn’t match those in the couple’s current home.
“The houses are more than a century old,” said VW Fowlkes, a director of Fowlkes Studio, the architecture firm the couple hired. “And the beams buried under the floor slabs are listed. We had to negotiate with the city about how we should bring the houses together and think about how the structures should be changed. “
Still, he said: “We were extremely excited about the design challenge.”
One obstacle that immediately presented itself was a brick wall that separated the two houses and could not be removed. The architects preserved it under drywall and anchored a modern glass and steel staircase with white oak steps, which is illuminated by four skylights.
“We wanted a monumental, light-filled staircase that could connect the three levels,” said Fowlkes.
A complicated engineering feat, it’s one of the most striking features of the design – and one of the most expensive. The staircase required “many man hours and redesign,” said Etienne-Cummings, 54, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering who called the six-figure cost “the world’s biggest single price shock”. “
Around the stairs are open, simply furnished rooms decorated in soothing neutrals – a calm, cocoon-like setting that Ms. Etienne-Cummings described as “almost minimalist without being too strict”.
With just a few key pieces, including a modern wool-upholstered sofa and a fur rug, the living room is relatively sparse. A fireplace, which is decorated with hand-made Zellige tiles and provided with Venetian plaster, serves as the focal point.
“It’s modern but functional,” Ms. Etienne-Cummings said of the room.
The dining room is also reduced, with a custom-made table with a walnut top and bronze legs with a pewter finish. A filigree lamp made of black metal arches with brass heads dangles above it.
In order to create a neat entrance, which the couple’s original home lacked due to its narrow floor plan, the architects built a wall that separated the entrance from the living room. Painted a deep gray and lit by a halo-like chandelier, it’s the only dark room in the house.
“We wanted to have a little more ceremony related to entry,” said Mr Fowlkes. “The entrance experience is atmospheric until you turn the corner and the house explodes.”
The back of the house – where the kitchen and an elevated mudroom are – allowed for more flexibility in design, including adding to one side to create a sense of symmetry and installing more windows.
The kitchen, which now has bleached walnut cabinets with bronze fittings and a 10-foot waterfall island clad in Caesarstone, has “really become the focal point of our family,” said Ms. Etienne-Cummings. “Ralph is the cook and most Sundays he cooks and we sit around and talk.”
In a minor engineering feat, the architects hung a 500-pound quartz-jacketed range hood from the ceiling, complete with custom-made steel fittings to support the flagstones. “This hood will stay there forever,” said Mr Fowlkes.
All told, it cost about $ 2.2 million to renovate, but it was well worth it for Mr. Etienne-Cummings. “There is a lot of hectic in our life,” he says. “It’s nice to come into a room and have the feeling that everything is simple and fits like a glove.”
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