A do-it-yourself long-term renovation works for an Alexandria couple

July 25

When high school sweethearts Wendy and Alex Santantonio finished taking the SAT, they didn’t head out for burgers or go to a movie to celebrate.

Nope, these two spent the afternoon refinishing an antique table that now sits in the couple’s Old Town Alexandria home. Their 15-foot-wide home, built between 1885 and 1890, has been the focus of their do-it-yourself restoration projects for the past decade.

“When we bought the house in 2003, it had been a bachelor pad for years, and not a chic one, either,” says Wendy. “One of our friends asked us why we were buying such a crappy house, and my mother tried to be nice about it by saying, ‘I’m sure it will be cute after you work on it for a while.’ Thirty minutes after we owned it we had already ripped out the ugly carpet on the stairs so we could start refinishing the hardwood floors.”

The Santantonios moved to the Washington area for Alex’s job, and Wendy worked for 15 years in nonprofit marketing before transferring her love of restoration work into a career as a real estate agent with McEnearney Associates in Alexandria. Wendy has been blogging about the couple’s experience with their Old Town house at www.oldtownhome.com and has used her knowledge to help buyers and sellers with older homes in Alexandria.

“Just because you hate something about a particular house doesn’t mean you have to live with it forever,” she says. “It’s great to be able to personalize your home and make changes to it, but not everyone can visualize how that might work, especially on a budget.”

The Santantonios estimate they’ve spent about $100,000 over the past decade on restoring and remodeling their home, about two-thirds less than it would have cost if they hadn’t done the work themselves. Wendy has the design vision for the home, while her husband, who worked at an antique glass restoration business one summer and for a general contractor for two summers in Cleveland, where they grew up, has the skills to handle her projects.

Some of the work he’s done on their home has included building handmade wainscoting for the staircase; creating a unique wine bar from an antique cabinet, an Ikea butcher block counter and a wine refrigerator; and crafting a charming, one-of-a-kind kitchen chandelier from an old light fixture and a set of teacups Wendy found at an Old Town consignment store.


The fireplace in the front living room has a gas insert that looks like the coal insert the house would have had originally. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

“Because of our first-hand experience, I can talk to buyers about how involved a project would be on a scale of 1 to 10 and tell them whether they need to hire someone or they can do it themselves,” Wendy says. “Some friends of ours were looking at a cute 1950s Cape Cod house in Alexandria, but they didn’t like this awkward laundry room/pantry space. I showed them how they could turn it into an entertainment nook with a wine bar like ours, and that helped them decide to buy the house. They’ll tackle that project first.”

The Santantonios’ home looks tiny from the front because it’s so narrow, but the property extends deeply from the street and ends in a peaceful brick patio with a fountain. Every room in the home features a restoration project or an unusual decorative item found or created by the Santantonios. The couple have successfully blended historic architectural details with modern amenities.

Although the entire home has been wired with a security, audio and lighting system that they can control with their smartphones, the Santantonios also have painstakingly restored the original horsehair plaster walls and fixed broken sash cords on the original windows.

Narrow double doors open into the main hall, where the Santantonios painted a diamond pattern on the walls instead of using wallpaper. Wendy created the design and did the painting, while Alex spent a day measuring to Wendy’s precise instructions so that not a single diamond needed to be cut off. The couple found a salvaged glass transom to place above the staircase and designed a chandelier from an old candle holder with a diamond pattern to match the walls. Carved wood filigrees that were once covered in layers of paint were refinished to function as wall sconces.

“My design theory is that I like to have one unique thing in each room,” Wendy says.

The couple’s favorite space in winter is the formal front living room, which has a gas insert in the fireplace that matches the way a coal insert would have looked when the home was built. French doors link the living room with the formal dining room, which has red walls, a dining table they found at an antiques shop in Ohio and a French grandfather clock they found on eBay. When the couple removed a piece of molding in the dining room, they found a fleck of the room’s original paint and were surprised to find it matched the paint they chose when they restored the room.


The formal dining room has red walls, a dining table they found at an antiques shop in Ohio and a French grandfather clock they found on eBay. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Beyond the dining room is a family room with two windows and a doorway to the kitchen and sun porch, which offers a glimpse of the inviting patio.

“I always tell people to live in a house for a little while before you make a major decision on remodeling,” Wendy says. “We switched the family room and the dining room after we’d been here a few years.”

The Santantonios have done two remodeling projects so far in their kitchen. First they spent about $200 painting their cabinets and spray-painted the stained laminate counters, then a few years later they purchased new appliances, added a tile backsplash and replaced the counters with butcher block from Ikea.

“We spent about $400 on those counters and then made them look more interesting by using a router to create a beveled edge,” Wendy says. “We found an old farmhouse hutch on eBay that we used for extra storage in the kitchen. That thing was the nastiest delivery we’ve ever received. It had spider’s nests inside and was just filthy. We cleaned it and painted it and then found it was uneven, so Alex fixed the feet, added a wood skirt to the bottom, beadboard to the back and crown moldings to the top.”

Eventually the Santantonios decided to move the hutch to the sun porch and to build their wine bar in the kitchen. Wendy says that the wine bar is her favorite thing in the house because it added lots of storage and blends so well with the rest of the kitchen. She found antique-looking drawer pulls at Pottery Barn for the hutch, wine bar and kitchen cabinets so that the pieces complement each other. While the hutch may be one unique thing on her sun porch, there’s also a simple but elegant chair in the space that has its own interesting story.

“The chair belonged to my great-great-grandmother, and it’s always been in the basement of first my grandparents’ house and then my parents’ house,” says Wendy. “We eventually brought it here, but it took eight years before we restored it. It took generations, but it’s finally being used again.”

The Santantonios enjoy entertaining friends on their patio, where they added a small pond and fountain and built a raised garden bed.


The couple added a pond and a fountain to the back-yard patio. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Alex, left, and Wendy Santantonio stand in front of their home in Alexandria. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

“The only big project back here is that we replaced the gate, which looked like the door of a port-a-potty, by building a wood gate around an antique heating grate that we found,” Wendy says.

Upstairs, the Santantonios’ current project is to remodel the master bath. The couple reconfigured the upper level to create an office and a new guest bath out of the former guest bathroom. The office has a built-in desk designed and built by the Santantonios. In one corner of the office sits an antique oyster basket brimming with Alex’s collection of baseballs he’s caught at Cleveland Indians and Washington Nationals games. The bath includes custom tile work and handmade wainscoting by Alex, two built-in medicine cabinets to maximize storage and an oversized glass-enclosed shower.

In the master bedroom, Alex built a wall of custom closets, including a hidden cabinet for their TV. In the master bath, he’s transforming an antique buffet into a vanity.

“Buying a house is about creating a lifestyle that’s a reflection of you,” says Wendy. “Alex and I make a great team and have been so happy that the vision we had of how to use this space has come true. We’ve taken years to do it because we wanted to do it ourselves and because of our budget. Now we both love it so much we both have nightmares about selling it — we never want to leave.”

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

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