An old home can do just nicely today

Katherine Salant - Katherine Salant’s childhood home in Belle Haven, a subdivision south of Alexandria, was built in the 1930s.

Many home buyers dismiss older houses because the rooms tend to be smaller and the houses often lack the hallmarks of 21st-century living: a large eat-in kitchen with an island and a master suite with a dual-sink bathroom and big walk-in closets.

But buyers who set aside their prejudices to give an older house a careful look may find it to be surprisingly adaptable to contemporary lifestyles, as I did when I recently saw the house where I grew up for the first time since my parents sold it in 1987.

The house is in Belle Haven, a subdivision just south of Alexandria; the majority of the houses, including ours, were built before World War II. The house is now for sale and I toured it with a real estate agent.

With a level of detachment and objectivity that is only possible if you wait 26 years before visiting your childhood home, I belatedly realized that I grew up in a late-1930s version of a “Not So Big House,” a highly efficient, 10-room, 2,650-square-foot floor plan above grade with a finished, walkout basement of about 800 additional square feet.

Moreover, the house has many of the features that buyers are looking for today, including four generously sized bedrooms spread out over three floors plus a fifth and smaller one in the finished basement, large closets (including one bona fide walk-in), well-proportioned spaces that are relatively easy to furnish and some unusual details including a pair of lead glass windows on each side of the living room fireplace that were hidden behind plaster the entire 45 years that my parents owned the house.

Our somewhat odd-duck floor plan (in the entire subdivision of more than 400 houses, only three have it) was originally built for a brother and sister, not a typical family of that era. Nonetheless, it proved to be easily adaptable to a growing household (our family grew from four to six, and some years later, my grandfather moved in) and the floor plan would suit many households today, including those with multiple generations, stepfamilies and families with teenagers.

The bedroom and bath over the garage have enough separation from the hubbub of the main living area to be an in-law suite or a room for a teenager who wants to be at some remove from his or her parents. The second floor has two bedrooms, each roughly 12 by 22 feet (larger than most master bedrooms in brand-new, comparably sized houses) and a single bathroom.

The two rooms can be combined as a master suite with an adjoining sitting room (as it is currently furnished) or treated as two separate bedrooms, one for the parents and one for younger children who still need to sleep near Mom and Dad.

The single bedroom and bath plus a sitting room on the third floor afford maximum privacy for a nimble granny who could climb two flights of stairs several times a day, an au pair or a teenager who doesn’t want to share a bathroom with a stepsibling of the opposite sex (a common issue with stepfamilies). The fifth bedroom and bath in the walk-out basement has a separate entrance that offers both privacy and independence for an adult child temporarily living with his or her parents.

The main living level of our old house has a “closed-loop” circulation pattern. All the rooms, including the living room, den, dining room and kitchen open onto each other, eliminating underutilized “dead-end space.” The galley kitchen, to my astonishment, still has the original cabinets, the stainless-steel counter that my parents added in 1950 and the wooden butcher-block counter that came with the house.

There is one modern update: In 1978, my parents remodeled the old screened porch that ran across the back of the house into a year-round space that is ringed with large windows and flooded with natural light (the current owners use it as a family room).

If an informal, country kitchen with a large island is a must-have, it easily could be created without major surgery by removing the wall between the dining room and kitchen.

Observers may sense the adaptability and finer points of my childhood home, but they would miss another central fact about our house and all the others in the neighborhood: the quality of the construction materials used in these pre-World War II tract-built houses. The old-growth timber that was used for the framing cannot be duplicated at any price level, said Martin Jarvis of Jarvis Builders in Lorton, who has remodeled more than 100 houses in Belle Haven over the past 30 years.

Other standard materials that would be difficult and costly to replicate, Jarvis said, include the solid fir used for the paneled doors, wall bases and trim around the doors and windows (in most new construction today these would be soft pine or medium-density fiberboard), the No. 1 select white oak flooring (most oak flooring today has mineral streaks), the solid brass door hardware and the plastered interior walls (plaster is stronger and more soundproof than the drywall routinely used now).

The unusual level of craftsmanship and quality of construction and materials of the older Belle Haven houses can be attributed, in part, to that old real estate saw, “location, location, location.”

In the mid-1920s when plans were drawn up for developing the subdivision, the 200-acre tract was on the far edge of the Washington suburbs and an arduous 11-mile trek from downtown as the George Washington Parkway and the other commuting highways and interstates had not yet been built. To successfully entice potential buyers to pass up houses closer in and come all the way from the District, the developers knew they had to offer something extraordinary.

Ken Ringle, a retired Washington Post staffer who interviewed Clarence Robinson, one of the original developers, recalled that Robinson emphasized the developers’ need to offer unusually well-built houses with a level of quality that would be obvious from the street. To this end, standard materials included slate roofing and copper gutters. To get just the right look for the houses that were clad in fieldstone, he brought in a crew of Italian stone cutters from Philadelphia. And in keeping with the lifestyle of a typical upper-middle-class family of that era, every house had a maid’s room with full bath and private entrance in the basement.

The house is currently offered by McEnearney Associates in Alexandria. The listing agent is Janet Price. The current asking price is $1.335 million. When my parents bought it in 1942, they paid $18,000.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

 
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