Once in a while, the chemistry between a home and its owners is so strong that the phrase “it was meant to be” comes to mind. That’s how it is with Marc and Madlen Simon and the Hyattsville house they bought a year and a half ago.
The first time the Simons laid eyes on the pyramid-shaped house, it was 2006 and they were new College Park residents exploring the area on their bicycles. “There must be a story here,” thought Madlen, who is director of the architecture program at the University of Maryland at College Park. The modern house was simply too different from the surrounding suburb of mostly Colonials.
The house did indeed contain an intriguing story. But Madlen didn’t learn it until a couple of years later, when she and Marc, who is also an architect, went searching for land where they could build a home. Their broker led them to the house, which is set on three wooded acres. Perhaps the broker thought the land might be of interest to the couple, but they were drawn to the house itself.
It had been abandoned for four years and looked it. Glass was broken, and vines were growing wild in the edifice’s two greenhouses. But the structure’s bones were intact, and they were clearly good ones. Composed of a high pyramidal roof set on a rectilinear base, and including a large solarium, the building was special and arresting.
Adding to the intrigue, when the Simons toured the house, they found papers in a kitchen cabinet listing Roger Lewis and John Hill, architecture professors emeriti at the university — and Madlen’s colleagues — as its designers.
But there was no way they could afford its $1 million-plus asking price. The broker asked, “What can you pay?” The couple proposed roughly half of the asking price, figuring that was the last they’d hear of it.
“But a year later,” Madlen said, “she called and said, ‘Okay.’ ”
The house, it turned out, had been dreamed up by a prestigious Washington couple, Peter and Nora Lejins. He was a Latvian immigrant who founded U-Md.’s criminology department. She was German-born and head of language services at the State Department and is rumored to have acted as the personal translator for four presidents. Both were avid amateur horticulturalists. They had owned the land since the 1950s, gradually filling it with plant specimens they’d collected around the world. But it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that they enlisted Lewis and Hill to build them a house.
“I remember the Lejinses vividly,” Lewis said. “They were very diligent about telling us what they wanted, in terms of the house’s functional program.”
On their list was a large, earth-bottomed sunroom that could serve as an indoor garden, a catering kitchen to meet their entertaining needs and a library. They didn’t have a plan for the home’s design; they just knew they didn’t want a derivative style.
That gave Lewis and Hill some freedom. “We wanted an overall unifying geometry,” Lewis said. “We looked at the site very carefully, its topography and orientation, and we invented this form that is there now.”
The house’s footprint is a square, and its living spaces are built around a 40 x 40 sunroom whose ceiling reaches up 35 feet. “There was a lot of focus on capturing views,” said Lewis, “so that when you were inside, you would almost always have a view outside and often a view into the solarium.” The architects were careful about its orientation; the habitable rooms face the garden to the north, so they’re cooler and more private than the sunroom.
Innovative though it may be, the house is a bit of an oddity. The Lejinses didn’t have children, so the structure is essentially a 6,500-square-foot one-bedroom unit. That’s why it had been on the market so long.
And that’s why it was such a good fit for the Simons, whose two children are grown and who were seeking a special setting for themselves. They fell in love with the house’s strong, clean geometry and were glad to have ample space in which to display their mid-century modern furniture and lithograph collection.
The Simons moved into the house in February 2010, so the first order of business was to replace or repair the heat pumps. They tackled big-system problems early on, opening the walls to address plumbing and wiring issues that had accumulated over four years of neglect.
Peter Lejins had died 10 years before, and his wife died six years later. Because the Lejinses didn’t have heirs, the task of selling the house fell to their estate. In a 1996 New York Times article about the home’s extensive gardens, Nora Lejins, 83 at the time, said, “We must find a way to maintain and preserve it.” But the property languished on the market for years.
Although they arrived late on the scene, the Simons were determined to restore the house to its former glory — and then some. The space most in need of first aid was the sunroom. Many of its glass panes were broken, and the beams that held up the curved glass ceiling were rotting. In response, the couple tracked down the commercial greenhouse supply company that had provided the original materials and bought new glass, framing, steel beams and motors to open and close the panels. “We had to hire a hydraulic lift to get to the ceilings,” Marc said, laughing.
They also hired a rototiller to loosen the soil, then trucked in topsoil and mulch to replace the sand and hard-packed dirt. The vegetation had done surprisingly well: Seven of the eight original camellia bushes had survived, as well as a loquat tree — probably because the broken glass had let the rain in. The Simons added a slate terrace in one corner of the space and built stone paths that weave through the plants.
Many of the other rooms were in remarkably good shape, a testament to the quality of the house’s design and construction. There was no mold damage, and the wood floors and beams that soar to form the pyramid’s point were strong and solid.
But although most of the house has a classic contemporary look, there were some dated elements that had to go. Such as the entire kitchen. The Simons threw out all of the 1960s-era relics: the cracked vinyl floor, wood-paneled cabinets, formica counters and harvest gold-colored refrigerator. They gave it a modern makeover, installing hardwood floors, Ikea cabinets (stainless steel on the bottom and frosted glass on top), black granite countertops, a Bosch refrigerator and an induction stove. Finally, to add light and a view into the sunroom, the couple knocked down a wall and built a breakfast bar that opens into the kitchen. But they kept the room relatively small. “We want to have some intimate spaces,” Madlen said.
Another room that needed an upgrade was the caretaker’s apartment in the basement. It originally featured vinyl flooring, a small kitchen, a half-bath and a tortured entrance through the garage. The Simons decided to make the space a guest room and eliminated the kitchen. In its place, they created a broad doorway that allowed light from the windows to penetrate the basement and covered the floor with ceramic tile.
Finally, the couple enhanced some of the ground-floor rooms to make them more convenient for their visiting parents — and for themselves, as they age. So they converted the half-bath on that floor to a full bath with a pedestal sink, creamy marble vanity and tile walls. They turned the catering kitchen into a laundry room, which had been in the basement.
“What you see now is a year later and lots and lots of work,” Marc said after a recent tour. “But it was definitely a labor of love.” The couple say that with every change they’ve made, they’ve strived to complement Lewis and Hill’s sophisticated design.
They’re not done, of course. They’ve barely begun restoring the grounds, which feature a sunken greenhouse, koi pond and fountain — all ruined — plus hundreds of plant varieties that they haven’t begun to identify.
The couple would like to transform the roof, which is covered in asphalt shingles. They’re thinking about putting on a metal standing seam roof, with solar panels, that would give the structure a slightly more industrial look — something Lewis said he wishes he could change about the house.
For now, the Simons are enjoying living in a house that seems to fit them. Back when their initial offer was rejected, Marc said: “We thought, ‘Okay, it’s not meant to be.’ But then they got back to us later. We said no at first, but then we thought, ‘We will never have this opportunity again.’ ”
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.